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Body cams were the beginning of a new wave of law enforcement innovation.
Sticking ruggedized laptops in police cars was the last technological advancement made by law enforcement for around a decade until recently, when departments started adopting body cameras in greater numbers.
With more digital evidence comes a need for increased cloud storage but also agency demand for software capable of collecting and processing photo and video data.
Perhaps in no cases is sorting tech more needed than child pornography crimes, which is why a Phoenix-based task force moved to a platform that actively suggests relationships between millions of images in December.
“The world changed significantly in the last couple years with digital cameras and smartphones, where we can easily take photos every day, and images are distributed using different services,” said Johann Hofmann, product manager with Sweden-based NetClean Technologies, in an interview. “So fighting child abuse is challenging to deal with because collecting cell phones, computers and info downloaded off the Internet is like opening Pandora’s box to solving a case. You have law enforcement trying to cope on a daily basis.”
Before Arizona Internet Crimes Against Children began using NetClean’s Analyze Relations tool, all evidence was hand-sifted even with digital scripts—leading to high stress levels among task force members. Busts often yield five to 10 different computers, cell phones and cameras full of evidence.
Analyze Relations forensically secures the info and then feeds it into the system, comparing slight visual details and metadata—like the camera used, time and location—between photos in minutes.
Historically data volume has been an issue, especially when video is added to the mix, but no more. AZICAC investigators can also digitally annotate photos.
“When working cases, different organizations’ users are working in silos,” Hoffman said. “One problem is they may be looking at the same images, which is a huge waste of effort.”
The software filters through the noise down to the valuable leads.
Investigator workloads decreased between 70 and 80 percent, and about 980,000 can be sorted in two days, when it once took months. The time saved is spent solving other cases, presenting more evidence in court and finding more children.
New law enforcement tech is also helping with evidence gathering.
SceneDoc started as a personal productivity app for BlackBerry in 2012, before U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service National Forensics Library Deputy Director Ed Espinoza suggested in 2013 his agency could use the program with the right tweaks.
A year later, the Mississauga, Ontario-based company opened the forms engine so first responders to scenes could collect any kind of data out in the field. Version 3.0 dropped in May, allowing for mobility.
The company’s local government clients include Prince George’s County Public Works and Montgomery County Department of Transportation in Maryland and six university law enforcement programs among others.
Part of the appeal is the software is as helpful documenting interactions with the public as it is with emergencies—capable of handling all incident command system uses.
Equipped with a tablet or smartphone, officers can take notes, pictures, recordings and videos of a crime scene and then upload them using SceneDoc securely to the cloud. From there, others in the agency can collaborate on cases or archive the data.
The average officer can save an hour in the field not doing everything manually, said Todd Oakes, vice president of customer success.
“A lot of police forces still don’t have body cameras yet, and the money is just coming forward for grants,” Oakes said. “But they can use a holstered phone for the same purpose.”
And officers have the knowledge the evidence will hold up in court because the software tracks everyone who accesses the information in SceneDoc, adhering to FBI security standards.
SceneDoc also collects data on when first responders arrive and leave a scene, as well as weather conditions.
If cases are handed off to detectives, they don’t have to wait hours or days later for a debrief to get their hands on annotated evidence—annotations also being useful when testifying in court.
Police in Palm Springs, California, once carried 56 forms in a bankers box in the back of their squad cars for scene processing, along with notebooks and codebooks detailing procedures. Since SceneDoc built those forms a year ago to be autofill in its system, all officers need is an iPad for “paperwork.”
The department is still in its formal pilot process, so it declined to comment.
But Oakes said its officers are realizing an hour time savings per officer per shift across the agency is huge. Palm Springs has around 75 cops total.
“They’ve come to realize, the way they’ve been doing things manually the last 20 years, there are still a lot of inefficiencies in it and a lot of risk,” Oakes said. “Evidence can get lost, destroyed or incorrectly transcribed, but there are safeguards with built-in forms.”
As for Analyze Relations, all ICAC affiliates in Arizona will soon be using the platform, while NetClean is exploring its fraud, organized crime, and gang task force applications.
The Department of Homeland Security is currently seeking the best in facial recognition technology, and NetClean is targeting the most difficult use case: children, particularly those who may have aged between photos. But if you find tech that works in the most challenging situation, Hofmann said, it applies across the board.
“The new trend is: How do you leverage all that data that you’ve collected?” he said. “More info doesn’t necessarily have to mean more problems.”
Dave Nyczepir is News Editor for Government Executive's Route Fifty.