Controlling the Cost of Digital Evidence

A Study in How the Use of Cloud-Based Systems Can Radically Improve Evidence Management at a Time of Financial Constraint

As part of their overall marketing strategy, the client wanted a highly relevant White Paper to educate and influence their marketplace. This entailed much independent research, collation of existing corporate materials and in-depth interviews with subject matter experts.

The challenging nature of law enforcement is compelling forces across Britain to reassess the way they police. This includes looking afresh at how technology may be better employed. In this White Paper we consider specifically how adopting new technology can lead to significant cost savings and much greater effectiveness when it comes to the effectiveness when it comes to the collation and management of digital evidence.

Remaining effective in the wake of unprecedented budget cuts is currently the major challenge facing police forces across England and Wales. With an expected loss of a further 35,000 posts by 2020, incremental reform of what they do and how they do it may not be enough. However, given such growing pressures, is there any way to avoid a ‘slash and burn’ approach to cost-cutting?

Or, as Sarah Thornton, head of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) puts it, is there a requirement to fundamentally ‘re-imagine the whole system, not incrementally reform’? Is it time to revisit existing practices and explore new ways of becoming more productive – and effective – by removing steps from processes and people from systems?

Other senior figures with a lifetime in policing, like Keith Bentley, retired Greater Manchester Chief Superintendent, see the use of technology as key to enabling forces to respond faster and use resources more efficiently.

Technology, as in so many areas of our lives, when used appropriately is the lever that allows more to be achieved with less, and often with better results. However, from a policing perspective, potential investment in new technologies often loses out to the public’s preference for more ‘bobbies on the beat’. This leaves police forces reactive and less able to manage crime proactively.

Is there any way to address this apparent incompatibility and improve police capabilities during a period of austerity that’s likely to persist for some time?

 The challenging nature of law enforcement is compelling forces across Britain to reassess the way they police. This includes looking afresh at how technology may be better employed. In this White Paper we consider specifically how adopting new technology can lead to significant cost savings and much greater effectiveness when it comes to the collation and management of digital evidence.

The rise and rise of digital evidence

Remaining effective in the wake of unprecedented budget cuts is currently the major challenge facing police forces across England and Wales. With an expected loss of a further 35,000 posts by 2020, incremental reform of what they do and how they do it may not to be enough. However, given such growing pressures, is there any way to avoid a ‘slash and burn’ approach to cost-cutting?

Or, as Sarah Thornton, head of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) puts it, is there a requirement to fundamentally ‘re-imagine the whole system, not incrementally reform’1? Is it time to revisit existing practices and explore new ways of becoming more productive – and effective – by removing steps from processes and people from systems?

Other senior figures with a lifetime in policing, like Keith Bentley, retired Greater Manchester Chief Superintendent, see the use of technology as key to enabling forces to respond faster and use resources more efficiently. 2

Technology, as in so many areas of our lives, when used appropriately is the lever that allows more to be achieved with less, and often with better results. However, from a policing perspective, potential investment in new technologies often loses out to the public’s preference for more ‘bobbies on the beat’. This leaves police forces reactive and less able to manage crime proactively.

Is there any way to address this apparent incompatibility and improve police capabilities during a period of austerity that’s likely to persist for some time?

One area where technology has proved of immense value is in the use of video evidence from CCTV in city centres, roadsides, industrial premises, retail stores and even the homes of private individuals. The widespread introduction of cameras has given police forces a dramatically effective tool for seeing events that would otherwise go unnoticed unless police officers happened to be on the scene or witnesses were willing to come forward. As a result, many crimes are prevented in the first place, and convictions secured when they are committed.

Consequently, footage from cameras in all their forms and the digital evidence they capture is now an integral component of policing.

Being able to monitor public spaces and obtain fast and accurate identification of suspects, has led to the increasing deployment of cameras. The British Security Industry Association (BSIA) has estimated that there are between 4 and 5.9 million cameras installed around the UK, with around one in 70 publicly owned.

The use of camera technology can be particularly effective in smaller, more rural forces, which may not be able to put the same resources on the ground as their urban counterparts. Take a medium-sized force like Kent Police, for example. They cover some 1,444 square miles of a relatively rural area of south-east England, and as well as ‘normal’ policing demands, have the added complication of managing the Eurotunnel and the illegal migrants it attracts.

In the latest crime statistics for the county, Kent’s 3,200 police officers, 360 PCSOs and1,850 civilian staff were responsible for handling some 111,970 recorded crimes, from which the force amassed an estimated 10,000 items of CCTV footage.

