Crowdsourcing and Criminal Investigations: Evidence Management in ‘The Digital World’

Jamie Wilson

Jamie Wilson

Crowdsourcing has been with us for a few years now. Put simply, it means engaging with the masses in order to gain whatever it is we need. The idea was born out of the digital age and, as Jamie Wilson asserts, some police forces around the world have been quick to embrace it as a method of assisting them in their criminal investigation procedures.

Although the term ‘crowdsourcing’ may still be relatively new, the concept is far from alien to UK police forces, all of which are highly-skilled at engaging the media in reaching out to members of the public for information and evidence.

In fact, go back to 1962 when Shaw Taylor began hosting the weekly five-minute show Police 5, or 1984 when the first-ever episode of CrimeWatch UK was aired on the BBC. Back then, televised appeals would attempt to jog the memory of a passer-by who may have noticed something that could be relevant to an investigation, or otherwise encourage someone who was willing to be an informant.

In today’s world, the challenge for investigating teams isn’t necessarily about obtaining information. Rather, it’s trawling through the mass of data to find what’s relevant and important to a given case and putting it in an order that makes sense.

During the aftermath of the bombing which took place at the Boston marathon in the US on 15 April 2013, a police server was set-up to accept crowdsourced information. In the first 24 hours, that server was inundated with 13,500 submissions. It was this information, coupled with CCTV footage, that led to the identification of the Tsarnaev brothers as the culprits.

However, it took the FBI and hundreds of detectives working around the clock to collect and analyse the enormous volume of data. It was a similar story two years earlier in London following the riots of 2011. The subsequent investigation process involved 500 officers trawling through more than 200,000 hours of CCTV footage.

Data collection challenge

One of many challenges facing police officers is the requirement to log into multiple standalone systems to firstly find and then extract each piece of relevant evidence. It can be a time-consuming and inefficient process, irrespective of the case on which they’re working. All the evidence is then painstakingly copied and saved to CDs, DVDs or USB drives and added to a paper case folder. Sound familiar?

The latest digital evidence management systems aim to minimise this process by automating the ‘pulling together of evidence’ process from many different systems and sources (such as 999 audio recordings, CAD systems, remote monitoring systems, body-worn cameras, CCTV cameras, ANPR, in-car video and interviews, physical evidence, photos, documents, information from digital devices, social media and other publicly-available content) and places it into a virtual case folder. What’s more, all of this information is fully searchable, which leads on to the next challenge…

Data analysis challenge

Not only can the latest technology innovations search across all connected systems, but it’s also capable of recommending evidence that’s potentially relevant to the case. Let’s examine an example of how this all works in practice.

A witness in an assault investigation said they saw a Ford Transit van (with ‘Joe’s Plumbing’ written on the side) fleeing the scene. By adding ‘Joe’s Plumbing’ to a keyword search, all connected sources – from incident reports in CAD to tagged crime scene photos or witness statements – would be searched for the words ‘Joe’s Plumbing’.

In addition to searching documents and databases for keywords, the system would also analyse audio and converts it to text in order to make it searchable. For example, 999 calls and interview room recordings could also be searched for the words ‘Joe’s Plumbing’. What’s more, since all of the evidence is time and date and geographically stamped, it can be automatically collated to ‘reconstruct’ the incident as it happened.

Simplifying data sharing

The objective of the investigation team is to close every case as quickly as possible with the desired outcome. The final link in the chain is to share detail around the case, whether that be with other departments, forces, organisations or the courts. Today, this sharing of evidence is still a predominantly manual process, but again that status quo is changing.

Using a digital evidence management system, all of the evidence can be located from a centralised virtual case folder. Therefore, it means elements of, or the entire folder can be easily and instantly shared with those who have the requirement authorisation to access it.

Police forces have been crowdsourcing in all its forms for many years, but now the crowds have become bigger and bigger and they’re congregating in many more places. Being able to connect with these crowds and capture, collate and co-ordinate information presents a huge challenge for law enforcement, but also a huge opportunity for every police force worldwide large or small.

What’s more, many police forces already have much of the necessary base infrastructure in place to take advantage of these new technologies. It’s just about adding the all-important management layer on top.

Jamie Wilson is Public Safety Marketing Manager (EMEA) at NICE Systems

About the Author
Brian Sims BA (Hons) Hon FSyI, Editor, Risk UK (Pro-Activ Publications) Beginning his career in professional journalism at The Builder Group in March 1992, Brian was appointed Editor of Security Management Today in November 2000 having spent eight years in engineering journalism across two titles: Building Services Journal and Light & Lighting. In 2005, Brian received the BSIA Chairman’s Award for Promoting The Security Industry and, a year later, the Skills for Security Special Award for an Outstanding Contribution to the Security Business Sector. In 2008, Brian was The Security Institute’s nomination for the Association of Security Consultants’ highly prestigious Imbert Prize and, in 2013, was a nominated finalist for the Institute's George van Schalkwyk Award. An Honorary Fellow of The Security Institute, Brian serves as a Judge for the BSIA’s Security Personnel of the Year Awards and the Securitas Good Customer Award. Between 2008 and 2014, Brian pioneered the use of digital media across the security sector, including webinars and Audio Shows. Brian’s actively involved in 50-plus security groups on LinkedIn and hosts the popular Risk UK Twitter site. Brian is a frequent speaker on the conference circuit. He has organised and chaired conference programmes for both IFSEC International and ASIS International and has been published in the national media. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk UK at Pro-Activ Publications in July 2014 and as Editor of The Paper (Pro-Activ Publications' dedicated business newspaper for security professionals) in September 2015. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk Xtra at Pro-Activ Publications in May 2018.

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