Most Law Enforcement Agencies Still Operate Manually in an Increasingly Digital World

A newly issued police body camera is shown during a 2018 NYPD news conference in New York.

A newly issued police body camera is shown during a 2018 NYPD news conference in New York. AP Photo

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Only 24 percent of North American agencies reported using analytics to process mobile data like photos and videos, according to a new Cellebrite survey.

Most law enforcement agencies review digital data manually, instead of with analytics tools, even as they face investigative backlogs, according to a Cellebrite survey released Monday.

The Israeli digital intelligence company emailed about 2,700 law enforcement personnel, largely investigators and examiners, across more than 20 countries and found most struggle with “time to evidence” in solving or preventing crimes.

Reviews of three data types—digital photos, recorded videos and text messages—took 8, 10 and 9 hours a week respectively. The evidence reporting process took an additional 6 hours a week of law enforcement time on average.

“They are just inundated with data and information,” Mark Gambill, chief marketing officer at Cellebrite, told Route Fifty. “They’re having to spend overtime dollars to get the backlog down.”

The investigation backlog in the U.S. is two months, slightly below the international average. But overtime spending coupled with the national police shortage makes that unsustainable, Gambill said.

Going through 20,000 digital photos manually can take 20 days, as opposed to mere hours with an analytics solution. But government budgets “haven’t necessarily caught up,” Gambill said, with only 24 percent of North American law enforcement agencies reporting using such a tool.

Federal grants helping police agencies hire more manpower are harder to come by these days, and during crises active shooter incidents “timing is everything,” said Louis Quijas, former assistant secretary of state and local law enforcement at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and founder of Q5 Consulting.

While body cameras and smart home technology are increasingly used by investigators, an overwhelming 81 percent of respondents said smartphones appear very frequently in investigations. In North America, where CCTV is less prevalent, smartphones, often of crime victims, are relied on 83 percent of the time.

The average smartphone contains 8 million pages of information, but the officers who responded to the survey reported them locked 59 percent of the time and said encrypted apps posed a challenge 88 percent of the time—both contributing to the backlog.

Cellebrite’s universal forensic extraction device, or UFED, can extract select data from mobile devices at the scene, assuming people turn them over, which has generated interest among United Kingdom law enforcement. Agencies there report 61 percent of crimes are “volume crimes,” where the sheer amount of data on mobile devices proves an impediment to investigators, Gambill said.

Analytics can also help investigators gather solid evidence about potential suspects, Quijas said.

Having grown up with smartphones, millennials are more comfortable with law enforcement using extraction technology to get information off their devices, Quijas added. About 60 percent of survey respondents said 1 to 20 percent of their budget is devoted to software for improving investigations, and as younger generations enter the workforce those numbers should improve, he said.

In the meantime, training is needed to assist investigators and examiners uncomfortable with current technologies. Among survey respondents, 76 percent said they have worked in the field for 11 or more years.

"Training is a critical part of the process,” Gambill said.

Among North American respondents, most said they work eight to 12 cases at any given time. Employing analytics tools can be viewed as an expenditure or a long-term savings because they enable officers who might otherwise be manually sifting through data to refocus on other parts of the job, Gambill said.

Even small police forces are using technology like Cellebrite’s, some finding it more effective to form regional task forces with other agencies to afford such tools, Quijas said.

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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