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Evidence Management: Cell Phone Intake, Processing, and Storage – Part 2

June 28, 2021

In this webinar, Matthew Porras from Ohio’s Westlake Police Department joined Ben Townsend – the Founder and CEO of Tracker Products – for a virtual evidence room tour. One topic they discussed is how West Lake handles cell phone intake, processing, and storage in their evidence room.

Ben continued the conversation by saying, “In the image below, we’re in the actual evidence room. How about you walk us through this, Matt?”

Matt said, “You’re looking down the portal of what we have for storage. As we walk into that first room, it has rolling, compact storage. The ceilings are 20 feet tall. The next picture should show  an image of a ladder that we cart around.” 

You might ask, Why would you put something up so high? But if it’s a case that needs to stick around for 20 years because of a statute, we’re going to put it somewhere that’s not going to be in the way for day-to-day activities.

The image above is the third room that’s just past the middle room. It’s a cage system. To the left, it houses firearms and our narcotics. That’s just another security measure. In the safe in front of us, we have temporary storage of things that need higher security levels. And then it’s your standard box and envelope systems on the shelves to the right.”

Ben said, “I’m curious, were you able to dig into any of your statistics?”

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Matt said, “Right now in storage, we have 4,211 items. Which isn’t bad. I think I’ve disposed of almost 1500 items this year. So, we’re pretty close to one-to-one [ratio] and that’s been the luxury of being in here full-time. Being moderately busy enough to get through a day, but also having enough time to be able to put into disposition. 

I didn’t mention that since I was in patrol and a detective for 20 years, I also do pretty much all the case dispositions. I definitely don’t put the final touch to get rid of stuff, but I review every case. If evidence comes in – found property all the way up – I set the reviews.

I read the reports and I notify officers, investigators, and supervisors about the status of each case. I think that’s one of the hardest things we find in law enforcement is that final piece. You make the arrest. You go to court. But there’s that second half of… waiting until sentencing, appeals time, sitting on appeals, motions for return; all those things that can come in post-trial or a plea, I’ll wait on. 

We wait about six days after any final decision, then I’ll pump out disposition tracers to those involved. Make sure everything everyone’s cool. Then our administrator – who actually oversees property/evidence – gives us the sign off of what he wants to do with the stuff.”

Ben said, “Excellent. Somebody asked: Do you guys keep money in your vault or do you deposit that into a bank account?

Matt said, “That’s a wonderful question. In fact, it’s a wonderful question because we’re having a meeting on Friday. We’re looking into that because we do put money into a temporary asset forfeiture fund for cases that have money on indictment. So, if you get indicted the money is part of potential forfeiture. We move the money out of the state and place it into an account. Problem is, other monies that we get – like when someone gets arrested – they don’t let them take their property to the jail. So, now we’re stuck housing property that we arrested them with. 

A lot of times its wallets and cell phones. Now we have the money. And just like any other case… say you arrest someone for drugs and their cash has to be seized as evidence. But, it doesn’t even come up in trial. So, we do have to house money in there, but we are on the lookout for the best method to be able to set up an account through the city.”

Ben said, “All right, let’s quickly get through the last of your pictures. Anything interesting in here that you want to throw out?”

Matt said, “There are a couple of the barrels that we’ve filled up. What we’ll do is we’ll tape them up, and sign off on them so that we know that they haven’t been tampered. We use a two-person system to verify the items in there. It’s not about trust. It’s about integrity and accuracy; we believe in that wholeheartedly.”

Ben said, “All right. Anything else you want to throw out about the next picture?”

Matt said, “We were fortunate to get a little bit of more space. I’m running a room, right? So, I’ve got the mops over there. I’ve got my own tools. I’ve got everything in my locker. I’ve got everything that I need to run the room. Problem was, prior to this one – which we built out this year – evidence was in the same area as some of the property. I didn’t like that for obvious reasons. If someone came in and was like: Is this evidence, or is this just something laying here with no tag on it? 

So, we were able to gain this area of the building and throw everything in there that is not evidence related – whether it’s just extra bags, or tape or whatever – and really keep that separated as a best practice. We were happy about that. 

We’ve had a rash of stolen vehicles up here in Northern Ohio right now. That was one of our recoveries from just yesterday.

(Above is a better view of the non-evidence area – with the exception of stolen vehicles)

About the image below, Matt said, “Like every agency, we’ve got problems with bikes. They must grow on trees because people lose bikes and no one calls about them. [That’s] the biggest surprise for property rooms.”

About the image below, Ben said, “When I saw this picture come through earlier today, this really stood out to me and actually this blossomed into a conversation. When we get into cell phones, we’re dealing with digital forensics and in some cases, people are just storing phones. But when I saw the set up here… why do you do it this way?”

Matt said, “We have four of these little charging bays. I only took a picture of two of them, just to get the point across. At Westlake, we have the luxury of having our own in-house digital forensics guy. He’s a full-time guy as well. He does cell phone extractions, computers, and anything digital-forensics related. One of the nuances with Apple phones is… maintaining power to the phone is a key component for him to be able to do his job as an examiner on the backend. Which led us to the question: How do we keep these phones powered for him?

