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Cell Phone Triage for Police Officers

It’s the same story played all across America. It goes like this: Police Officer XYZ is dispatched to a residence where, as the First Responder, he discovers a crime scene. Officer XYZ notes a cell phone on the scene possibly belonging to the suspect or victim. Officer XYZ decides to search the phone for “investigative leads” and “evidence”. Then, accidentally, Officer XYZ DELETES the phone’s data or even worse, WIPES the phone’s data.

Now, if you were that officer, how would you tell your Chief/Sheriff about this mishap? How are you going to explain what you did to your prosecuting attorneys or better yet, the defense attorneys?

Cell phones are a blessing and a curse. They contain myriad amounts of information about someone. A cell phone reveals a person’s true character. It’s Digital DNA in a box! But, if the officer handling the phone is not careful, that blessed phone data could become a noose around his or her neck and possibly their career. Like any evidence, the cell phone and its contents must be handled correctly or the officer could lose that evidence.

The first responding officer is the initial evidence protector. That officer is responsible for the crime scene’s protection until other units, investigators and the forensics division get to the scene. Having been a police officer myself, I know what it is to arrive first on a hot scene and then have to handle everything until others arrive (and they never get there fast enough)!

Let’s imagine that you just responded to a crime scene. The suspect is gone but the victim is lying unresponsive on the floor. In the victim’s hand is a cell phone. What are you going to do? Let me give you some help.

In my book, Cellular Forensics for First Responders I share my unique “S.P.E.A.R. Digital Triage Method™”. I developed this method as a way to help police officers deal with cellular devices on a scene. In a case you may use one, some, or all of these steps. The goal is to give you a springboard to incorporate the cell phone and its data safely in to your case so that any evidence gained is not tainted.

The S.P.E.A.R. Digital Triage Method™

S = Survey the Scene: Look before you leap. Do you see a mobile phone on the scene? Then determine if you need to deal with it at this time (exigent circumstances) or if it can wait for the forensics professionals to arrive. Also, does your State or Agency allow you to examine a phone without a Warrant? Be careful of any 4th Amendment violations. Such violations can be very costly to both you and your agency.

P = Protect the Phone: you need to protect that mobile phone from outside contamination. That includes other officers on the scene that want to “monkey punch” and play with it. A phone can be contaminated or wiped digitally by outside signals. If the phone is off, leave it off!

E = Evaluate the Phone and Area: look for anything that is visible to the naked eye. Is there anything on the phone’s screen? Is the unit damaged? Password protected? Is the phone active or turned off? Is the phone worth the effort at this time or should you just let the forensics expert handle it?

A = Acquire the Phone: if you are in charge of the phone’s examination (and have been properly trained), use the forensic tools you have to acquire the data from the phone.

R = Report: your report of your handling, analysis and findings is very important in a case. Your report will go before you and allow the evidence to be presented or dismissed without you being present. Take your time.

So there you have it, an easy to follow guide to handling cell phone evidence at a crime scene. Use these simple steps and your career will thank you!

Tom Slovenski is an international law enforcement instructor in Mobile Phone Forensics and owner of Cellular Forensics, LLC in South Carolina. Tom has over 25 years of investigative experience and is a former senior law enforcement detective. His highly acclaimed book, “Cellular Forensics for First Responders” has been widely accepted by law enforcement officers across the world and is available on Amazon.com. For more information, go to cellularforensics.com and cellphonetraining.info for class schedules, S.P.E.A.R Digital Triage Method™ Certification and other training information.

Improving officer intuition through social media

Have you ever talked to a law enforcement officer who recounted a story of his life when he was saved by a sixth sense that something wasn’t right on a call? Neuroscientists have recently started researching intuition, also referred to as the sixth sense, to determine how it works. Based on some findings, intuition expands as the brain learns and stores away new information in the subconscious. The more connected people are to the world around them, the greater the volume of information received and stored for future use. As law enforcement officers continue to connect through social media, they pass on their own insights on their own triumphs and failures. They discuss how they handle various calls, situations that went right and wrong. The information is stored in the recipient’s subconscious brain and may come back as sixth sense, hair rising on the back of neck, intuition that says something is not right and to be prepared. We may find as law enforcement officers continue connecting and sharing their insights around the world that social media may actually help improve intuition and increase officer safety.

