Going Digital

Criminal files no longer eat up reams of paper in this Alabama city's homicide unit.

by / May 26, 2005
Montgomery, Ala., homicide detective Mike Myrick deposited the 800-page serial murder case file on his sergeant's desk -- all of it contained on one compact disk.

"Can you do this with any case?" the sergeant asked.

"Yeah, that's the point," Myrick shot back.

Since Jan. 1, the Digital Case File is the standard for Montgomery's homicide unit: No more reams of paper. No more lost case files. No more audio tapes. The whole case file is contained on one CD.

Myrick said he wished he'd had the Digital Case File during the 2002 sniper shootings case involving Lee Malvo and John Muhammad -- one of the 10 shootings took place in his jurisdiction. Myrick developed a case for the shooting and submitted copies to the many task forces working on the case. When all was said and done, he had compiled and sent out about 10 different paper case files on the shooting, which cost about $1,700 apiece.

The standard procedure for developing a case file, Myrick said, was typing everything into the computer, printing it and eventually deleting it. Doing that for every case made him wonder.

"Everything we do is put on a computer anyway," he said. "We're typing up witness locators, we have form-filled affidavits -- all of it is on the computer anyway. There's got to be a way to save that soft-copy form and put it in an organized fashion, where you can organize it in one folder, then burn that folder to CD."

So he did it.

Now after an arrest is made, the arresting officer calls up a special template stored in a folder on the server. The template includes report forms, or subtemplates that traditionally have been used in law enforcement but in paper form. The paper report forms -- arrest report, the witness contact report, contact information, etc. -- were converted to electronic format via ScanSoft software called OmniForm.

There are nine subtemplates in one main electronic template. Each subtemplate is filled out as the investigation proceeds. Once the case is closed, the folder containing the template and subtemplates is burned onto a CD.

Previously the completed forms were printed to assemble a case file. Making multiple copies of the CD is easy compared to the previous process, which meant creating paper copies of each case file.

Myrick said it took a couple of years to figure out what equipment he needed and get the desired input from investigators, but it came together this year.

Now an entire case -- everything from the arrest report to audio tapes and video tapes of witnesses and suspects, to phone records and any other piece of evidence throughout the investigation -- is collected and presented to the district attorney on a CD.

Point-and-Click Investigations
With CD in hand, prosecutors are ready to present the case in court with few adjustments. Attempts to talk with someone at the District Attorney's Office weren't successful, but Myrick said prosecutors are enjoying the benefits of the Digital Case File.

"The district attorneys can put it in their briefcase and take the case home with them," he said.

The prosecution can't alter the original document, but can highlight portions or annotate certain parts of the document. It also makes it easy for the prosecution to hand over evidence to the defense. The prosecution can copy the case to a hard drive, delete what the defense isn't allowed to see and send that version to the defense for discovery purposes.

"[The prosecution] just goes through, takes out nondiscoverable evidence and gives it to the defense. That's your case," Myrick said. "The defense attorney has everything he or she needs."

Myrick said it's easy, both for the investigating officers and the District Attorney's Office, to use the Digital Case File. "It's literally point and click. We have a standard access page. Everything within a case file is already set up."

A detective, for instance, begins by locating the arrest report page, filling it out with arrest information, then hitting save. The case builds from there. It starts with a template with sections for information that might be needed on any major offense. The officer fills out each section pertinent to the case and deletes the rest of the template file that isn't needed.

For instance, if a weapons trace is not necessary for the case, the officer simply deletes the document.

The process is the same as before -- except without all the paper, Myrick said.

"It's the same principle as going to the inbox, grabbing the police report, arrest report or witness locator -- all those different papers -- rolling them through a typewriter and sticking them in a manila folder. It's just digital."

It took a while to get the right equipment, Myrick said. "We looked at digital recorders, and there's all kinds of stuff out there that just records noise. We were looking for something that would be tied into dictation."

The division found an HGH Engineering recorder that did the dictation.

"It gives investigators new, up-to-date modern equipment," Myrick said. "So now instead of the audio cassette tapes and the microcassettes that some of us had, we use our digital recorders."

The division installed a digital video system for recording eyewitness accounts and confessions, and each detective is assigned a digital recorder. The division invested in more desktop computers as well. "We were sharing computers," Myrick said. "You can't put five guys on one computer unless your digital case file is low."

Using digital equipment to record electronic evidence and photos saves time and cost, Myrick said. "For courtroom purposes, you have to duplicate all the electronic evidence -- the cassette statements, the crime scene video and the surveillance video. All that stuff has to be duplicated. By the time you print out all the crime scene photos you want to put in court, the dollars start to go up."

The division also purchased an HP digital sender for $3,200, which scans large documents in minutes and sends them via e-mail.

"Say we get 150 pages of phone records," Myrick explained. "We put it on the digital sender, e-mail it to ourselves, and drag and drop it to the case file."

Myrick's division comprises 35 detectives. He said a smaller outfit with a smaller caseload might not need the digital sender.

When it comes to originals that need to be preserved, such as a signature, a stolen check or a suicide note, the division still scans in those documents on a flatbed scanner and impounds the original.

Myrick teaches eight-hour courses to familiarize police on how to develop a case file digitally.

"Whatever computer you have, with the instruction I give you, you can go to a digital format," he said. "I show officers how to do it, and they give the DA a disk that anybody can open; it's not software driven where you have to have that key."

No More Lost Files
There were questions, of course, from some in the division about storage.

"We have a lot of dinosaurs in our department," Myrick said. "They said, 'We'll still have 3,000 CDs, that's still a storage issue.' I said we could buy a server. They said, 'A server?'"

Myrick got a server to house the archives, and now all the case files can be called up easily by searching for a case number, type of crime, or suspect or victim name.

"Now we keep all our archives on the server so any detective can go through with read privileges only," Myrick said. "Once the case is archived, it's locked. Some of our paper files were on a revolving shelf, and we had cases where big old case files actually fell off the shelf and were down in the space between the cabinets. They were deemed lost. That's never going to happen again."
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor