How mobile evidence collection improves scene management
Smartphones and dedicated police applications are improving all aspects of field operations
The traditional in-car computer has served law enforcement well for the last three decades, but times are rapidly changing due to the capabilities of today’s smartphones and tablets. These powerful, yet fully portable, devices allow an officer to untether yet retain the connectivity and query capability that is so necessary for effective operations. And assignments such as bike and foot patrol, which previously lacked ready access to computing power, can now have the same level of tech capability that was once limited to officers in a car.
That real-time access to data, regardless of assignment or proximity to a vehicle, helps officers make better, more informed decisions. Progressive agencies are beginning to embrace the smartphone, recognizing both its usefulness and the potential to augment, even replace, the traditional car-mounted laptop.
The sheer utility of a smartphone makes them invaluable to field personnel. Officers can conduct phone follow-ups with witnesses, check the availability of space at a homeless shelter or contact the parents of a detained juvenile. This saves time, increases effectiveness and eliminates the miscommunication that often takes place when relaying the information through a dispatch center.
Access to the internet allows officers to identify an unknown pill, check legal resources, or access on-demand language translation. These benefits are achieved simply by using the smartphone as a basic communication or query tool.
However, the same device can readily be used in more sophisticated ways that take advantage of other tech features, thereby opening the door to a wide array of capabilities.
Dedicated Police Applications for Field Operations
Officers perform a variety of tasks in the field, from conducting witness interviews to gathering evidence and completing reports on incidents ranging from vehicle crashes to homicide. When equipped with the right supporting application(s), smartphones can serve as the ultimate, multi-function device.
Photographing a damaged vehicle, taking video of a crime scene, recording witness interviews and dictating report narratives can all be accomplished with the smartphone. Having a single device that is capable of all these functions saves money and increases effectiveness because officers don’t have to carry multiple pieces of equipment or learn their individual operating nuances.
Here is a walkthrough of a typical police response to demonstrate the capabilities that are available today. An officer is dispatched to the scene of a home burglary. Upon arrival, the officer activates the reporting function of the smartphone and enters the case number assigned by dispatch. The officer obtains the victim’s identification and scans the barcode, instantly and accurately transferring the relevant information into the report form. As the victim walks the officer through the house, the officer can take a short video that effectively shows the overall scene. Where appropriate, individual evidentiary photos can be taken and accompanied by a short, dictated annotation. Items of physical evidence can be effectively logged and tracked thus assuring a documented chain of custody. An interview with a witness who saw a strange vehicle in the area can be audio recorded and the individual’s identification can be scanned in the same manner as was done with the victim.
These steps are all captured electronically and integrated into a single, comprehensive report, which is then uploaded to a secure, department-controlled, server that is either cloud-based or on-premise. This makes the report readily available for supervisory review and ensures timelier overall reporting.
In many cases, the report and supporting documentation can be submitted as the officer clears the scene. Data quality is improved because victim and witness information is captured by a scan rather than relying on handwritten notes. In cases where investigators need to immediately engage with follow-up, they can access all photos and even listen to the witness interviews while in the field. When integrated with a department’s record management system, the described reporting process eliminates the need for a separate data entry function.
The above scenario is a realistic depiction of what can be currently accomplished by an officer with a smartphone or tablet that is equipped with an application designed to support law enforcement operations.
Although an off-the-shelf smartphone can take pictures and record videos without special software, the integration of those items into a reporting system and proper chain-of-custody documentation for evidence require an application specifically designed to accomplish these tasks. Departments should vet potential vendors carefully and ensure that a product under consideration has a history of reliably meeting the needs of public safety.
Computer Aided Dispatch
Many suppliers of computer-aided-dispatch software are now offering or developing a mobile client that will provide even greater smartphone functionality, allowing them to serve as fully-enabled CAD devices. This means that officers can be assigned calls or initiate incidents even when they don’t have access to a vehicle computer. In addition, smartphones can provide real-time geolocation, improving officer safety and increasing command awareness of resources because the location is that of the individual officer and not their vehicle.
This is an evolving area and organizations should check with their current CAD vendor to determine product status and capabilities.
Forward-thinking police leaders across the country are taking a closer look at the way mobile technology can enhance officer effectiveness and improve officer safety. When you consider the overall utility of the smartphone and the added capabilities made possible by supporting applications, a compelling case can be made for ensuring every officer is a connected officer. This is a new paradigm for public safety, one that is only beginning to be fully realized.