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How Small Agencies Can Run Effective Digital Surveys

Last year, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg announced a major investment in an interconnected global network of computers, businesses and people called the metaverse. As futuristic as the concept of global interconnection may seem, it is much closer than we think. Just consider the average four-person home in the United States with four cell phones, at least two smart TVs, a wireless router, a broadband modem, indoor and outdoor wireless security cameras, tablets, smart watches, VR headsets, toasters and smart devices. , thermostats, and of course a virtual assistant like Amazon’s Alexa to turn off the lights when you return from a long shift at the cemetery.

Over the past decade, criminals have moved away from violent crimes where the risk of being arrested and prosecuted is high towards technology-based crime such as cyber fraud, hacking and sextortion where the risk of apprehension is much lower. Even drug dealers are moving from the streets to the web. This change in methodology leaves law enforcement with no choice but to use cutting-edge technology to fight tech-driven crime, and it’s not limited to major cities and agencies. But how do small police departments conduct effective digital investigations?

I interviewed Detective Sergeant Christopher Collins with the Jackson Lake Police Department (Texas), which sees a significant increase in tech crimes, about the training and tools deployed by his agency. Sergeant Collins has been with law enforcement since 2008. His primary role is that of a detective with a secondary role as a digital forensic examiner for Lake Jackson PD, which serves approximately 25,000 residents. Even in small towns like Lake Jackson, there is a need for a digital investigator.

How criminals are going digital

All criminals will eventually leave a digital footprint that police can use to find, track, or obtain evidence. Drug dealers post pictures of cars, money and their products; human traffickers use known mobile phone applications, communicate by SMS and receive photos of their victims; and fraudsters have images of documents, bank account information and passwords of victims. Even shoplifters post photos of their stolen goods when they try to sell the items online.

“It’s not uncommon to see people with more than one mobile device on them. Everything from cellphones, smartwatches and tablets are constantly collecting data, [that can be extracted by investigators]said Sergeant Collins. “Criminals have always used technology for non-tech crimes.” They leave digital footprints such as GPS tracking data to and from the crime scene, text messages discussing and planning crimes, and emails for trip planning. Since everyone is connected to technology, it is extremely difficult for people to disconnect.

Conduct digital surveys

Because technology is ubiquitous and it is increasingly difficult to prove cases beyond a reasonable doubt, collecting digital evidence, even of non-tech crimes, can help prosecute cases and exonerate the innocent.

Small police departments face unique challenges when it comes to digital investigations. Staffing and funding are the two biggest challenges.

Fortunately, the Lake Jackson PD recognized the importance of digital evidence and therefore allocated funds for a digital forensics investigator. But finding the right personnel for the job was just as difficult as finding the right equipment for surveys. “Just because someone is ‘computer savvy’ doesn’t make them an ideal candidate.” An employee must be dedicated, engaged and understand how digital surveys work.

Digital evidence management and analytics tools are expensive. But “if you skimp on a [product], you really chain each other,” Sgt. Collins said. Using cars as a comparison to digital forensics tools, Sergeant Collings explained, “Fast and reliable doesn’t come cheap. Reliable and cheap, is not fast. [And] fast and cheap will not work. Finding the right balance for each agency is the hardest part.

One of the reasons Lake Jackson PD chose Cellebrite products is that they are adaptable to the needs of their agency. Cellebrite offers physical tools to extract information from computers, mobile phones and digital devices; they have tools that analyze the cloud; and systems to link multi-agency investigations into one main investigation.

It doesn’t matter if an agency only has 10 officers or 1,000. There is a great need for designated digital forensic investigators in law enforcement. Sergeant Collins recommends that if your agency is small, reach out to agencies around you and collaborate or cost-share with the purchase and management of digital forensic tools.

When asked what advice he had for officers, like himself, who fly solo in their departments on how to use digital technology to better serve their communities and bridge the public safety gap, here’s what DS Collins had to say:

  • Practice: Take as many free courses as possible. Reach. If your department is part of the ICAC Working Group, follow the ICAC training. They have a ton of resources for training that are free or very low cost.
  • Find funding: Although federal funds are available, DS Collins advises those seeking funds to transform their department not to focus solely on federal grants.
  • Define standard operating procedures: DS Collins is creating a mandatory mobile device evidence collection course for entry-level patrol officers and even detectives, as they need to know how to handle devices collected from a crime scene.

The digital evidence is only growing, and according to Microsoft’s David Williams, 90% of crimes are linked to some type of digital evidence. The BTK killer, the Craigslist killer, and countless fraudsters, thieves, and organized criminals have all been arrested, charged, and convicted based on digital evidence. It doesn’t matter if your agency is small or large, digital forensics tools will help your agency find, investigate and prosecute criminals.

NEXT: 16 Features to Look for in a Digital Evidence Management System (DEMS)

DOWNLOAD: How to Buy Evidence Management (eBook)



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