The Head Count

The Head Count

How a school district’s police department securely shares digital evidence in minutes

Putnam City Schools is the fifth largest school district in Oklahoma. The district serves more than 20,000 students and employees 2,500 staff in three cities: Bethany, Warr Acres and northwest Oklahoma City. More than 30 schools provide education ranging from pre-kindergarten to grade 12, as well as alternative and special education programs.

While students focus on learning, Putnam City Schools Police Department works hard to keep everyone safe. Officers monitor schools 24/7 and also spend a lot of time conducting investigations and compiling digital evidence for cases. Often, this involves working closely with local agencies to help keep their communities safe.

Managing Video Evidence the Old Way

Putnam City Schools PD handles criminal cases, internal investigations and local police requests. This means they’re always searching for video evidence. In the past, finding and sharing that evidence was time-consuming and inconvenient.

The chief or assistant chief of police would locate the archived video from a database folder, reformat it, and save it on a USB stick. For safe-keeping, they put the stick in an envelope and stapled it to the case report. Then, they would hand-deliver the package to recipients. The risks were always a concern—the copy could get lost or end up in the wrong hands.

Upgrading to a Digital Evidence Management System

Today, Putnam City Schools is changing how its community shares information. The police department upgraded to Genetec Clearance, a digital evidence management system. The fact that the cloud-based solution is compliant with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) was a big selling point. This means that the system meets government cybersecurity standards, so video and other digital evidence is always protected. For officers, sharing evidence with the district attorney’s office, principals or police is easier and faster. Without leaving their desk, they email recipients a secure link to the case file and video. The whole process is now simple and worry-free.

Sharing the Evidence

Since implementing Genetec Clearance, Putnam City Schools Police Department is handling more cases in less time.

“We used to spend a lot of time burning copies of evidence and delivering them to the district attorney’s office or to whoever needed it,” said Mark Stout, chief of police at the schools. “We didn’t realize how out-of-date that process was until we started using Genetec Clearance. Now, we’re able to process those cases faster and move on to other tasks.”

Once an investigation begins, the chief or the assistant chief opens a new case and imports digital evidence into Clearance from the Security Center platform. They use a map to tag the school’s name and address and add keywords to describe the type of case such as assault, theft or disciplinary. It’s an easy way for them to find evidence later. They can also attach PDF reports and add notes about the case.

Sharing video is even simpler. Whether it’s the district attorney, a school principal or the human resources director, district officers can add recipients to a case and provide each person with specific viewing or editing privileges. Each recipient then receives an email with access to the case and the associated digital evidence files. There’s no need for Putnam City Schools PD to convert video formats either—the system does that automatically. Every time the video is viewed or a case is accessed, the activity is logged. With this level of auditing, chain of custody is never questioned.

Keeping Student Privacy Top of Mind

Protecting student privacy is critical to the district. It’s why the district PD is thrilled to see the highest cybersecurity measures built into Clearance. If necessary, they can also use video redaction to blur minors’ faces and omit them from the evidence.

“Whenever something happens, the first thing people want to know is: ‘Was there video?’ And when we’re dealing with children, we must be extremely diligent about protecting their privacy,” Stout said. “That’s why when we found out that Clearance was FERPA-compliant, we were sold. Now, we can quickly send video evidence to anyone who needs to view it, in a secure manner.”

Worries about lost disks or drives are long gone. Whether the information is shared with principals, human resource directors or district attorney offices, there are no more physical copies lying around which can be lost or stolen. The police department has extra peace of mind knowing only those with privileges can view the files.

Helping Local Police Close Cases Faster

It’s not just the school police department that is impressed with the efficiency of the system. Local police agencies have also praised the speedy and secure delivery of video files. In one case, Chief Stout sent video to a lieutenant from the city of Oklahoma police department. The lieutenant was investigating a complaint concerning a local police officer after an altercation outside a school.

“The lieutenant called me back immediately and said, ‘Just what kind of system do you guys have?’” Stout said. “He thought I would have to burn the video on a DVD and he was ready to send someone over to pick it up. That could have taken the whole day, but instead, he had the evidence he needed in 30 minutes.”

During a big case, the Bethany Police Department contacted Stout while investigating a series of robberies at a chain of fast food restaurants. The investigator was looking for video of the most recent robbery that occurred at a restaurant adjacent to a school.

Sure enough, Stout quickly found video of the suspect driving by the school, parking and then getting out of his car before putting on a mask. The local officer insisted on coming to pick up the video, but Stout assured him that he would receive an email within minutes with the evidence.

“He was so impressed with how quickly we were able to send him that video,” Stout said. “Working with the Oklahoma City police department, they were able to identify the suspect from the vehicle in the video and make an arrest that night.”

Leading the Way to Digital Evidence Sharing

In the school district, any video evidence whether for criminal charges or disciplinary cases must be kept five years after the student’s high school graduation. So, if a student is in sixth grade, video evidence must remain on their file for 11 years. As the police department processes more cases, storage costs add up. Instead of investing in more servers, there’s a possibility for the school to save all video archives in the cloud. This would help the district cut down on longterm archiving costs while still keeping evidence accessible and secure.

With this initial success, the plan is to keep processing more cases using the digital evidence management system.

“This software helps us save time and alleviates the headaches of preparing and delivering files. Plus, everything is going digital now,” Stout said. “I think it’s just a matter of time before all case reports and evidence will be shared digitally between city agencies. As a forward-thinking district, we’re happy to be leading the movement to faster, more secure information sharing in our community.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Security Today.


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