Police forces have more than 20,000 digital devices waiting to be examined, a Channel 4 News investigation has revealed – raising fears over the impact of the backlog on the entire criminal justice system.
A Freedom of Information request submitted to the 45 police forces across the UK found that a total of 21,022 devices, which includes mobile phones, tablets and computers, were waiting for examination.
But the scale of the backlog is likely to be far greater, with two of the biggest forces, the Metropolitan Police and Greater Manchester Police, refusing to disclose data.
The figures deepen fears about delays in the criminal justice system and the subsequent toll on victims as well as those accused of crimes who believe digital evidence will acquit them.
A Home Office spokesperson told Channel 4 News it was providing “new investment” to police forces to help them “reduce” the backlog.
‘Pulling me apart’
The impact of the backlog is being felt acutely in cases involving sexual violence, with the police and Crown Prosecution Service under immense pressure to tackle record-breaking low rape convictions.
Amy Pearson, who was raped in April 2017, has waived her right to anonymity to raise concerns over how police handle digital devices during investigations.
She claims that her phone was held by Suffolk Police for more than four-and-a-half years after she reported the attack the next day.
Investigating officers demanded information beyond relevant messages and pictures between her and the suspect, she alleges, and asked for her internet and shopping history as well as Booking.com searches.
“I felt like I was always being watched,” Pearson said. “It was like I was the criminal and he was the victim. They were pulling me apart to see what sort of person I was even though I was the victim.”
She said the death of her grandmother in the months after the rape and the inability to look through her phone at old pictures and listen to voicemails left by her “Nana”, only compounded her trauma and grief.
Pearson’s attacker was convicted of rape and jailed for five-and-a-half years last November. Since having her phone returned, she has submitted an official complaint to Suffolk Police about the handling of her case.
A Suffolk Police spokesperson told Channel 4 News that it was investigating Pearson’s complaint so could not comment on specific allegations, but added that the force “endeavours to do everything it can to investigate any sexual assault allegation diligently and thoroughly, while treating complainants with dignity and respect.”
The government has pledged to return rape victims’ phones within 24 hours and end overly excessive extractions of personal data, previously branded “digital strip searches”, as part of its commitment to reverse the steep decline in convictions.
Ellie Ball, a Rape Crisis manager based in Cambridge, said Amy’s case was not unusual.
“I’ve never seen anybody get their phone back within 24 hours,” she said. “The proposals in the rape review were almost laughable, like just saying it will make it happen.
“Women who do our jobs get so frustrated because the government will announce things and then on the ground we see absolutely no change at all – it is just rhetoric.”
The current backlog also raises concerns over the potential for evidence disclosure issues, with crucial material potentially failing to reach court in time.
Liam Allan was wrongly accused of multiple counts of rape in 2017 after police failed to hand over key text message evidence from the complainant’s phone.
Allan was offered an apology from both the Metropolitan Police and Crown Prosecution Service and has since founded The Defendant, a group to support those who say they have been falsely accused of crimes.
“They are screaming they are innocent,” he said, describing suspects’ frustrations over the failure to efficiently process devices.
“A lot of people are saying they know the evidence is there. They have told the police, ‘it is in that phone, give it to me and I will show you. Download it. Take whatever copies you need but give me the phone and I will show you where it is.’”
He added: “The backlog is causing an issue on both sides. It is only going to harm victims’ cases and defendants’ cases. It ultimately just means there is not going to be justice achieved and that is the point of the system.”
The Metropolitan Police invited Channel 4 News to see the work of its digital forensics team after recently announcing an £11 million funding boost for its laboratory services.
Work to speed up the return of phones to victims has been made an investment priority.
“The ability of policing to keep up with the demand is challenging,” Chris Porter, the Met’s director of forensic services, told Channel 4 News, describing an “exponential growth” in volume as well as complexity of cases and devices.
Asked why the force had still refused to reveal their own current backlog despite repeated requests, Porter said: “I can’t tell you at this point in time what it is.
“We are absolutely focused on reducing the amount of work that is waiting to be done and when we start that work, whether we are able to do it quicker.
“There are some things that will always take a bit of time and people might see that as a backlog but, as with other parts of forensic science, there are many things you cannot do immediately.”
In response to the investigation, a Home Office spokesperson said: “Digital devices can be critical to solving crimes and we expect forces to utilise this evidence to resolve cases quickly, which is why we’re putting in new investment to help forces reduce the backlog in digital forensics examination and improve the quality of digital investigations.
“The Government’s end to end Rape Review also makes clear our commitment to ensure that no victim is left without a phone for more than 24 hours.
“To help achieve this we are funding new technology to enable police forces to examine more devices more quickly and in locations that are more convenient for victims.”
By: Jamie Roberton, Charlotte Rowles and Jackie Long.