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Forces ‘should be mandated’ to work regionally to reduce digital backlog

FoI figures show that national backlog of seized devices has hardly moved over 12-month period

Mandating forces to work in regions to reduce the backlog of digital devices waiting to be examined could be the best way forward, the Federation has said.

Figures obtained from forces by the Press Association on a Freedom of Information request shows that this backlog remains around the same at over 12,000 devices 12 months after the last figures were published.

Sergeant Simon Kempton, the technology lead for the Police Federation of England and Wales, said investigators are "overwhelmed" by the amount of digital evidence they must deal with.

The Metropolitan Police estimated that 60% of its exhibits would be examined within three months; 39% would take three to 12 months; and 1% would take more than 12 months. The Met use digital kiosks so that non specialist officers can download evidence from seized devices but there have been problems with training enough officers to use the technology.

Sgt Kempton said some forces would be using the latest technology to download and analyse data and others not.

"The underlying key message is that forces need to be better at working in unison, even if retaining local autonomy is important to them.

"Reducing the number of forces might make procurement more streamlined as there would be fewer procurement agreements covering the organisation.

"This could be overcome quickly by mandating forces to work as regions and to adopt the same regional approach."

In February forensic science regulator Dr Gillian Tully highlighted a national skills shortage in digital forensics, and claimed there was a "woeful level of compliance".

She found one instance where software used to analyse mobile phone data identified the wrong recipient of deleted messages.

On April 1 a new Forensic Capability Network (FCN) was launched to create a more unified approach between police forces and boost standards in forensics.

National Police Chiefs' Council lead for digital forensics Deputy Chief Constable Nick Baker said it would help reduce the size of the backlog.

Mr Baker said: "The majority of police investigations necessitate some investigation of digital devices, and the process of identifying reasonable lines of inquiry, extracting the relevant material from devices and reviewing it is time-consuming, so there will always be a pool of digital devices to be investigated.

"But with the launch of the FCN and ongoing efforts to identify smarter working practices, we aim to see a reduction in the number of devices to be investigated at any one time."

Data provided to the PA news agency under the Freedom of Information Act in February and March showed that a total of 12,122 devices including computers, tablets and phones were awaiting examination across 32 forces.

Those that were able to provide a time estimate for how long it would take to clear the backlog ranged anywhere between three months to more than a year.

Previous figures published by The Times in May last year showed that there were 12,667 devices awaiting analysis across 33 forces.

Sgt Kempton said the biggest issue with having a backlog of devices is it resulting in disclosure issues with "potentially vital pieces of evidence not making it to court in time."

The disclosure process came under sharp focus from the end of 2017 after a string of defendants including student Liam Allan, who was accused of rape, had charges against them dropped when critical material was discovered at the last minute.

The latest figures provided to PA show the devices are linked to a wide variety of crimes, including possessing indecent images of children, violent crimes, sexual offences, fraud, drug crime, burglary and robbery.

Here is a list by force (32 forces provided data) of the number of digital devices awaiting examination. The Freedom of Information request was made on January 29, and responses received in February and March.

Bedfordshire 281

Cambridgeshire 152

Cleveland 1,005

Derbyshire 265

Devon and Cornwall 167

Dorset 132

Durham 94

Dyfed-Powys 197

Essex 143

Gloucestershire 132

Gwent 261

Hampshire 363

Hertfordshire 915

Humberside 355

Kent 782

Lancashire 294

Lincolnshire 129

Merseyside 1,217

Metropolitan 1,165

Norfolk and Suffolk 173

North Wales 386

Northumbria 1,345

South Wales 396

South Yorkshire 370

Staffordshire 424

Surrey 54

Thames Valley 165

West Midlands 552

West Yorkshire 77 (number of devices awaiting authorisation to be examined)

Wiltshire 99

British Transport Police 32.

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