Understanding the Use of Digital Forensics in Policing in England and Wales: An Ethnographic Analysis of Current Practices and Professional Dynamics

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Sociology, Philosophy, Anthropology


Digital evidence can reveal a suspect's intent to commit an offence and help establish when events occurred, where victims and suspects were and with whom they communicated. It has been increasingly used in examinations of homicides, sex crimes, missing persons, child sexual abuse, drug dealing, fraud and theft of personal information, as well as in civil disputes. As the volume of cases requiring digital forensic analysis and the amount of information to be processed in each case have risen rapidly in recent years, law enforcement agencies are struggling to address this demand. In this context, social science research is needed to illuminate how current practices can be improved and the ways in which the usefulness of digital evidence in crime detection can be maximized while preserving ethical acceptability, civil liberties and protecting both the victims and the wrongly accused. To date however, these critical issues remain under-explored and little is known about the deployment of digital forensic evidence in police inquiries and the organiational, professional and societal issues it raises.

This project aims to offer a theoretically grounded and empirically based ethnographic analysis of the digital forensic resources, practices and expertise mobilised to provide intelligence for on-going investigations and aid the prosecution of suspects. Focusing on areas of improvement prioritised with the input of digital forensics (DF) practitioners working across four police forces as part of a regional forensic collaboration, its main objectives are to examine current provision in the constabularies covered by this organizational arrangement and explore how DF capabilities are used in the production of digital evidence. The project will employ qualitative methodologies to analyse the interactions and exchanges between different occupational groups and render visible this rarely explored socially and politically sensitive domain. A focus on the transformation of digital data into evidence and its trajectory to the final stage before prosecution, will enable the observation of DF knowledge and routines (1) as they unfold and (2) at different points in the investigative process. It will bring into relief operational procedures and dependencies, professional tensions, regulatory dynamics and distinct understandings of DF capabilities. The potential benefits of this project are multi-layered:

Conceptually, the project will contribute to sociological and criminological studies on the seldom explored application of forensic technologies in policing. The analysis will also inform and update wider socio-legal, crime and police studies approaches to assessing the contribution of forensic science to criminal justice outcomes, and social science literature on how various stakeholders understand the role of DF in police investigations.
Methodologically, the project will facilitate practitioners' engagement with and through its design, and provide novel insights on the role of social science research in documenting, establishing and sustaining dialogue between different communities of practice.

At a practical level, the project will provide an in-depth understanding of current DF arrangements. The study will augment initiatives by police forces to improve performance by educating stakeholders about the ways in which DF can contribute to criminal investigations. It will do so in an organizationally reflexive way, with a view to foster cross-sector co-operation and exchange and improvements. The findings will help identify the gaps in DF resources and tensions in its delivery and impact directly on current practices. They will promote dialogue between providers and users, and inform the future training of investigative staff.

At a policy level, the findings will contribute to better informed decision making. With a focus on 'What Works' in DF they will help promote best practices and lead to a more efficient delivery of DF provision.

Planned Impact

The research aims to increase the effectiveness of digital forensics (DF) services and policies, improve how DF provision may be best structured, and enhance stakeholders' understanding of how DF protocols fit into investigative practice. Given the level of change anticipated with the introduction of accreditation processes and streamlining of DF routines regionally, timescales for the full benefits are hard to predict. Its non-academic beneficiaries include:

(A) DF practitioners, High Tech Unit teams and managers of the South West Forensic Collaboration (SWFC) who seek to identify and establish best practice in DF and enable local ownership and accountability. The project will support the development of streamlined DF protocols across the four police forces in the region through a systematic approach to identifying gaps and tensions in DF delivery, providing advice on how these can be overcome.

(B) While immediately relevant to participants and the SWFC, the project will also be of benefit to other DF teams, forensic partnerships and organizations in the UK and internationally. Its findings will help identify best practice in the application of DF in police investigations in a regional setting, demonstrate how this can be achieved and enable further learning about 'What Works' in DF.

(C) The College of Policing, through which the project and its findings will be promoted nationally as a vehicle for the transfer of such learning. Its representation on the Advisory Board will ensure that the research findings will be more widely communicated to police educators, researchers and users to offer guidance for similar organisational initiatives.

(D) Evidence-based agencies such as the Society for Evidence Based Policing (SEBP) and the Centre for the Application of Science and Technology (CAST). Project findings will enable innovation, raise awareness of how DF can be used effectively, appraise a 'What Works' approach in DF and promote the successful delivery of DF services.

(E) Front-line police and Senior Investigative Officers (two of the key DF user groups) and Digital Media Investigators (ranking police officers who serve to translate digital forensic knowledge between DF specialists, police forces and the public). The analysis will involve an investigation of staff processes, and thus enhance users' awareness of what DF can and cannot do. For instance, identifying the utility of DF artefacts is an area with which officers typically struggle but it is critical to effective investigation. Sharing the research findings with these beneficiaries through user engagement activities and outputs is instrumental to facilitate change in current practice.

(F) Prosecutors and legal teams whose awareness and expectations of DF require targeted updating to improve juridical knowledge of DF and prevent miscarriages of justice. Briefings on the research findings will be disseminated to the Crown Prosecution Service, the Law Society and the Criminal Bar Association of England and Wales, to enhance such knowledge.

(G) Forensic Science Regulators, whose mission is to implement forensic standards nationally and assure the integrity of forensic practices. By engaging with these stakeholders as well as fostering connections and dialogue across policing and DF communities, the findings will enhance police understandings of what DF standards involve as well as the regulators' appreciation of operational and organisational issues in DF.

(H) The wider forensic community through its professional associations. Institutional reform is most likely to succeed by nurturing a cross-sector network of experts and practitioners who can together collaborate with police and other key stakeholders to facilitate the effective use of DF in policing. By developing a DF network, this research will create the opportunity for new intellectual and professional links between DF practitioners, police officers, regulators and policy makers.


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Wyatt D (2019) Understanding crime scene examination through an ethnographic lens in Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Forensic Science

Description Transforming Forensics Digital Forensics research working group
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
Description Presentation to Digital Forensic Managers at the College of Policing training course 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was a presentation of the current research project to Digital Forensic Managers from Northern Ireland, RAF and Lancashire and College of Policing trainers.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://digital-forensics-in-policing.net/
Description Team Meetings 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Regular attendance at team meetings with digital forensics practitioners and written reports that have helped inform senior management reviews of current practices.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018,2019