Ohio officer leverages scholarship program to land his agency its first digital forensics lab
Scholarship recipients receive a year's training with some of the leading experts in digital forensics
By Magnet Forensics
Captain John Freeman has worn just about every hat in public safety. He started his career as a firefighter, worked as an EMT and spent some time as a 9-1-1 dispatcher before joining the City of Girard (Ohio) Police Department 15 years ago. As a police officer, he’s worked drug interdictions, supervised patrol squads, and managed training and recruitment. He even serves as the Girard Police Department’s part-time IT guru, having recently redesigned his agency’s website.
To the surprise of few who know him, Freeman is preparing to take on yet another title – one that no one in the Ohio city has held before him. Freeman is going to become Girard’s first digital forensic investigator after winning a Magnet Forensics Scholarship Award.
“I was a little surprised because it came in the same week I was accepted into a master’s degree program,” Freeman said. “It was a happy moment to see that my work paid off and more so that we’re going to amp up the services we can provide to the community.”
Every year, Magnet Forensics provides scholarships to promising officers from around the world to help them enter and advance in digital forensics. The scholarship recipients receive training for one year with some of the leading experts in digital forensics and access to a digital investigation platform developed by the company that allows police to recover, analyze and manage digital evidence. Freeman was one of six officers from the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Australia and Nigeria who were awarded scholarships this year.
The increasing importance of digital evidence in police investigations
Over the past 15 years, Freeman has seen just how important digital evidence has become to the Girard Police Department’s investigations. At the beginning of his career, it was rarely used. Freeman would only come across it once or twice a year. Now, just about every investigation taken on by the Girard Police Department, an agency with 21 sworn officers, has digital evidence.
“Five to seven years ago, we started seeing an uptick in digital evidence,” Freeman said. “Now from a patrol point of view, our officers are starting to understand the importance of canvassing the area for Ring doorbells and home camera systems during burglary investigations. That’s just a sliver of what’s available to us.”
The challenge that smaller agencies like Freeman’s have historically faced is that they do not have the resources to train their officers in digital forensics or to operate a digital forensics lab where investigators can recover and analyze evidence from phones, computers and other devices. The Girard Police Department, like dozens of other agencies in the U.S., had to either do without digital evidence or rely on a state lab.
Given that state labs are responsible for handling the digital investigations of dozens of agencies at a time, they’ve built up lengthy backlogs. When the Girard Police Department’s officers debated involving the state lab in a case, they had to consider the potential delay to their investigations.
“Even the logistics of getting the evidence to the lab is a consideration,” Freeman said. “We have to drive an hour to get the evidence out there. [That’s why] there’s an element of prioritization that goes into the decision-making process. Some things do get sent up because they’re critical pieces of evidence and for other cases, we rely on traditional forms of law enforcement.”
Freeman knew his agency couldn’t go on like this. Most agencies won’t be able to sustain it, he admitted. In many cases, digital evidence isn’t just playing a central role, it’s the deciding factor. In a recent case in Green Bay, for example, the digital evidence from a man’s Fitbit proved that he didn’t murder his girlfriend. In another, a Portland author was suspected of murdering her husband and concealing the murder weapon and police were able to prove she altered a Glock pistol through her Internet browsing history.
Accessing digital forensics training
Without an existing budget for digital forensics to work with, Freeman looked for an alternative solution. In 2021, he started attending training courses that were either free or that he personally paid for. “The decision was borne out of necessity,” said Freeman, explaining that as a captain in charge of training, he didn’t want to cut into the budget and limit opportunities for other, younger officers.
The goal was to learn enough so that he could help officers with digital evidence considerations and questions about technology. That changed when he came across a social media post advertising the Magnet Forensics Scholarship Awards. If he was selected, he knew he could go far beyond offering occasional advice on digital evidence, he’d be able to run every investigation himself at a newly created digital forensic lab in Girard – the first in the city’s history.
“It was seizing the opportunity at hand,” Freeman said. “There are men and women in the profession, all over our nation, working out solutions to problems that are predicated upon not having enough of a budget, or staffing or whatever other critical need. Improvising and adapting to the hurdles and problems we face every day is part of our identity and our DNA.”
Over the next months, Freeman plans to begin his training and familiarize himself with Magnet Forensics’ digital investigation platform so that he can begin conducting digital investigations. He said he wants to support child exploitation investigations and the ability of the Girard Police Department's patrol division to involve digital evidence in its cases. He also plans to share what he learns with other smaller agencies in Ohio and assist in their investigations.
Digital forensic investigator isn’t just the latest role Freeman is taking on in a diverse public safety career. It may just be the most important one.