If they come in on a weekend or something, and it runs out of juice, then it makes his job that much harder. So, what we came up with is… generally if an Apple product comes in and it’s powered and there’s the potential for it to be examined, we have the portable charging banks in the processing side where an officer can plug that into the phone and get it into a temporary locker, so, it will stay powered. 

When I come back into work, we’ll take that portable charging bank off and put it back out for other officers to use. Then we’ll transition the phone to the long-term storage power banks here. That way we’re able to get our emails out and make sure that the digital forensics investigator is aware that cell phones came in. We’ll keep it on power until he decides whether he wants to do the forensic investigation. We have limited space. So, if he’s not going to do it, it’s nice to know because then we can just seal up that back end of it and get it into general storage.” 

Ben said, “All of these look like iPhones, so you’re not doing that for Android devices?”

Matt said, “Any other product  – other than Apple – if they run out of power, it doesn’t hinder his ability to process that. Apple must have some nuances to it as a security measure. Once it locks down it creates a hardship for him.”

Ben said, “Questions are rolling in, which I expected, about this. Those bags are not sealed at that point, correct?

Matt said, “That’s correct. We want to be able to catalog the cell phones and we don’t purport to have officers put labels directly on items. You know, these labels are made to rip and tear and not come off in one piece for a reason. With digital evidence, if it came in unsealed and someone was messing with the phone, a forensic examiner would know right away that it had been messed with between the time it was entered and the point at which he received it. 

So, we’re not really concerned about the aspect of integrity within the phone. The packaging gives us a place to put the tracking portion of it, to get it into location. When it needs to get back into general storage, then we can seal it back up.”

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Ben said, “Somebody asked, Do you, do you put them in Faraday bags? I mean, are you worried about somebody remote erasing them or anything like that?”

Matt said, “We’ve gotten away from Faraday bags. Our general process is to get the phone in airplane mode. And if you can’t get into airplane mode, then we were removing the SIM card. So, we keep SIM card removers in the processing room. Part of the packaging manual is to take that SIM card out. We tape it to the back of the phone. At that point, you’re doing the best you can with the phone to protect it from anyone trying to remote into it.”

Ben asked, “Has your digital forensics guy had any problems with you removing SIM cards?”

Matt said, “That’s the process that he’s come up with for his needs. And like I said, he’s really good at what he does. He handles a lot of cases locally; Cleveland police use him. He takes on outside work as well as our own. He’s well known to do very good work for us.”

Ben said, “Somebody asked a question, What about destruction of these phones? My guess is you’re not sending these to the steel plant.”

Matt said, “We have two methods. Richard’s a digital forensics examiner. He also does chip-off work, so he will retain phones for department’s use because he’ll rip phones apart. And, if he has a phone that we need to examine, but it has to be fixed, he has stockpiled a graveyard of old phones that he can go through. 

Or, if he has a new phone that he needs to examine, he can go to one of these other phones that we retained to practice on to see if he can get what he needs, and then return to the phone that he’s working on. 

For the phones that we’re just going to straight up get rid of, we can throw them right into the steel drum. The steel plant doesn’t have any issues with circuit boards. Obviously, if we can remove a battery or something like that, we will.”

Ben said, “Somebody is asking a question, I think you hit on it earlier, but let’s cover it again. Your officers are not walking into the room and putting them on that unit. They’re putting them in temporary lockers. So, how are you keeping them charged when they are in temporary lockers?

Matt said, “I apologize, maybe this wasn’t clear. I don’t know if you have an iPhone, but I went to iOS 14 and it’s burning the battery life out of this thing. So, I had to buy one of those charging banks, and attach it to a portable charger. 

We have a series of portable chargers in our processing side. Once they plug it into the phone, that portable battery charger keeps it powered temporarily until I get my hands on it. I take that charger off and put it back in the processing side. Then I take that phone and I’ll go install it onto the bank that you saw for long-term storage.”

About a regular webinar guest, Ben said, “James Nally is out in Orange County, California, and he’s always on these webinars. He’s actually posted a URL for temporary lockers that are fully powered with Faraday bags. James tossed that in the Facebook Evidence Management Community Group

We’re going to set up our next webinar and hopefully get the forensics guy on here. We’re going to do a bit of an intro to some digital forensics and he can explain why iPhones react the way that they do. I find that stuff fascinating. It blows my mind what people put on a cell phone and what you can extract off of it, if you have the right tools. It’s really unbelievable what they do.”

Matt added, “It’s good to know too, because even if you don’t have an in-house person, if you get a big enough case and you have an iPhone that’s powered – from our understanding about the way that the digital forensics are working nationally – you can get it to someone that can do the work. That’s probably your best bet.”

Ben said, “Another question just came in… Is he storing the phone in a fireproof cabinet? I’m just curious, do they go into general storage or do you put it into a safe?”

Matt laughed and said, “Phones just go into general storage. I looked it up… we have 288 phones right now in storage. So they take up a lot of space. They just kind of hang out with everything else.” 

Ben closed the webinar by saying, “Matt, thanks for your time. And everybody have a great day.”

Tracker Products and The Evidence Management Institute want to give you something productive to think about during this time of uncertainty… a series of free evidence management training and panel discussions. Watch and comment on the webinars here. Or – to get in on the discussion, with nearly 600 other evidence custodians – join the Evidence Management Community Forum on Facebook.

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