Digital evidence management isn’t always easy, but these panelists know which solutions have the greatest impact.
For all the benefits and conveniences of digital evidence, managing it remains a challenge for police departments. The average officer records 20GB of body cam footage every single month, meaning an agency with ten patrollers fills a terabyte of storage within five months. And that’s not counting evidence from smartphones, imaged hard drives, security cameras, drone footage and other sources.
Digital evidence has become a fundamental part of policing, but managing it correctly demands budgets and resources that city officials can’t always provide. At Axon Accelerate’s “Everything, Everywhere, All At Once” panel, four law enforcement professionals shared their experiences with digital evidence collection and named the techniques that made efficient practices possible.
You can watch the full panel discussion here, but first, let’s introduce the panelists and their findings:
Matthew Carlson (Host): Sr. Product Manager II at Axon, Digital Evidence Storage
Manish Dalmia (Co-Host): Sr. Director, Product Management at Axon
Chris Tannock: Officer at Garland PD (Texas)
Bernie Lawrence: Officer at Garland PD (Texas)
Shane Manwaring: Lieutenant for the Unified PD of Greater Salt Lake
Jason Dietz: Detective from Hagerstown PD in Maryland
The challenges with storing digital evidence in multiple locations
The challenges of digital evidence aren’t just technical; for many departments, a major problem is a lack of a standardized policy. When the organization does not use consistent collection techniques, the officers usually make do with whatever tools they have.
We used to have handheld audio recorders and guys snapping pics on their cell phones,” Dietz said. “They used the Notes section on their phones, or that little interview app on iPhones. They would never upload any of this stuff. It’d just be, ‘Oh wait, it’s on my phone still.
The lack of formal evidence-collection policies contributes to evidence and storage management problems. Each panelist could name situations where they struggled to find logged evidence because they didn’t know where to look – a hard drive might be in a filing cabinet, or photographs could be on an officer’s personal computer. And that inconsistency threatens the entire chain of custody, which risks losing the evidence altogether or making evidence inadmissible.
“I spent about five years in our legal unit where I reviewed and put together every case that we filed with the DA's office,” Tannock said. “I saw evidence just coming in from everywhere. I'd almost have to contact detectives daily and say, ‘I see I need this, this and this. Where is it?’ ‘Uh, let me think about it. I think that's over here. And call the property room for that disc. And I don't know if that disc really played that well.’”
Beyond organization and chain of custody, storing digital files incorrectly puts the evidence itself at risk. “I’ve had officers come to me with a floppy disc and say, ‘I’ve got photos on this,’” Lawrence said. “But even when I found [a floppy drive], the disc wouldn’t read. People don’t realize these things have a lifespan. CDs have a lifespan. Thumb drives have a lifespan. You store all this stuff in different places, and it could just fail for any reason. It may be years before you need it. And typically, it will happen on a major case, a homicide or a sexual assault, or something that’s taken years to investigate and finally solve. You need that evidence, but it’s gone.”
How Axon Evidence saves time for entire departments
Each panelist now uses Axon products for their digital evidence management strategy, most notably Axon Evidence, for storing and sharing case information. The first thing most panelists noticed was how much time it saved.
“In the past, I’d spend a whole day doing discovery,” Dietz said. “I’d [make] five different discs of every single interview, different thumb drives, all this and all that. And I’d drive down to the prosecutor’s office, drop it off to the secretary, hoping she would give it to the person it’s supposed to go to. A month later, about two weeks before trial, we’d get a phone call in a panic. You don’t have the time to keep repeating work.”
Two months after starting with Axon Evidence, Lawrence’s process changed entirely. “As soon as we’re going to file a case with a district attorney’s office, we create a case in Axon Evidence, and we start putting in our evidence and videos,” he said. “We just share that case with the [DA’s] office, and we’re done with it. You could have hundreds of videos … it saves so much time not having to gather all this evidence from different places. Or if we want to share with another agency, we can share that case with them, and they have access to it really quickly.”
“We store everything that we have in it,” Tannock said. “We put forensics photos in there. We store 911 calls, audio dispatch, just everything we can.”
How Axon Capture Has Improved Evidence Collection
“Before, we used to have these cheap digital cameras,” Manwaring said. “We’d take pictures with those. Then you’d have to get the pictures off the camera onto your computer. Then you’d have to go through and name all the pictures. Then you’d have to upload them into a network drive. And then, we had records clerks that took them from the network drive and put them into our RMS system. Axon Evidence truly has simplified so many of those processes for us that it really sounds like I work for Axon. But it is really that great.”
Meanwhile, Dietz noted that officers who used to take pictures on their cell phones have switched to the Axon Capture app, which automatically uploads footage to the correct storage location. “We could have five different investigators all working one homicide scene,” he explained. “Everybody’s doing different things, but as long as they tag it with the case number, everything’s all in one case folder. I don’t have to track down anybody anymore and ask them where everything is. It’s all in one place.”
Evidence collection and sharing is changing for the better
Of course, getting an entire department to use superior evidence tools is its own challenge. Despite all the benefits, officers can sometimes be set in their ways and prefer to stick with the old method. “We still have detectives running around with hard drives that they have all their evidence on,” Manwaring said. “I wrote a policy that should be approved soon to make those obsolete. Mostly because how can you really keep track of chain of custody when it’s on somebody’s hard drive that they’re carrying around?”
While there may be a few officers who are reluctant to change, the broader law enforcement field is not. According to the panelists, these practices will inevitably become the gold standard as more agency partners adopt digital evidence tools. “We’ve got partners who won’t use anything else,” Manwaring added. “The DA’s office is one of them. They hate it when we show up with a disc now. ‘It should be on Axon Evidence!’”
For more on this topic, you can watch the recording of our panel: Everything, Everywhere, All at Once: How to Manage All Your Evidence in One Centralized Location.