Tapping into the Mind of a Digital Investigator
Digital Intelligence and investigative analytics are the future of law enforcement, and investigators, facing information overload, need to adapt, learn, and master the digital tools today to solve the cases of tomorrow.
We sat down with four veteran investigators — Brendan Morgan, Danny Garcia, John McHenry and Adam Riley — who were brought together by a shared passion for protecting and savings lives, accelerating justice, and making the world a better place, to understand the current state of investigative analytics, the challenges investigators face today and the most important lessons they’ve learned along the way.
A PASSION FOR POLICING
Armed with decades of cumulative experience running investigations for well-known agencies, and dozens of personal, life-changing stories, they gave us the inside scoop on the past, present and future of investigations.
“It’s not a job, it’s who you are” – Brendan Morgan
This is how Danny Garcia, a former sergeant and investigator, got involved. “I started at the ripe old age of 15 when I was an Explorer under the Boy Scouts of America. And at 21, I was a police officer with the Miami Dade Police Department.”
Then there’s Brendan Morgan, who went through his earlier years always asking the question “why?” So, it is only natural that he later became a criminal investigator. “For me, I always wanted to understand the “why.” Why did this happen? How did the individual end up sitting in this room talking to me? People commit crimes for a number of reasons, and I always wanted to understand the mindsets of people.”
Being an investigator is not just a job — it’s second nature, and a life calling — you’re always concerned you might miss a big piece of evidence or put the wrong person in jail. Plus, there’s always that nagging feeling you’re missing something…and that can keep you up at night.
“I used to sleep with a notepad by the side of the bed,” said Adam Riley “So if I woke up and had an idea in relation to how I could solve a case, I’d jot it down so I could remember it in the morning. Otherwise, I’d be up all-night thinking about it.”
Morgan agreed, “Things never slow down. There’s always something going on and there’s never enough resources, so it seems it’s almost impossible to turn off being an investigator.” He continues, “there’s always someone committing a crime, and since most of us share the type A personality, that means we’re constantly looking for answers and closure. And while you can’t always get justice for everyone, and they can’t hit life’s re-do button, if you can help someone understand what they did is wrong and teach them how to become a productive member of society, that can also be rewarding.”
Over the years, they’ve all come to realize the value of using technology to further their mission of making the world a safer place. While detectives and investigators will undoubtedly always need to rely on physical evidence and their interviewing and sleuthing skills to solve a crime, digital evidence review has also become an ever-growing part of the process as digital footprints reflect more of who a person is in today’s world.
This is tricky as it offers investigators access to one of the industry’s biggest breakthroughs in helping to solve cases, but it also creates one of their biggest challenges.
“Imagine if you could walk into a crime scene and play back everything that happened in this person’s life — for a few minutes, hours, days or even years — before this crime happened. That’s what data that’s found in digital devices allows us to do today. We can go back in time and replay it all. This has been the huge change that digital intelligence has made in investigations today.” –Danny Garcia, Former Investigator
Yes, it’s helpful to be able to replay the scene of the crime, but investigators must sift through mountains of data to find something relevant, and this leads to information overload. But what do you do when there’s just too much data and way too many sources?
A NEW MINDSET
To tackle the industry-wide challenge of data saturation, new tools have started to pop up on the market. However, it’s even more challenging for investigators to find the time to train for, master, and keep up with these rapidly changing technologies and digital tools.
“The first time I realized what’s possible through technology, I got angry!” – Adam Riley
“As an investigator, your main concern is solving a crime or the case and exploiting every single thing you can to validate your evidence,” said Riley. “You’re measured on your skills to identify lies and falsities. But now people are having to rely more and more on what’s contained in digital devices due to the realities of our world.”
“It used to be all about what you could see, hold and put into a bag. Then it became more digital and there were questions about how long data would be stored for—the data was very volatile. And the challenge became all about what did I missed. What don’t I know? What didn’t I act quick enough to get?” explained McHenry. “What you don’t know—that’s what keeps you up at night.”
