The evolving challenges facing today’s detectives.

Date: 9 February 2023 Author: Matt Bonner Read Time: 5 mins

In 1829, the then Home Secretary of the United Kingdom, Sir Robert Peel formed the Metropolitan Police Service. The formation of an organized Police Service and later a detective branch within that service was replicated around the world during the mid to late 19th century and in 1908, the United States Attorney General, Charles Bonaparte established a team of investigators to conduct investigations for the Department of Justice – an event that is now celebrated as the birth of the FBI. Since then, the ever-evolving cycle of advances in technology being countered by the innovation of criminals to adapt and evolve their practices to avoid capture and prosecution began.

The constant and continuous need for law enforcement to review, revise and update their practices and processes has been the foundation for some of the greatest technological advances of our time being developed and embedded into Criminal Justice systems around the world. For example, huge advances were made throughout the 20th century with the first fingerprint and then later DNA evidence becoming not just accepted, but often expected forms of evidence. In the space of just a few decades, what was once considered groundbreaking science is now routine normality.

Some of the most high profile cases in history have been detected as a direct result of fingerprint and DNA evidence and no doubt many will continue be solved in this way for years to come, but there is a new kid on the block that is already testing the capacity of law enforcement around the globe.

As we progress through the 21st century, it is clear that the explosion and prevalence of data presents the next oasis of opportunity for law enforcement to get to grips with. The exponential growth of digital data in every aspect of our daily lives is something that could not possibly have been properly envisaged by many and is something that is only likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

What started with mobile phones taking over from diaries and Filofaxes is now a digital footprint belonging to each and every citizen, with each person’s footprint being unique to them – whether that be social media profiles, use of online banking, logging in to wifi hotspots, use of passwords and logins or websites accessed on the internet. Every digital footprint is slightly different and the investigative possibilities with them all are endless.

With such great opportunity comes great challenges for the detective tasked with investigating a reported crime or the actions of a particular suspect. In one respect, these challenges aren’t new. Law enforcement has always adapted it’s practices to meet the demands that are placed upon it and it is clear that it will continue to do so, but the need is pressing and immediate.

The real challenge isn’t the ability of an investigation to present digital evidence in a manner that a court will consider compelling enough to convict, but rather one of establishing systems and processes that allow a detective to sift through the vast amount of available material in order to identify what is relevant and what is not. This is a challenge that is multiplied several times over when the ever growing workload of the average Detective and the ever increasing expectations of the public they serve are thrown into the mix for consideration.

As an example, one only has to look at some investigative strategies that might be considered in a routine modern day investigation and consider how they might have changed over time.

CCTV – The task of scouring a crime scene for CCTV evidence was once one that involved walking the area and identifying fixed camera points. From there, appointments were made to recover the video tape for the relevant time period. Today, the same task involves scanning and assessing material that might be recorded on dash cams, door bells, passing buses, mobile phone footage as well as the more traditional fixed cameras. The range of sources of CCTV and the volume of material recorded by each device has also multiplied considerably.

Social media –The opportunities that social media communication can offer an investigation are endless. Investigations routinely seek to understand what communications and interactions victims and suspects had within their own social media networks at the time of an offence and in doing so, huge volumes of irrelevant information in the form of digital data are also gathered. The strategies required to map out this process and define what should be done were simply not required 15 years ago when social media as we know it, did not exist and formed no part of an investigation.

Witnesses – the traditional methods of identifying potential witnesses, largely involved a physical presence by the investigator in or around the area of interest. Doors would be knocked and questions would be asked, all in the pursuit of someone who might have seen something. Whilst this approach is still important, the interconnected world that we now live in, offers a much quicker and easier route to identifying more and more people that may have relevant information. With more and more people comes a greater and greater volume of material.

Forensics – even the term forensics has now expanded. It is no longer the sole domain of scientific examinations in a laboratory looking for traces of fingerprints and DNA, but now includes digital forensics – the examination of digital devices and the extraction of data from them. The product of digital forensic examinations in terms of the volume of material produced has grown since the 8mb capacity of the earliest smartphone to the 128Gb now commonly encountered today.

As investigations have grown more and more complex, the level of scrutiny that they are placed under has also increased. This scrutiny is no longer the sole preserve of the most high profile cases of homicide or serious sexual offending, but different cases of all crime types are likely to be subject to review and assessment, comment and conjecture in varying degrees of usefulness. It seems that everyone wants to be a detective for five minutes and pass judgement on what should or shouldn’t have been done and what can or cannot be inferred as a result. But of course it is impossible to be a detective for five minutes, it takes years of training and practice and is a role that requires you to constantly evolve your skills.

Nonetheless, the ability of the modern day investigator to effectively gather vast volumes of material, sift and assess that material for relevance and keep clear and well documented priority lines of enquiry on track whilst at the same time avoiding any of the distractions or pitfalls that lay ahead are core skills of the modern day detective regardless of the type of case that is being investigated or the rank of the lead investigator. These are skills that cannot be taught solely in a classroom.

They are skills that require continuous practice and improvement if law enforcement is going to maintain its centuries old track record of constantly evolving to effectively counter the innovation of those that commit crime.

There is a much used saying that “the devil is in the detail” and often this is true, but there is a real and imminent risk that the detail will become lost amongst the vast volumes of material gathered in a case unless there are robust systems and process in place to help.

It seems inevitable that there will need to be an increasing reliance on the use of technology itself to take some of the strain. A high quality case management system that allows investigators to store material in one place, assess its relevance or importance, keep track of forensic submissions and the subsequent results of examinations and be a place to record decisions and task activity is an absolute must have.

One such system is produced by Black Rainbow. NIMBUS is currently in use in a wide variety of law enforcement and investigative functions worldwide and their latest offering ‘Investigator’ has used the subject matter expertise of experienced detectives to develop a solution that will meet the demands of the future.

Since Sir Robert Peel’s formation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829, it has always been the case that technology and science has evolved to enable law enforcement to stay one step ahead….. long may that continue.


“The exponential growth of digital data A high quality case management system that allows investigators to store material in one place ”

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