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Digital evidence analysis is underway at the Houston Forensic Science Center, in this file photo. Photo: Courtesy of HFSC

A year ago, it would take an average of 110 days to process a cellphone or other digital evidence at the Houston Forensic Science Center.

Now that average has been pushed down to a little over two weeks for audio or video materials, and 24 days for digital analysis, the Center announced this week.

A long-standing backlog at the HFSC’s Digital and Multimedia Evidence Section has been cleared, they said.

“(They have) been working toward this milestone for more than a year, and we are especially proud of this achievement because at the same time they were tackling the backlog they also met the requirements for international accreditation,” said Peter Stout, named the CEO and president of the HFSC earlier this month.

Although analysts are now sent for on-site data retrieval at crime scenes from items like cellphones, laptops and surveillance cameras, the full dive into the digital information can only be done at the HFSC’s laboratory, they said.

Stout told Forensic Magazine by phone that the peak of the backlog reached 250 requests, the majority of which were computers and phones (160).

It was accreditation (reached in July), improved efficiencies, and the hire of additional expert analysts that had made the difference - despite the "increasing electronic footprint that comes with everything that comes through the door."

The goal is to now push the two- or three-week average of evidence processing at the section down to mere hours, to assist dynamic investigations, Stout added.

"For some of this stuff, 24 days on a cell phone could still be way too long," he said. "We're at a place where if the investigators need an expedited case, we can usually hop on it right then. That is now the struggle - how can we provide data on that kind of timeline."

“Our ultimate goal is to provide investigators with quick, accurate, impartial scientific analysis that can be used to help solve a crime,” said Ryan Johnson, the Section’s manager. “We will continue to work with our stakeholders to ensure their needs are met.”

The digital backlog was eliminated through additional hiring and improved procedures, said Ramit Plushnick-Masti, the HFSC’s director of communications, in a conversation with Forensic Magazine.

The HFSC has previously eliminated its sizable legacy rape kit backlog of 6,600 items in 2015, and further completed testing of an additional few hundred items last summer, officials have said.

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