In the world of public safety in general, and law enforcement in particular, our minds are constantly receiving information. We take information in from the world around us through routine calls, social interactions with citizens, and our relationships with other officers. Just as important as the general information we receive, we learn what was successful and unsuccessful. Over the years, we store vast amounts of information as patterns of data in our long term memories. As we are handling daily calls for service our brains search for similar patterns of information that correlate with what is happening and compare it to past memory patterns. Through atomicity, an ultra high speed process for moving information from long-term to working memory, we intuitively recall stored patterns of data telling us how we have handled similar situations. As Daniel Kahneman describes in Thinking Fast and Slow, “Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.” As we handle our calls, we are constantly adding to the stored patterns and building blue prints for future use. Even if a similar incident occurred 12 years earlier, and long removed from our working memory, it is waiting there only to manifests itself at intuition.

Now consider how social media enters the conversation. The internet and social media have now changed how we exchange information. Before the social media explosion, officers learned to do their jobs in their academies, field training officers, their shift mates, and simply doing the job. A slow learning curve existed for officers to build their skills and increase the data stored in their long term memories. The learning bandwidth was narrow and officers have been injured from lack of knowing how officers in another part of the world may have developed more effective tactics to handle certain calls. Officers didn’t have the luxury to get on the internet and immediately connect to other officers worldwide to seek advice. Instead of interacting and learning from a small group of people, the learning bandwidth has now exploded through social media allowing people to connect around the world.

Today, officers read posts, watch videos and participate in forums to discuss situations instantaneously across continents and oceans. An officer in the United States may enter a forum or post on a message board and discuss an incident or video, recounting what occurred to an officer in Venezuela with officers in Ireland and Thailand. Through these connections officers learn new techniques and validate proven tactics worldwide. As we watch a vehicle pursuit on YouTube, have a discussion on LinkedIn, or interact on a blog, we are continually building our mental dossiers. During these discussions, information is processed in our brains and stored in the long term memory for later use. Through social media integration we are able to learn from each other as if we were at the incident ourselves. Imagine a critical incident that occurs which your formal training never covered; however, you are very well connected through social media. Several officers you talk to around the world have had experience that relates to this incident and the information comes flooding to your working memory as intuition, as if you did have the prior experience. Through your automatic downloading and storing of information learned through your social media connections to other officers, your mind provides several options. Your mind says option A did not work in New Zealand, however, Option B worked in Canada and Option C worked in Hungary. You then pick the option that best matches your circumstances. After the incident you interpret this as having a streak of intuition about what to do. The “intuition” was merely your brain recognizing the patterns in others had shared through social media.

Many organizations are still learning to trust and handle social media. There is a fear that officers will learn bad habits or tactics that violate their own cultural norms or organizational policies. Organizations need to utilize social media because it is not going to disappear and will continue to expand and evolve over time. Organizations can be a part of shaping the conversation or they will be relegated to reacting to the conversations. First and second line supervisors should encourage officers to be more connected and expand their perspectives and develop new insights from the diversity of officers around the world. As these conversations grow, officers are becoming more conscious of successful tactics that they may employ or new officer survival considerations to improve safety. As younger, more socially connected officers move up in their organizations the social media trust aspect will improve. Officers connected worldwide will continue to learn from each other and add to their long term memories. In the future, an officer’s life in Europe may be saved through and intuitive feeling that was developed through an on line conversation years earlier with officers in Africa and North America.

We are increasing our knowledge on how the brain works and the process that creates and expands intuition. Through social media we are having worldwide conversations that expand our knowledge of tactics and officer safety issues. We now know intuition is not simply a flash of brilliance but rather, your brain searching for long stored and forgotten information that may save your life. By keeping the conversations going we are in fact helping to keep each other safe.


