This is the ultimate guide to digital evidence management in 2023.
Digital evidence plays an increasingly important role in investigations. Videos, still images, audio recordings, digital tags of physical evidence, social media content, PDF documents and other forms of digital evidence have changed the way investigators uncover truth.
While digital evidence is invaluable to investigations, it does present a set of challenges:
The growing amount of data from digital evidence, for instance, is huge. Some investigations can include hundreds of gigabytes of information — where do you store it all? How do you find the two or three key pieces of evidence you need? How do you request and retrieve further evidence from the community or 3rd party sources and leverage this evidence to explain what happened? How do you effectively share evidence with other agencies or lawyers?
This guide will teach you and your agency how to streamline workflows for capturing, storing, managing, investigating and sharing digital evidence.
Let’s get started.
Capturing Digital Evidence
In this section, we will cover some of the basics around capturing digital evidence.
The first step in an efficient digital evidence workflow is effectively recording and logging digital evidence. There are several tools and processes that law enforcement officers can utilize to improve the quality of the digital evidence they capture. However, law enforcement officers are not the only ones who capture digital evidence.
Video evidence may be captured by a nearby gas station’s closed circuit television camera (CCTV), or a nearby civilian’s cell phone camera. We will refer to digital evidence captured by police as first party evidence, and digital evidence captured from other sources as third party evidence.
Important things to know about third party evidence
Third party digital evidence can be frustrating because you do not have control over the recording device or settings. Some third party evidence could be crisp and clear, with high resolution and excellent audio. Unfortunately, most third party evidence is filmed with a low cost CCTV camera and thus has a lower resolution.
When leveraging evidence that was captured by third party devices, investigators should always retrieve the source file. Digital evidence that has been compressed or converted often loses information and can sometimes be altered in speed or appearance. Obtaining the original file ensures you review the truest source of information available and protects chain of custody throughout the investigation process.
Officers can use Axon Capture to create and share an Axon Community Request link directly to a civilian smartphones. Witnesses to an incident can use these links to upload original digital files directly to Axon Evidence from their devices.
Metadata is extremely important for third party evidence. Knowing the frame rate and resolution of a video, for instance, may provide important context for how the video should be reviewed
There are millions of sources of third party evidence. Collecting this evidence in a forensically sound way that protects chain of custody and keeps the original file and metadata in tact can help investigators uncover the facts in an investigation more efficiently and effectively.
Important things to know about first party evidence
Law enforcement officers can capture digital evidence through several different tools, including body worn cameras (BWCs), dashboard cameras, smartphones, and even TASER energy weapons.
TASER 7 is the first energy weapon to be wirelessly connected to the Axon network. Every time an officer’s TASER is drawn or deployed, that action is logged inside the TASER itself. When you dock the TASER for recharging, the energy weapon's logs are automatically uploaded into Axon Evidence. Investigators have access to any data captured in the log, including time of action, GPS location of action, and more.
TASER events can also be automatically correlated with body camera footage, to allow investigators to easily pair BWC footage with incidents where a TASER energy weapon was engaged.
The Axon Body 3 camera is a powerful body-worn camera that records high quality audio and video. When connected with Axon Respond, agencies and officers can take advantage of real-time alerts, live maps, live streaming and PEU (priority evidence upload).
Several connected products ensure officers never miss a moment.
Axon Signal activates nearby Axon cameras when customizable conditions are met. For instance, if an officer draws their firearm or enters a geofenced area, Axon Signal will prompt their BWC and any nearby Axon cameras to start recording. This allows officers to focus on the situation at hand, instead of trying to remember to press ‘record’ during a high-stress, critical moment.
Should an officer forget to hit record, there are two possible back-ups: First, the cameras can be set up to automatically save the 30 seconds of video (no audio) before the record button was pressed. In the event of a late- or non-activation, video recall enables investigators to retrieve up to an incredible 18 hours of footage from critical incidents (this feature must be enabled by the agency).
