Crowdsourcing and Criminal Investigations: Evidence Management in the Digital World

The term crowdsourcing has been with us for a few years and put simply it means engaging with the masses in order to get whatever it is you need. It was born out of the digital age and some police forces around the world have been quick to embrace it as a method to aid in their criminal investigations.

The term may be new but the concept is far from alien to UK forces, all of which are highly-skilled at engaging the media to reach out to the public for information and evidence. In fact, go back to 1962 when Shaw Taylor hosted the weekly five-minute show - Police 5, or 1984 when the first ever episode of CrimeWatch UK was aired on the BBC. Televised appeals would attempt to jog the memory of a passer-by who may have noticed something relevant to the investigation. For investigations on a massive scale, managing crowdsourced information can be challenging, but trawling through the mass of data to find what’s relevant to the case, and putting it in proper context, can be equally difficult.

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing on 15th April 2013, law enforcement put out a call for Marathon-goers to send in photos and videos taken in the moments leading up to the attack. 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 process the enormous volume of evidence and bring closure to the investigation. 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.

How to tackle the data collection challenge
Today, most law enforcement agencies don’t have a good way to crowdsource information. For example, after the Boston bombing, citizens sent in over 13,000 photos and videos which crashed the department’s email server. New solutions, like NICE Investigate, address this by enabling police forces to create secure portals through which citizens can provide videos, photos and tips. Businesses can also register their CCTV cameras and provide contact details.

Another challenge facing investigators is the requirement to log onto many standalone systems – some times more than a dozen – to first find, and then extract other pieces of relevant evidence. It’s a time-consuming and inefficient process. After it’s retrieved, all of the evidence then needs to be painstakingly copied and saved onto CDs, DVDs, or USB drives, and added to a paper case folder. Sound familiar?

These, too, are problems that are easily solved through NICE Investigate. Using a powerful ‘Google-like’ search tool, investigators can conduct a single search across all connected data sources to uncover evidence from 999 and radio recordings, CAD systems, RMS systems, body-worn cameras, CCTV cameras, ANPR, in-car video as well as interviews, physical evidence, photos, documents, information from digital devices, social media and other publicly-available content. Then, all the investigator needs to do is review the suggested evidence, and select it to add it to a virtual case folder.

Solving the data analysis challenge
Advanced content analytics even make audio and video files, documents, incident narratives and case reports from CAD and RMS systems searchable. Here is an example of how it 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 and witness statements would be searched for the words “Joe’s Plumbing.” In addition to searching documents and databases for keywords, it also analyzes audio and converts it to text to make it searchable, so for example, 999 calls and interview room recordings could be searched for the words “Joe’s Plumbing” as well.

Collecting evidence is one challenge, piecing it together to tell a story is an entirely different matter. With visualization tools, an investigator can select any number of media files (CCTV video, body-worn video, in-car video, 999 audio, radio recordings, even videos and photos taken on citizen smartphones, etc.), add them to a timeline, visualize them, and synchronously play them back.

Simplifying data sharing
The objective of the investigation team is to close every case as quickly as possible. So, the final link in the chain is to share the case, whether with other departments, forces, organizations, and ultimately the courts. Today, the process of ‘sharing’ is still a predominantly manual process of copying evidence CDs, DVDs and thumb drives and then hand-delivering the case files to the prosecutor. With NICE Investigate, instead of copying evidence, an investigator can securely and electronically share evidence, simply by emailing a link to a digital case file. The system automatically tracks who accessed which files and when to protect evidence integrity.

Evidence Management in the Digital World
Whether it is called collaboration or crowdsourcing, interaction between the police and the public has always been at the very heart of successful criminal investigations. The rate of change in the world of social media, communications and mobile technology, and the growth in digital evidence silos, have all made it more challenging for police forces to collect, analyze and share evidence necessary to bring investigations to closure. However, the latest technology can help forces overcome challenges. With it, they can embrace the public’s willingness to share information, and streamline the entire investigative process so they can close more cases faster.

 

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