Throwing the Book at Evidence Collection and Scene Documentation
Written by Alex Kottoor   

Midland is a town of 16,500 in southwestern Ontario with a municipal Canadian police service. Despite the town’s diminutive stature, Midland Police Service is a classic early adopter for new technology. It is part of the Ontario Police Technology Information Cooperative (OPTIC), which is comprised of almost 50 Canadian police services that work together, gain group purchasing efficiencies, share technology research and test-pilot new applications—along with centralized hosting of common software, hardware, and services.

Interoperability and communication has been the OPTIC mantra during the last 30 years, and this serves as an inspiration for other local agencies who want to adopt more technology, or “policing as a platform”.

Midland’s most-recently retired chief of police, Paul Hamelin, is now the executive director of OPTIC. One area that Hamelin and also Midland’s current chief, Michael Osborne, were interested in was technology that could streamline documentation of crime/accident scenes.

They decided to evaluate a new application that allows officers in the field to upload encrypted evidence files through their smart devices. Midland also saw that it would enable them to complete electronic paperwork, create scene drawings, add video/audio files, and take text or voice-recorded notes through their smartphone or tablet/notebook.

While in the field, Midland officers take notes, images, and other documentation which are then streamed to a server for storage, retrieval, and collaboration with colleagues. Files can also be turned into a secure, field-based report to share with investigators, incident commanders, and prosecutors.

The platform also automatically time- and date-stamps evidence, including GPS location, which is sent to the application’s photo log. This eliminates potential errors, and for security purposes, all data is stored and transported using FIPS 140-2 certified Advanced Encryption Standards (AES-256).

Taking advantage of advances in broadband and cloud-based technologies, the application also enables near real-time communication between officers in the field, dispatchers, command centers, and other public safety/law enforcement agencies. This results in a more efficient evidence collection and reporting process, increases preparedness, and clears the scene faster.

Evaluation

Midland Police Service decided to run a small trial—to evaluate the system, yes, but also to generate professional, collaborative feedback that both parties felt would result in an even more police-friendly tool. Following this collaborative approach, Midland Police Service entered into a structured pilot in October 2014. This was similar to another evaluation scenario when Midland Police Service tested out a collision reporting and management system, making recommendations also on how best to upgrade the platform.

For Midland Police Information Technology Manager, Special Constable Bill Gordon, who was in charge of the evaluation, at first glance the app was great as a basic photo-evidence-capture but, “there was a lot more functionality they could add into the product that would take it from ‘nice to have’ to a ‘go-to tool’,” said Gordon.

To fully evaluate the versatility of the application, it was decided to equip a broad scope of Midland Police Service officers in different functions–forensic identification officers, crime scene officers, technical collision investigators (car collisions), field investigators, and community service officers—with the technology.

All told, 26 uniform officers, or about one quarter of the staff, now use the system. Training was simple and quick, with automatic updates to the software.

Fast-forward to today, and Gordon reports that “the app creates efficiency in what used to be an analog workflow by making it digital—with oversight—for the front-line guys. This allows them to do reporting in a more organized and repeatable way. Our first impression was that it would be great for big homicide cases, but we quickly realized this kind of tool can really apply to a much more broad set of crime or incident scenes.”

For example, when it comes to smaller cases, it’s hard to justify bringing a crime scene photographer out. “As we learned, having a mobile evidence collection app is very efficient for those high-volume cases. Now our officers in the field can capture all the basic imagery evidence and notes needed, using their own notebook or smart device that they are already familiar with,” Gordon said.

Real-time efficiency is important, particularly for major cases. Traditionally, officers would get daily instructions on that day’s case priorities; then, all related information for those cases would be collected and collated at day’s end. “Now, each officer can send data back in a timely fashion throughout the day,” said Gordon. “This makes the whole process simple with everyone on the same page. It changes the process of how you would typically gather evidence, bring it back, dump it and collate it, and it all happens in real-time.”

Conclusion

At present, Midland uses the application in many cases in court or in process. While Midland can’t specifically credit a conviction to the technology, as a whole, evidence is collected in a more methodical way, and more evidence is collected (especially for smaller cases).

After concluding a scene, the application pushes the data into the RMS. “From there, we now have an extension of our RMS that the vendor did not need to create and does not need to maintain. This extension works online/offline and collects evidence much better than other tools. It works in all environments and will feed data back into proper locations in the RMS automatically,” said Gordon.

For Gordon, security will always be the key that drives technology adoption by police. “It is imperative that no data is ever compromised or it damages the investigation irreparably. Younger officers are clamoring for technology to make life easier, but the general reluctance comes from IT. The first time there is a problem or a leak, it’s hung on IT. The will to embrace is from end users. The vision is there with managers (and most senior officers), but they really rely on IT to inform on whether a solution is something you can embrace now, or wait/hold off,” continued Gordon.

Also for Gordon, technology adoption by law enforcement is a question of not what we do with it, but how we do it. “When crime rates drop that’s always a good thing. But it’s also a double-edged sword, because then the public, and rightly so, says ‘great, how can you be more efficient and do it with less staff? How can we get more bang for our public buck?’ The key for our industry is to deploy personnel more strategically and use time more efficiently. You do this with technology.”

About the Author

Alex Kottoor has a vision to redefine how public safety agencies operate by leveraging highly secure mobile and cloud technologies. As CEO of SceneDoc, Alex brings more than 15 years of senior leadership experience within the enterprise software and hardware space. Prior to co-founding the company, Alex built and executed enterprise sales for a Fortune 500 IT solution provider. Alex graduated with a B.Comm. from the Eric Sprott School of Business at Carleton University.

 
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