"Axon is so much more than just Respond and Body 3. Axon Evidence is the heart of the system, and this software and hardware are the beginning of policing of the future" - SERGEANT AT AN AGENCY / 641 SWORN
Not only does the Axon Body 3 camera simplify the capture process, but it also simplifies and streamlines the process of storing and managing digital evidence. Recorded evidence can be automatically sent to the cloud through WiFi, LTE/PEU, and while a camera is docked for charging.
The Axon Fleet 3 Dashboard camera can be activated by a nearby Signal device and can live stream through Axon Respond to provide vital information to a wider team in real-time. Video recall retains the last 24 hours of video so that no evidence is missed.
In addition, the Fleet 3 has a dual-view camera and interior camera. Automated license plate recognition (ALPR) provides additional eyes on the road and can capture 8x the number of plates than traditional ALPR systems.
Axon Air, powered by Dronesense, provides an integrated drone platform for public safety. This end-to-end drone solution delivers secure wireless livestreaming to provide critical situational awareness, improving outcomes for public safety and communities. Integrated digital evidence management and program management offers operational efficiency across your agency.
The Capture app turns any officer’s smartphone into a recording device. Officers can use their phone to capture videos of crimes, photos of crime scenes and audio interviews with witnesses. Evidence is loaded directly into Axon Evidence, preserving the quality and chain of custody. Officers can take advantage of the auto-transcribe functionality in Axon Evidence to save hours of report-writing time.
Storing Digital Evidence
Capturing evidence is only the beginning of the process. Once you’ve got the evidence, where do you store it?
There are three primary pain points for storing digital evidence:
Where to store the vast amounts of digital evidence that has been captured.
How to upload this evidence into your DEMS.
How to access files that are not standard formats.
Let’s discuss each one:
Where to store digital evidence
First, where do you store all the digital evidence you capture and retrieve? Historically, agencies have taken a splintered approach. BWC recordings are stored in the cloud, images from a crime scene or social media may be saved on a computer, shared evidence from a neighboring agency lives on Dropbox, and a collection of external drives houses CCTV footage from 5 different cameras.
Not having centralized storage for digital evidence makes finding and reviewing the proper evidence a nightmare. Agencies should be able to do a quick search of a centralized database to pinpoint exactly what they need, when they need it.
Security is another concern when choosing where to store your evidence. Keeping digital evidence on a variety of devices and platforms multiplies the risk that evidence will be tampered with or lost.
Storing digital evidence can be costly. Digital files can in size, from a single 30 kb document to large video recordings with terabytes of information. Many agencies are hesitant to load digital evidence to cloud-based storage solutions due to the cost of cloud storage.
Axon Evidence is this solution to all of these headaches. Axon Evidence is the premier Digital Evidence Management System (DEMS) for law enforcement. It provides a secure, centralized, cloud-based solution for storing, managing, investigating, and sharing digital evidence.
Axon Evidence keeps all digital evidence, both first and third party, in a single, secure and encrypted location. Every action taken around a piece of evidence is tracked in audit logs to maintain proper chain of custody, and a copy of the original digital file is always left untouched even if the file is trimmed or edited for court. Video content in Axon Evidence can be auto-transcribed, providing countless searchable available for investigators looking for a specific quote or moment.
Axon Evidence offers Unlimited storage plans for both first party evidence (captured by an Axon device) and third party evidence (captured by anything else). Users never need to worry if their evidence is important enough to store, they never have to monitor monthly limits. Any and every piece of digital evidence can be loaded, saved and organized for years to come. Unlimited storage plans are offered at a consistent price, allowing agencies to plan ahead and maintain budgets.
Now that we’ve established a set of best practice around storing digital evidence, let’s talk about the process of uploading that evidence.
How to best upload digital evidence
While evidence captured through an Axon device can be automatically loaded into Axon Evidence, the same is not true for third party evidence. Axon has taken several steps to reduce the pain of collecting and storing evidence from external sources.
The first step is Axon Community Request. In the past, if community members had valuable digital evidence, they would need to visit a precinct in person or share compressed files via email or social media. Officers would download this evidence, then upload it to Axon Evidence. Each step carries the risk of converting or compressing the data and wastes valuable time.
Axon Community Request allows officers and agencies to send evidence requests directly to the members of the community. These can be done via 1:1 requests to individual’s smartphones, or through an upload portal where any community member can upload evidence. These files are uploaded directly into Axon Evidence, reducing touch points and helping maintain the chain of custody.
