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"Old Fashioned" Police Work in the 21st Century

Periodically headlines, tweets or some other social media status update tell readers that once again, "good old fashioned police work" saved the day. Typically, this means some combination of canvassing, interviews, surveillance, security camera review, painstaking trolling through tips and other measures.

The way "good old fashioned police work" is used in such stories feels nostalgic, as if these tactics should be all that was necessary to solve the crime. "We don't need all that newfangled stuff to solve our cases," you can almost hear the chief saying at the press conference. "Our skills are fine right where they are."

In this era of tight budgets and limited resources, you could hardly blame them. Despite the amount of good press around “predictive policing,” geospatial mapping, and other technology making police work more efficient, the newfangled stuff can be expensive, in some cases hard to learn, and often hard to testify about in court. It also tends to change rapidly, compounding these costs by demanding new skills. The amount of information it can spit back has often been compared to “drinking from a firehose.”

Fortunately, most commanders have learned that the best policing puts technology together with tradition. The legwork associated with investigations is perhaps even more important, in fact, because of how easy it is to edit an image or “hack” someone else’s device. What does this mean?

Better leads

Your initial neighborhood canvass following a robbery-homicide turns up nothing, but later that day, a video of the incident shows up on YouTube. Posting a few choice images from the video on your social media sites and the 11 o’clock news nets you some decent tips, and you identify multiple suspects.

You get consent to examine one of their mobile devices, and the analytics from that extraction shows unusually heavy communication between him and two other people just after the incident. You get a warrant to search their devices, too--and find the video on one. Although he swears he knows nothing about it, both his friends confirm they saw him both shoot the video and upload it to his YouTube account.

Better proof

The Facebook picture of the young woman posing with guns and drugs is enough to charge her, but if you’re seeking a gang enhancement or more serious charges--say, distribution rather than just possession--you need more evidence.

Even if you’ve already observed her hanging out with gang members or selling drugs, it’s useful to show her text messages, emails or phone calls that actually link her to other gang members, or taking orders for the drugs she’s been pictured with. Your observations are subjective; hard data aren’t.

Corroborating or disproving statements

Eyewitnesses tell you the suspect was at the scene of the crime, but are too scared to testify, or are not reliable. Use the suspect’s GPS--the one in his mobile device, or in his car--to back up the statements you got. By the same token, use the statements to show that someone else wasn’t using the suspect’s car or device at that day or time.

In a domestic violence, date-rape or stalking case, the he-said/she-said can make your head spin and slow down your ability to build a case. Either the existing and deleted data in their mobile devices will show that neither person is in the other’s phonebook, call logs, or messaging threads; or, it will show the pattern and content of their communications with one another.

On the flip side, though, be sure that abusive or intimidating text messages really did come from the suspect and not just their device. Interview friends, family members and neighbors who can attest to how one treated the other in person, and find out whether anyone else has access to the device besides its owner.

Protected devices and data

The art of the interview can be critically important when a suspect won’t give up the password to his mobile device, and you need to smooth-talk him into giving it up. In addition, witness statements that don’t match data, and vice versa, are discrepancies that you can use to your advantage.

What “good old fashioned police work” really means is due diligence. It’s the same reason why you shouldn’t just extract mobile data in a homicide case without also obtaining call detail records from the service provider.

So rather than try to rationalize the lack of budget at a press conference by talking about how the agency can get the job done without technology, consider talking about the number of hours that went into an investigation, why this is suboptimal efficiency, and what technology would help. Take this message to the city council or the county board; show the numbers, compare with numbers from neighboring communities that are using technology to their benefit. Convince them that the purchases will attract the people skilled enough to use them--and that this will ultimately benefit your community’s need for the best policing their tax dollars can get.