By Richard J. Colangelo, Jr.
When you’re a state’s attorney, some cases haunt you. One that haunts me is that of a young woman who used heroin twice in her life and, after the second time, she overdosed and died. An investigation revealed someone had given her the heroin, and I wanted that person off the street.
This young woman would not be his only victim.
After gaining access to the young woman’s phone, my team spent months going through the tens of thousands of text messages, emails and videos on the phone, but we couldn’t find the relevant information. It wasn’t until we brought in a special computer program that could analyze all the data on her phone that we made progress. In minutes, we were able to identify every instance that she’d talked about heroin. As it turned out, she had a text message conversation with the person who supplied her with the drug and talked about it explicitly. We arrested the man that same day.
Cases like this are playing out across the country – only too often, they don’t end with an arrest and conviction. According to a Cellebrite survey of over 2,000 law enforcement officials across federal, state, and local jurisdictions, law enforcement cannot keep up with all the data it is collecting. Separating relevant evidence from extraneous information is overwhelming law enforcement’s limited resources.
Law enforcement is drowning in a deluge of digital data. It needs more resources to keep up and keeping ahead of the data deluge must be among its highest priorities.
This data deluge is having terrible, real-world consequences. First, it delays justice. The unsolved case backlog now averages two months nationwide. This means two months for relevant information to disappear, two months for witnesses’ memories to fade, two months for suspects to operate with free reign — or flee the jurisdiction. As the amount of data collected – which law enforcement officials need to sift through – increases, so will the case backlog.
A second problem? Time. Investigators now spend an average of 36 hours per week reviewing digital data like photos, text messages call records and the like. This time crunch leads to the third problem: with so much time devoted to data review, law enforcement organizations are plowing through the backlog by paying for more overtime as a routine practice. This eats up law enforcement budgets, hence leaving less money for other law enforcement priorities.
The upshot? We have a system where fewer and fewer officers are being stretched thinner and thinner. It is expensive, and it’s unsustainable. Eventually, we’ll likely start missing critical evidence, and guilty suspects will walk away scot-free.
None of this is to say that we should simply try to collect less evidence. According to the Cellebrite survey, text messages are now reviewed in 89 percent of investigations. Social media is reviewed in 80 percent of cases. Digital data is a valuable evidentiary tool used to solve crimes, just like DNA, witnesses, and confessions.
The good news is the problem is fixable. Artificial intelligence and advanced algorithms are used to pick out patterns and identify critical information within large amounts of data, in industries ranging from transportation to finance to healthcare to agriculture. Law enforcement entities must invest in the same technologies – indeed, in the case of the woman who overdosed, it was just such a program that cut through the noise and allowed us to identify the suspect. There is little excuse for law enforcement not to embrace the same sorts of technologies that have been game changers in so many other industries.
Helping law enforcement emerge from the digital deluge is up to all of us. Those of us in law enforcement need to change our mindset – we need to understand that the digital deluge is going to get worse. Embracing technology to help us solve it is not a short-term cost; its a long-term savings that will keep our communities safer. The technology isn’t free, of course, so state and local legislators have the difficult task of looking for ways to provide funding for the initial costs, which needs to become a fiscal priority.
Finally, our citizens – the people most directly impacted by threats to publicly safety – need to demand that law enforcement has access to the tools it needs to fight crime in the modern era. Citizens cannot feel safe if law enforcement must solve 21st century crimes with 20th century technology.
Being a state’s attorney means coming face-to-face with terrible tragedy almost every day. All of us in law enforcement bear that burden, and we do so proudly – and we believe keeping the community safe is a higher calling. Let us fulfill that calling. Let us make sure that no one who overdoses dies in vain.
Richard Colangelo is the State’s Attorney in Stamford, Connecticut.