One of the UK’s first Digital Media Investigators is now at the forefront of developing national standards for the role. Carol Jenkins talks to Steve Dickinson about his journey.
When Derbyshire investigator Steve Dickinson was asked to help set up a Communications Data Support Unit to provide digital expertise to crime teams in the force five years ago, little did he know that he would become a trailblazer for a new national role entitled the Digital Media Investigator (DMI).
The unit was set up under the edict of Tracy Lewis, who was then a chief inspector who headed specialist
crime intelligence. She identified the need to provide force-wide support to investigators in digital intelligence.
In those early days, it was beginning to resonate with investigators just how vital digital evidence was
becoming to the overall investigation strategy and that there needed to be an expert team to provide advice
and co-ordinate activity across the force.
Mr Dickinson, a self confessed ‘teccie’, combined his passion for technology with an impressive operational
track record in areas including surveillance, firearms and public protection, to become what was in effect
was one of the country’s first digital media investigators.
“Our aim was to work as a central unit to initially provide specialist crime intelligence across the force from
the PCSO through to the top. “Officers would put in requests to the unit to help with digital evidence and
we quickly learnt out craft and proved our worth in a matter of a few months,” he explained.
“We quickly proved our worth and we began being used extensively on operations and major investigators.
We also learnt that the difference you can make maybe paramount to the success of the investigation. There
was no doubt that some of the work we did really made a difference to the outcome of some investigations.”
Alongside this development West Midlands Police started to trial a similar role – providing communications data
support to the force and it was also identified by the Homicide Working Group that there was a growing need for
the role across the service.
Fast forward five years and Mr Dickinson is now at the forefront of developing the Digital Media Investigator as a nationally recognised role. He was appointed the National Training Co-ordinator in 2015 and has since been working on providing continuous professional development for DMIs across the country.
“The biggest challenge for us is to provide on-going learning for the DMIs to reflect the fact that the pace of change in this area is constantly advancing and evolving,” he explained.
A network of Digital Media Co-ordinators (DMCs) act as a conduit between the College of Policing and individual forces to ensure their approach is joined-up and that national training is responsive to local need.
It’s widely recognised that DMIs are deployed in different ways across the UK again, to respond to local need.
Mr Dickinson explains that their core role is to advise and create an overall digital strategy based around data acquisition opportunities and then as the investigation unfolds to create individual strategies that are based around the needs of the investigation. This could be devising a digital strategy around a crime scene.
“The DMI is integral to identifying the risks and threats to the investigation and to ask could there be a risk of data being lost or compromised.”
Their role is becoming increasingly vital to the investigation process as digital evidence now plays such a major part in crime cases.
Senior Investigating Officers are now beginning to see their worth and acknowledge that DMIs need to be brought into an investigation from the outset and work as an integral part of the team right through to the court process.
Since their inception, debate has continued around whether a DMI should come from an investigative background or a technical background. After training hundreds of DMIs over the past two years, Mr Dickinson says he has met talented DMIs who come from both a technical and an investigative background and that is it down to the individual and their dedication rather than to any specific background.
“It is a huge bonus if a DMI has experience of the investigation process, but I’ve met DMIs who come from technical backgrounds who have an investigator’s mindset, are dedicated to the job and are really good DMIs,” explained Mr Dickinson.
“An essential requirement is that DMIs have to have a passion for technology and to be constantly horizon scanning to keep up to date with the latest developments in this faced-paced area.”
The DMI training programme is developing at a constant pace and officers are now being trained in areas including wifi evidence, communications data, open source, vehicle telematics, internet of things, digital forensics and cloud data.
The DMI Initial Training Course has now been re-written and it’s now a three day course which is followed by a work based assessment portfolio and a tw day HYDRA immersive learning exercise.
The three day course successfully ran as a pilot at the end of Nov to delegates who were from organisations including the National Crime agency and the FBI.
The new course will be available from April 2018.
The focus is now to shift towards work based assessment and consolidated learning rather than just classroom training alone"
There is also a thriving POLKA forum for DMIs which allows for the sharing of best practice and ensures that DMIs can tap into on-going support from their peers.
Looking to the future, Mr Dickinson believes that it’s essential that SIOs make maximise use of the expertise of the DMI and to involve them in their investigations.
He also wants to urge DMIs to push themselves forward and to gain experience in a variety of major incidents in order to develop their skills.
“It’s about appreciating that the digital challenge is becoming more complex and that criminals will continue to exploit this. Looking to the future, I think there is no doubt that DMIs will increasingly play a major role in the investigation process and their input could potentially be a major part of the success of the case.”
College of Policing