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Digital media investigators: challenges and opportunities in the use of digital forensics in police investigations in England and Wales

Dana Wilson-Kovacs ( University of Exeter , Exeter, UK)

Policing: An International Journal

ISSN: 1363-951X

Article publication date: 7 May 2021

Issue publication date: 31 August 2021

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Abstract

Purpose

In-depth knowledge about specific national approaches to using digital evidence in investigations is scarce. A clearer insight into the organisational barriers and professional challenges experienced, alongside a more detailed picture of how digital evidence can help police investigations are required to empirically substantiate claims about how digital technologies are changing the face of criminal investigations. The paper aims to focus on the introduction of digital media investigators to support investigating officers with the collection and interpretation of digital evidence.

Design/methodology/approach

Drawing on ethnographic and interview data collected as part of an Economic and Social Research Council-funded project on the application of digital forensics expertise in policing in England and Wales, this paper examines the changing face of investigations in relation to escalating digital demand.

Findings

The analysis presents the national and regional organisational parameters of deploying digital expertise in criminal investigation and examines some of the challenges of being a digital media investigator (DMI). Through testimonies from DMIs, digital forensic practitioners, investigating and senior officers and forensic managers, the analysis explores the organisational tensions in the collection, processing, interpretation and use of information from digital devices for evidential purposes.

Research limitations/implications

The paper offers an empirical basis for the comparative study of how the DMI role has been implemented by law enforcement agencies and its fit within broader institutional considerations and processes.

Practical implications

The development of the DMI role has raised questions about the supply of digital expertise, especially to volume crime investigations, and tensions around occupational divisions between scientific and operational units.

Social implications

The findings show that while the introduction of the DMI role was much needed, the development of this valuable provision within each force and the resources available require sustained and coordinated support to protect these professionals and retain their skills.

Originality/value

This study contributes to the growing sociological and criminological literature with an ethnographically based perspective into the organisational and occupational tensions in the identification and processing of digital evidence in England and Wales.

Keywords

Acknowledgements

The author thanks the participants for their insight, time and support; reviewers for their feedback; and Hannah Wheat and Georgia Smith for their input. The support of the Economic and Social Research Council (grant reference ES/R00742X/1) is gratefully acknowledged.

Citation

Wilson-Kovacs, D. (2021), "Digital media investigators: challenges and opportunities in the use of digital forensics in police investigations in England and Wales", Policing: An International Journal, Vol. 44 No. 4, pp. 669-682. https://doi.org/10.1108/PIJPSM-02-2021-0019

Publisher

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Emerald Publishing Limited

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