The second step in efficiently ingesting third party evidence is Upload XT 2.0. Upload XT 2.0 allows users to upload large amounts of data ten times faster than the original Upload XT. Upload XT 2.0 maintains case and folder structures of uploads. If an investigator has a folder on his or her computer containing hundreds of files organized into different sub-folders, the user can upload the entire folder into Axon Evidence, and it will move to the cloud quickly, with its original organization intact. This solution is also excellent for departments looking to migrate their archives from dusty hard drives to a modernized digital evidence archive.
INTRODUCING UPLOAD XT VERSION 2
Uploading and storing evidence into Axon Evidence is easier than ever before, but what happens when you encounter strange file types?
How to play unrecognized file types
Axon Body 3 records .mp4 format videos. A .mp4 is a standard file type that can play on most devices. But what about .dav, .g64, or .cme files? There are thousands of CCTV camera manufacturers out there, and many of them record files into a unique, proprietary formats that aren't recognized by standard players.
According to a 2021 Video evidence trends report, 94% of investigators faced challenges when trying to play video evidence files. When investigators can’t play a video, most decided to search the internet for a conversion tool or player. Searching for these conversion tools is time-consuming, and many compress or alter video evidence when used.
3rd Party Video (3PV) Playback, powered by Axon Investigate, automatically recognizes different video file types and converts them into a standard .mp4 format inside Axon Evidence. This conversion process is lossless, meaning that no visual information is lost in the process and you can have confidence that you’re watching an accurate video file. Through Axon 3PV support, officers can store and view more than 90% of all video file types available.
Bringing it all together
Axon Evidence is not simply a place where you can store and review your Axon created evidence. It is an end-to-end solution where you can securely manage all your digital evidence.
But that’s not all, it’s also a great place to manage your digital evidence.
"We have one place for digital evidence now. Everything involved with a case is in that one location. That's probably the biggest help to us." MARK BILLS, TECHNICAL SERVICES MANAGER / GRAPEVINE PD
Managing Digital Evidence
Storing large amounts of data in a single, secure location can carry many benefits, but what happens when you need to find and manage individual pieces of evidence in a large repository? You want your DEMS solution to be organized to make it easy to find whatever digital evidence you need.
Taking the time to organize your data and provide tags and other important metadata will save time later in the investigation, and could even provide important clues. Imagine your agency is reviewing hundreds (or thousands) of video clips from a recent riot. Someone wearing a mask and a single, green glove is seen throwing a Molotov cocktail at a police car. By tagging clips with “green glove” you may find other clips of the suspect before he placed his mask on.
Digital evidence management solutions should provide several ways to organize and manage your data. With Axon Evidence, you can add metadata or tags to certain clips, making it easier to find them later. This can be done manually, or you can increase user compliance while saving time and money with automatic metadata tagging and automated retention schedules based on your CAD/RMS.
Cases are also a fundamental feature for managing digital evidence. Investigators can easily organize all relevant pieces of evidence in a case, from the dispatch recordings to the BWC video. This keeps all evidence in one place and makes it easier to share relevant evidence with necessary parties.
Axon Evidence includes an intuitive, one-click search capability which allows users to search by officer name, incident ID, location and other tags to find files. Audit trails prove chain of custody on evidence and review actions taken by users across Axon Evidence.
Several admin features make monitoring system usage simple and straightforward. Authorized users can schedule automatic retention periods based on incident type or crime severity. Analytics and audit tools enable admins to monitor system usage, from total videos uploaded to who has reviewed, shared and deleted files. Customizable user permissions allow administrators to determine which users can view specific files.
Several add-ons and related products provide even more tools to agencies to increase compliance and enhance efficiency. Axon Performance, for instance, equips law enforcement supervisors with actionable insights into body camera activations to proactively drive policy compliance and accountability. Priority Ranked Video Audit streamlines the BWC review process.
Redaction Assistant can help protect sensitive information like screens, faces and license plates during trials, media briefings and more. Users leverage AI to detect and mask objects, faces and information.. Redaction Assistant Studio offers even more features and automation capabilities that can save users countless hours.
