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How to shop for a digital evidence management system

With the rise of digital evidence comes a new problem: how to store it


The following is paid content sponsored by Quantum

By Tim Dees for PoliceOne BrandFocus

Law enforcement agencies no longer have a choice on whether or not to manage digital evidence. They have to look for it, accept it, analyze it, and keep it intact for courtroom purposes. The choice they do have lies with the system they will use to handle this evidence.

(Photo/iStock)
(Photo/iStock)

The increased presence of body-worn cameras (BWCs) has driven the creation of digital evidence management (DEM) systems, but we have been heading in this direction for over 20 years. When film cameras gave way to digital, we also started to see digital video from surveillance systems, dash cameras, and citizen-owned cameras. Smartphone camera recordings, video downloaded from YouTube and other online hosts, and screen captures from social media sites have added to the load of digital evidence an agency has to manage.

The cloud is not the only answer

Online storage, aka “the cloud,” has been the default choice offered by most BWC vendors. With virtually unlimited capacity, uploading data to the cloud seems like a no-brainer. But experience shows us that the cloud has many hidden costs. As the archive of data grows, so do the storage costs, and often to unsustainable levels. There may be additional costs for access and downloading adding to the bill. Many agencies lack the internet bandwidth to handle the large files generated by BWCs; viewing them causes stutters and delays because of latency problems.

Further, the BWC vendor’s storage solution may not be able to handle the digital files coming from the other sources mentioned above. Ideally, all of your digital evidence associated with a case will be accessible from a single DEM system, not distributed over several systems and computers.

Do you own your data?

Video isn’t the only evidence captured by a BWC. Embedded in the recording is metadata, e.g. “data about data.” This might include the name of the officer wearing the camera, the time and date the recording was made, GPS data showing the location where it was made, and even case number information. Without that metadata, indexing and retrieval of recordings becomes a monumental task, especially as the archive expands.

Buried deep in the fine print of some online storage contracts is a clause that makes the metadata the property of the vendor, not the agency that produced it. If, at some future date, the agency parts ways with that vendor, they can probably get the video returned to them (although exactly how this will be done is another issue to nail down), but it may not contain the metadata any longer, or the metadata will not be easily readable.

Considering multi-tier storage

One way to avoid these pitfalls is to use a multi-tier storage system, such as the solution offered by Quantum. With multi-tier storage, much of your digital data is stored on site, distributed between very fast solid-state drives, fast spinning hard disks, and relatively low-cost file-based tape. The system moves files between media depending on age, case priority, demand, and other optimizing criteria, which can be set by police agencies. The system is scalable, growing or shrinking as needs dictate. Users access files from a single drive letter on their network, so that accessing the DEM system is seamless, no matter how many pieces of hardware are involved. Long-term storage and backups can be stored remotely in the cloud.

A multi-tier storage DEM handles all the agency’s digital evidence, whether the source is an officer’s BWC or a citizen’s smartphone. Metadata is stored on the system with the evidence itself, and is not tied to a vendor. Most vendors' metadata systems will fold in with Quantum’s.

Simplicity, efficiency, economy

Large law enforcement organizations can afford dedicated IT managers to run their DEM systems, but in the 80 percent of U.S. agencies that have fewer than 25 sworn officers, this often falls to a middle manager who may not have a strong technical background. There can also be a problem when that manager moves on by way of promotion, retirement, or reassignment, and the expertise he gained moves with him. Having a DEM system that operates like any other network drive can help to ensure against a loss of efficiency or data when the manager moves on.

Cost is always a concern, but good planning of a DEM system looks beyond the initial purchase price. Besides the hidden costs of a cloud-only system, factors like speed, manpower requirements, handling evidence from multiple sources, efficiency, and, most of all, the ability to close more cases, are all major considerations.

The best DEM systems are created around existing, well-considered policies, not the other way around. Technology should not dictate methodology and procedure. Instead, with good planning, a DEM system makes your agency able to do its job better and improve the quality of service to the community.

About the Author

Tim Dees is a retired police officer and the former editor of two major law enforcement websites who writes and consults on technology applications in criminal justice. He can be reached at tim@timdees.com. 

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