This included video material from local authority, commercial, industrial and residential cameras, as well as recordings of suspects – of the 45,000 or so arrested each year by the force, the majority have their interviews recorded at local police stations.

Adding to this will be increasing amounts of Body-Worn Video (BWV) footage, following the successful trial of ‘on-officer cameras’ that chronicle exactly what an officer sees. 6 BWV has already proven its worth, giving Kent officers not just another tool for enhancing their effectiveness and levels of productivity, but also a way for individual officers to justify their actions in the event of disputes or complaints. BWV footage has already justified the use of Taser to the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

“Video from the officer’s perspective reduces complaints and use-of-force by up to 88% and 60%, respectively.”

The Effect of Body-Worn Cameras  on Police Use-of-Force Cambridge University, 2013

As Kent Police and Crime Commissioner Ann Barnes describes BWV in her 2014-15 Annual Report, “Undoubtedly, it is a tool that delivers positive outcomes and the benefits of its use include enhanced contemporaneous evidence capture; swifter justice; early guilty pleas and admissions; more appropriate sentencing; and reduced bureaucracy throughout the criminal justice process by focusing on the needs of victims.

The positive outcome of this pilot scheme means that the Kent force is now looking to roll the use of BWV across the county. The extra evidence this will generate, along with more and more ‘digital courts’ coming on-stream as part of the Criminal Justice System (CJS) Efficiency Programme, will only add to the challenge of collating and processing this wealth of digital evidence effectively.

All this material is potentially of great value, but that value is greatly diminished if officers are unable to properly control this digital asset, since raw footage becomes an under-used and even problematic resource unless it is made easily manageable, shareable and retrievable.

So the issue becomes, how best to record, save, catalogue, store, retrieve and distribute all this footage for evidential purposes.

As it stands, the major problem for Kent and all other forces is that digital evidence accumulates in different places. CCTV footage may find its way onto one server, forensics perhaps to another computer, while audio recordings may remain on the original recording device. This not only makes it very difficult to collate material from separate sources, but also increases the possibility that evidence may not be used to best effect, or at all.

DVDs: the high-cost option

As a way to manage all the video and audio material that it acquires, the Kent force’s established practice is to record its wealth of digital information onto DVDs. In 2014/15, it used nearly 150,000 of them, one-third of which were used by a specialist digital forensics team.

On top of the cost of the DVDs themselves, there is the cost of processing, as each DVD recorded or recovered from whatever source, has to recorded in the evidence log, having first been given a unique reference number, which is written on the physical disk and any evidence bag, before being sent to where it’s needed.

With just over £4.5m spent on the administration of this process, including £100,000 spent on an internal postal system, this is a major black hole for any cash-strapped force.

There is also the opportunity cost of officers’ time taken up in doing this – including making the tens of thousands of journeys necessary to collect recordings from source and take them to another location – between police stations, solicitors’ practices, CPS offices, Magistrate and Crown Courts, as well as other agencies – at an estimated cost of some 10,000 hours in time or £334,100 at current officer salaries.

And of course, once recorded, DVDs need to be physically stored for short-term use, then archived for long-term storage. So master copies go immediately to the force’s Imaging Unit where they are stored for 12 months, before being transferred to secure third-party storage offsite.

Working copies remain with the case file. Whether or not the case goes to court, the force is required to hold this digital evidence for between 6 and 100 years, depending on the type of case, as set out in the Management of Police Information Act (MOPI).

For Kent, all such storage comes at a further cost of £300,000. And unlike cloud storage – there is no scope to make the best use of available memory – the shelf space required for a DVD in its case remains the same, whether that DVD is full or is just a few percent used.

And once recorded, DVDs are potentially difficult to track and control. This immediately makes them a potential security risk, raising the possibility of confidential and sensitive information finding its way into the public domain or the wrong hands, with the potential not just of legal action, but of compromising live criminal cases.

All of this amounts to a total annual cost for handling, sharing and retrieving digital evidence of £10,246,100. Set against the backdrop of a further £61 million cut in funding planned by 2019 – the equivalent of 1,220 officers lost9– using DVDs for digital evidence is a long-winded and costly operation and a significant drain on resources.

However, imagine if the bulk of this time could be released and redirected back into policing?

Evidence management – a better way

Such a historic reliance on burning DVDs to hold digital evidence seems old-fashioned and slow compared with the way we increasingly share and send information is sent down the line almost instantly and at minimal cost comparison with cloud computing is transforming the way not just the cost of storing and sharing of information but doing so at dramatically lower cost.