Once you’ve stored and managed your digital evidence, it is time to investigate and see what facts can be uncovered.
Investigating Digital Evidence
Digital evidence, like physical evidence, must be examined and investigated. The quality of an image, the frame rate of a video, the perspective of a camera and countless other factors must be considered when investigating evidence and building a narrative around what happened.
Here is a great example of an investigation at a corrections facility:
Axon Evidence auto-transcriptions are time-synced to the video, allowing users to search and find keywords and then jump directly to that moment in the video (or every moment where a specific word or phrase is used). Multi-cam view enables investigators to quickly sync up to 4 different Axon camera feeds, providing additional perspective and information on investigated events. Cases, tags and meta-data allow users to keep all related files together and in a centralized location.
Axon Investigate, an on-premise solution, provides essential tools for video evidence. Axon Investigate protects investigators by providing an intuitive interface that unlocks the power of video evidence in an efficient, forensically-sound manner.
For users who want to dive deeper, Axon Investigate Pro provides additional tools for video-centric investigations, such as time syncing of multiple clips, enhancement features, file stitching, narrative report creation, court demonstratives creation and more.
"Axon Investigate solved the issue we were facing with ease, this easily saved us 10’s of hours and added a layer of integrity we would not have had if we were forced to process the video another way." CAPTAIN JAMES EVANS / RACINE COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE
Tools like Skydio 3D Scan enable investigators to generate detailed 3D models of complex scenes with complete coverage and sub-millimeter accuracy. These 3D models provide additional perspective, and they can be overlaid with video evidence from the scene through Axon Investigate Pro.
When dealing with countless pieces of digital evidence, leveraging tools like Axon Evidence and Axon Investigate simplify the digital investigation. But how do they then share this evidence with the proper parties?
There are several reasons officers might need to share digital evidence. Perhaps they are working with another agency and need to share what they know. Maybe the media is requesting access to a body cam recording of an incident. Often times evidence will need to be shared with lawyers involved in a case.
It is important that officers ensure they are sharing the best and most clear evidence. Officers must ensure that they are painting a clear and accurate picture of a call through digital evidence.
This case in Orlando shows why it is important to share all three BWC recordings instead of just one:
The sharing capabilities of Axon Evidence are powerful and nuanced. Agencies can share specific files, subsets of evidence within a case or an entire case with partner agencies who use Axon Evidence and lawyers who use Axon Justice. If there is evidence that needs to be shared with local, state or federal agencies, it can be done through our secure FEDRamp-certified cloud. If an officer needs to share with someone who does not have Axon Evidence or Justice Premier, officers can send a direct download link to specific files or folders.
Thanks to Axon 3rd Party Video and Axon Investigate, when officers share video evidence, they can share a lossless mp4 file instead of a difficult-to-play proprietary file. Axon Investigate Pro even allows officers to create a PDF report of an event that includes timing, notes and playable video files.
Should an officer be called to testify in court, they can bring Axon Investigate on the stand with them to show video evidence in a forensically-sound manner. As part of their demonstration, they can zoom in and out of clips, play videos side-by-side and highlight any technical issues for the trier of fact.
The ability to share evidence is an essential part of protecting truth, driving transparency, and accelerating justice.
What Comes Next?
Law Enforcement agencies, lawyers and other investigators are surrounded by digital evidence. Agencies who are prepared with the right training and tools can uncover truth and accelerate justice like never before. Agencies who aren’t prepared, however, could get overwhelmed and frustrated by the rising tide of digital evidence.
Axon offers training for officers working with Axon devices and digital evidence:
Axon Virtual Reality (VR) brings the most immersive training scenarios, state-of-the-art technology and innovative training methods to public safety.
Axon Investigate provides a hands-on training experience for video investigations.
Axon Academy is a virtual learning platform for end-user product training.
The Axon Ecosystem reduces pain points throughout the entire lifespan of digital evidence for agencies. From capture to courtroom, users can protect truth and accelerate justice
If you’re ready to enhance your agency’s tools for managing digital evidence and leverage the Axon Ecosystem, then contact us to learn more.