Helic, Sebastein & Cousieau, Denis. Cognitive Neuroscience of Automaticity: Behavior and Brain Signatures.: http://ccn.psych.purdue.edu/papers/Helie-Cousineau-automaticity_review-final.pdf

Intuition and unconscious learning – Less Wrong: http://lesswrong.com/lw/59v/intuition_and_unconscious_learning/

Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

Warren, S. (1997) Remember this: Memory and the brain: http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/biology/b103/f97/projects97/Warren.html

Photograph: examiner.com: http://www.examiner.com/images/blog/wysiwyg/image/Brain-Power6.jpg

Sergeant W. Michael Phibbs, Richmond Police

Mike Phibbs has 19 years of police experience. He has received the Police Medal for valor and spent a career developing innovative techniques to improve organizational effectiveness and efficiency.  Mike has created a splash in the public safety community in the past few years. He has authored cutting edge articles on organizational development covering such topics as Sector Policing, Employee Engagement, Chief Score and Organizational Branding in Public Safety. His articles have been published twice by the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Virginia Center for Police Innovation, and on line magazines, websites and blogs. He helped developed the Pyramid of Performance Factors which show how an organizations structure and individual officers / firefighters emotional commitment combine to impact engagement and performance.   He has taught at the Virginia conference of the International Police Chiefs Association, Mid-Atlantic Fire Chiefs Conference, and been among a hand selected cadre of national leaders to teach at the award winning Virginia Fire Officers Academy. Mikes social media writing is intended to use humorous stories to show how different leadership techniques can make an emotional impact on individuals and then be used to transform organizations. 

Social Media and Criminal Justice Policy Exchange

This blog post is a straight plug to encourage readers to engage in a new initiative launched jointly by:

Professor Paul Senior of Sheffield Hallam University who tweets as @yorkhull and

Associate Professor Julian Buchanan of the Institute of Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand – @julianbuchanan

They have set up a series of interlinked initiatives to explore the growing use of social media for debating criminal justice policy and are seeking to test the following proposition:

Social media offers criminal justice stakeholders an open, equitable and transparent way to extend avenues of communication globally potentially increasing accessibility and impact. It has enabled novel and distinctive pathways for criminal justice policy exchange, evolution and implementation through the construction of an extensive e-architecture enabling new forms of dissemination, communication, policy networks, policy developments and debate which has the potential to democratise and widen access to influence crime policy.

I have taken the liberty of translating the proposition into two questions in non-academic English:

Can social media spread best practice quicker, all around the world?
Does it make it easier to broaden the debate to include service users, practitioners, managers, researchers, policy makers and politicians?
Paul & Julian have launched the initiative on a wide range of social media and are keen to engage with anyone and everyone who is interested in criminal justice policy.

The list of links is shown below.

A great first step would be for you to take the short survey about whether and how you use social media to discuss criminal justice issues.

If you want to find out more about the project or start engaging in discussion, you can:

Read the blog

Watch the YouTube video:

Comment on the Facebook Group

Browse the Scoopit online magazine

Or join the LinkedIn Group

The survey has already been completed by a wide range of participants in a dozen different countries.

It would be great to start a truly international criminal justice policy exchange.

So, I hope you will give it a try.

I’ve done the survey and joined the LinkedIn group and am already looking forwards to asking participants in Australia, the USA and the Netherlands their experience of payment by results…

Philly Police on Pinterest

The Philadelphia Police Department is always looking for ways to connect with members of our community. Our District Captains hold monthly meetings to ensure that we are addressing the issues that are affecting our citizens. We have foot-beat officers walking through neighborhoods throughout the city so that people can get to know the officers that are serving them. And, we have one of the most prolific social media campaigns of any police department in the country because we recognize the importance of interacting with the citizens that we serve through every available avenue.

To that end, the Philadelphia Police Department is pleased to announce our latest foray in to the social space, Pinterest. The PPD Pinterest account currently has nine boards. The first six are for wanted and recently arrested persons in each of the six police divisions across the city. The three remaining boards are Inside the PPD, Safety and Prevention and Cops in the Community. We expect there will be more boards as time goes on. If you have an idea for a board you would like to see from us, please let us know.

Along with our brand new Pinterest, we are also on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Take an active role in reducing crime in Philadelphia by liking, following and subscribing to our social platforms. You can submit a tip via email at tips@PhillyPolice.com, phone at 215-686-tips (8477), text message to PPDTip, and on our website at PhillyPolice.com/tips.

Thank you for joining us in the effort to fight crime in the City of Philadelphia.

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