They all had that one case or that “a-ha moment” when they discovered just how digital intelligence could help them solve a case that would otherwise be considered a dead-end investigation.
For Garcia it was a murder investigation. “A body part was found outside of an apartment. We recovered a phone that was broken and thrown into a canal, pulled it from the water and brought it to the lab. I ended up flying it to New York to the manufacturer and they pulled data from the file system of the phone, repaired it, cleaned it up and put it in a new phone.”
“The best advice I ever got was at the end of the day, work collaboratively and closely with colleagues,”– Brendan Morgan
He continued, “So, basically, we cloned a phone from the original to a brand new one and were able to recover photos from a murder that had happened, and it gave us the only evidence that showed the body on-site. That was the case that got me into the realm of digital intelligence more than anything else. The only reason we were able to solve it was because we recovered digital evidence from a device in his pocket.”
With McHenry it was in a case involving an officer shootout. “We had just gotten our first Cellebrite tool and on a Saturday night, I was called to a different agency and brought the tool to the scene. The call was for an officer who was involved in a shooting—a young man had tried to rob a store, got into a shootout with an officer, and the officer ended up shooting the young man who died.”
“They brought the phone in and asked me to dump it because while the young man was leaving, he was texting someone on his phone, so we assumed it was the getaway driver,” said McHenry. “Because of this new tool I was able to dump it there and while I was doing this, the mother showed up at the station. So, they took her into the room to tell her that her son had been killed, and they asked her if they could dump her phone too. Using the tool and comparative analytics on-site, we discovered that she was the getaway driver and that changed everything for me.”
THE FUTURE OF POLICING IS DIGITAL INTELLIGENCE
“The data IS the truth” – Danny Garcia
These types of technological tools have brought along a big change in the world of investigative analytics, and the benefits are endless. McHenry explained that a lot of cold cases were reopened once investigators who understood what types of data could be stored, would visit the labs and enquire. But he doesn’t think it’s going to stop there, “we’re going to start seeing a learning AI that will assist with analytics because we’ll have a data flow.”
Garcia agrees, “in the future, we’ll see less accessible data on phones and start relying more on cloud data and the ability to pull information from external sources.”
But regardless of where the data’s found, successfully analyzing it with a digital tool is not the only important component of solving a case, you also need to ensure you’ve got a strong partnership with both your internal and external teams.
“There can be tension because of the time and pressure to get the evidence to resolve the case,” Garcia said. “There is an increasing need to collaborate and work as a team, and these tools help streamline workflows and improve collaboration to make solving cases faster and easier.”
Additionally, it’s crucial to maintain a healthy working relationship with prosecutors since you will spend lots of time collaborating with them. And these experts couldn’t agree more…
“The best advice I ever got was at the end of the day, work collaboratively and closely with colleagues,” Brendan Morgan said. “There are so many moving pieces, that it’ll make your life easier in the future if you build good relationships today, because you’ll need to rely on them to help overcome hurdles in your career and investigations tomorrow.”
“The data is the truth. Let the prosecutor present the data to support their case, let the account defense council do their job, and educate your examiner before they present evidence because that’s going to go much further than not taking the time to educate them,” says Danny Garcia. “You have to go in there as a team and present the information together. Make sure you are ready to move forward with evidence in a way that logically makes sense, bring that info, and don’t get mad at the defense. They’re just doing their job. Remember, the data is the truth, not the motives of either side.”
“The data leads you to whatever conclusion, scientifically, there is and don’t try to change it…as any omission is dishonesty,” says McHenry. “That was the best advice I was given, and I still continue to give it to others—you’re the finder of the truth.”
“Just remember, you’re the finder of truth” – John McHenry
We really enjoyed getting insights from these four investigators into the world of law enforcement and digital investigations. We’re constantly amazed by their – and their peers’ – passion, strength, insightfulness and dedication to bringing justice and making the world a safer place today, tomorrow and in the future.