EVIDENCE.COM developed by AXON is a unique cloud-based system through which digital evidence can be collected, transferred, managed, retrieved and shared. EVIDENCE.COM brings together in one place digital information from multiple sources, including smartphones, forensic cameras, Interview Room recordings, audio files and CCTV systems, footage from which can be uploaded directly to a specified location on a particular server.

EVIDENCE.COM can also handle footage from AXON BWV cameras, which can either be uploaded manually as required, or automatically to a set schedule through a ‘dock’.

Material can be dragged and dropped onto the system for a fast and simple upload when minimal numbers of items are involved, or uploaded in bulk if preferred.

Whatever method is used, the material can be kept in its original format, without the need for conversion to make the material usable. So once uploaded to mp3s, mp4s, jpgs, wav. mov, mpegs and other file formats can all sit happily side by side.

Simple and accurate retrieval and sharing

Once uploaded, material can be retrieved through simple online searches of the evidence by date, title or keyword, something that just isn’t possible when evidence is spread across countless DVDs.

In a unique innovation, metadata can also be added to evidence, including unique titles, time and date of capture markers, incident IDs, event category, GPS coordinates and even accelerometer information. Each BWV camera can be given its own tag automatically, either in the field or back at the station. This means that if more than one officer attends the same incident, footage can be confidently assessed to create an incident picture and allocated the correct case ID.

So unlike other systems, there is no need for the officer to expend time or effort going through the footage to add in or organise any metadata.

When material needs to be shared internally or externally it can be done easily through a secure link to specific people and for a set period, so as to restrict access.

Customisable audit trails can also be created, and other protections, notification emails and ‘pending deletion approvals’ add further protection, all helping create a verifiable audit trail of evidence that cannot be altered, even by IT staff or system administrators – critical for the tight control of evidence, and again something that cannot readily be achieved with DVD recordings.

The incorporation of a range of 3rd party data security assurances and digital fingerprinting into the system can help create an even more secure chain of data security, to give a complete picture of who has come into contact with any piece of evidence and what they did with it.

EVIDENCE.COM – the financial equation

For the Kent force, introducing EVIDENCE.COM would offer not just the operational and administrative advantages already outlined, but also radical cost savings to help it meet ever-tighter budgets.

Presuming that all of the force’s 3,200 officers were each equipped with Axon Body cameras at a cost of £200 each, with 533 6-bay uploading docks required to support them at £600 each, and a similar number of hubs at £120 each to connect them to the EVIDENCE.COM system, this would represent a core investment in camera and infrastructure technology of £1,023,760.

Software is required to manage the material on EVIDENCE.COM – the Professional version for detectives, IT and other specialised personnel who need full access to all of EVIDENCE.COM’s features, and a Standard version for officers who don’t need to engage so completely with the system.

In Kent’s case, assuming 750 of the Professional version at £365 each and the same number for the Standard at £195 each, this would total £420,000.

Based on their current requirements for storing digital assets, the Kent force would also need to replace their DVDs with approximately 21TB cloud storage a year, amounting to £50,400, assuming a cost of £2,400 per terabyte.

Altogether, to switch completely from using DVDs to EVIDENCE.COM would require an investment of £1,949,160, a fraction of the £10,246,000 currently being spent on managing this area of the force’s activities. This represents a saving of nearly £8.3 million – or around 13.5% of the savings that Kent will be asked to make over the next five years.

Time for reappraisal

The main objective of this White Paper has been to highlight the growing importance of the use of technology in modern day British policing and to show that rather than a cost, it is actually a wise investment from an operational, procurement and financial perspective, even at a time of major budget cuts.

One area in particular where technology is able to punch well above its weight is when it comes to the collection, processing, management and storage of digital evidence, which will only grow in volume, particularly as England and Wales move ever closer towards a criminal justice system in which judges, magistrates, prosecutors and defendants are increasingly empowered to use digital devices in court.

While it’s obvious that digital evidence is a powerful crime-fighting tool, the collation, processing and management of such a large volume of data brings with it great challenges.

In light of this, all police forces in England and Wales will be faced with a number of options.

One, attempt to maintain the use manual processes and traditional ways of working in an increasingly digital world. Two, build custom solutions, the time-consuming and high-cost alternative. Or, three, find robust and reliable products that are sufficiently flexible to scale to their needs, but without the large development costs of a bespoke solution.

A system such as AXON’s EVIDENCE.COM, which combines on-officer cameras with much improved back-office technological capacity, has proven itself to be a sound financial solution that saves time and money, while actually improving the effectiveness of officers at many levels, releasing them from the time-consuming drudgery of having to manage DVD-based digital evidence system.

A case of technology helping the force put bobbies back on the beat and still meet its commitment to cost-cutting.