How One Small-Town Ohio Officer Helped His Agency Open Its First Digital Forensics Lab

Sept. 1, 2023
City of Girard Police Capt. John Freeman was recently awarded a Magnet Forensics Scholarship Award that will allow him to become the first digital forensics investigator in his agency’s history.

City of Girard Police Capt. John Freeman was recently awarded a Magnet Forensics Scholarship Award that will allow him to become the first digital forensics investigator in his agency’s history. Like many smaller agencies, the Girard Police did not have the resources to operate a digital forensics lab or train its officers in the science — and so Freeman spent years trying to find another way.

As a winner of the Magnet Forensics Scholarship Award, Freeman will have access to all the training required to become a certified digital forensic examiner. The Girard Police will also receive Magnet AXIOM, the software developed by Magnet Forensics to recover, analyze, report on and manage digital evidence. We sat down with Freeman to discuss his journey.

When your career first began, digital forensics was still being used in a niche capacity. Now it’s involved in nearly police investigation. How have you seen it evolve over the past 15 years?

Capt. John Freeman: I had an opportunity come up through the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C). There was an opening for a class that went over first response considerations for digital forensics and into the intermediate and advanced levels of acquisition and reporting of evidence from digital devices. I had this feeling that digital forensics was going to be a big thing and it would behoove our department to have someone who is interested in learning the concepts that are coming into play.

Five to seven years ago, we started seeing an uptick in digital evidence. The nexus of where we saw the rise in social media, the availability of mobile devices and the adoption of technology like home cameras on a wider scale really started accelerating the process for us. Our officers are starting to understand the importance of canvassing the area for digital evidence emanating from Ring doorbells and home camera systems during burglary investigations. That’s just a sliver of what’s available to us. It’s not just being able to identify the bad guy and have him come in and do a 1-on-1 in the box, it’s obtaining the mobile devices and computers and being able to preview them for evidence.

What does the investigative process look like on a case at an agency that doesn’t have its own digital forensic capabilities?

Capt. John Freeman: Without the ability to analyze sources of digital evidence, an investigation really relies on good interviews and good legal processes. Our investigators do a great job in compensating for the fact that we didn’t have these services in our department. However, with the increase in digital evidence from phones and other digital devices we’re seeing across the board, it’s something I don’t think a lot of departments are going to be able to sustain.

When it comes to having to gather the evidence in a forensically sound manner, a state lab conducts our digital investigations. Considering the challenges with the volume of digital evidence we’re collectively facing in law enforcement, it’s becoming a lot harder getting the critical digital evidence back to the investigator in a timely manner. There’s a lot of downtime when it comes to packaging and getting the digital evidence ready to be sent out to the lab. Even the logistics of getting evidence to the lab is a consideration. We have to drive an hour to get the evidence out there.

Without the resources at the Girard Police to pursue digital forensics, you took it upon yourself to find a solution. What went into that decision?

Capt. John Freeman: The decision was borne out of necessity. We’re seeing an increasing trend in law enforcement where the budgets just aren’t there. There’s been a willingness from officers to invest more in their continued education even if it means they have to do it more on their own dime or time.

The ramp up started when I was promoted to captain in 2021. I’ve found myself helping investigators with their legal processes, their questions about tech and digital evidence considerations. You don’t want to cut into the budget for training that you want to offer to the younger officers, so I started reinvesting [my own time and resources in my training].

With the Magnet Forensics Scholarship Award, it was seizing the opportunity at hand. There are men and women in policing all over our nation working out solutions to problems that are predicated upon not having enough of a budget or staffing or whatever other critical need. Improvising and adapting to the hurdles and problems we face every day is part of our identity and DNA.

As part of the scholarship, you’re going to receive the training required to be a certified digital forensic examiner from Magnet Forensics. What are you looking forward to learning?

Capt. John Freeman: I’m really interested in the mobile side of the spectrum, considering how prevalent mobile devices in our investigations and incidents. I was also surprised to see that Magnet Forensics offers a class on digital video investigations, which I’m really interested in considering how often we’re handling, processing and storing this type of digital evidence in all types of cases.

I’m very much looking forward to learning about all the features Magnet AXIOM has to offer and how to work them into every step and level of the process. More specifically, I’m very interested in Magnet AXIOM’s automated analysis features, such as geo-mapping and timelining, as it relates to analyzing text and media content to find relevant case evidence.

You’ve spent the last two years chasing this dream. Now that you’ve accomplished it, how will the Girard Police implement the technology into its investigations?

Capt. John Freeman: It’s a three-front plan. The first is to establish a framework to support a program like this. Patrol is my bread and butter. We want to support the abilities for investigators to process child sexual abuse material, but I also want to support our patrol division and have the ability to collect, process and report on the digital evidence involved in their cases. We can use digital evidence for just about everything — shoplifting, assaults, hit and runs, break and entering and burglary.

The second front is from an admin standpoint. One of the larger benefits of the scholarship is being able to develop the administrative experience and knowledge to make sure a program like this can subsist and be successful.

The third front is with other departments. Considering the problems we’re facing in America with recruitment, retention and the difficulties in filling road shifts, having this resource in-house [will allow us to help] smaller departments in Ohio [with their digital investigations].

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