When gathering evidence for any cold case investigation, an organizational system is critical to seeing all the details. It can help you get a clearer picture of what happened to the victim, quite possibly details that may have been missed during the original investigation. And digitizing your evidence is one of the most effective ways to streamline that process.

Technological advances continue to transform the way law enforcement agencies and governmental agencies handle court records, police reports, crime scene photographs and other documents of an investigation. And, even in cold cases that are years or decades old, entities are painstakingly taking the steps to digitize documents.

Even if some agencies haven’t gotten around to digitizing the evidence you’re interested in, you have the ability to digitize the records you’re collecting for your personal cold case investigations.

How to get started in digitizing a cold case investigation 

Before getting into the logistics of digitizing documents, photographs and records from crime investigations, it’s important to understand the benefits that law enforcement agencies are experiencing as a result of digitization. They include the following:

  • Increased productivity
  • Easier access to information
  • Easier distribution to other agencies
  • Preservation of records that could otherwise be subject to damage
  • Streamlined workflow
  • Minimization of physical storage
  • Availability of text-searchable files for optical character recognition software
  • Admissible in court equal to the original documents if produced in high resolution, complete formats (Most federal, state and local governments have policies and guidelines for digitization projects)


Getting started digitizing your evidence:

When converting your documents to a digital format, you have 4 options to get the job done. You may choose from among them interchangeably. The one you choose at any given time can largely depend upon numerous factors, including the type of document you’re digitizing (i.e., size, condition), what type of resolution you’re trying to achieve (i.e., high definition) and where you are digitizing the document (i.e., at a public place or at home).


1. Digitize with your smartphone or tablet

If you have a small stack of papers, newspaper articles and photographs on your desk, you can quickly digitize them by simply pulling out your smartphone or tablet and taking a photo of each one with the built-in camera. From there, you can upload those images into your Google Doc files or other organizational cloud storage platforms you are using to maintain your research.

If you decide to join a team of other citizen investigators researching cold cases, you’ll find that this is the quickest and easiest way to share files. 


2. Streamline even more with a scanning app

While you can use your built-in camera on your smartphone and tablet, you may find some advantages to using an app that’s specifically designed to scan photos and documents. Have you been standing in front of a whiteboard all day? Writing out various scenarios? Or have you been gathering notes and documents for your research. 

With Adobe Scan, for instance, you can scan those materials with the app, which recognizes the various forms of text and then translates into a PDF. Adobe Scan, as well as other scanning tools, automatically identifies the borders of your documents.

Dropbox and Evernote apps also offer scanning features that allow you to further streamline your digitization and organization process. 

Other apps also offer distinct benefits, including Pic Scanner which allows you to scan multiple photos at once.

These options are ideal if you find yourself handling fragile items, like old newspapers or photographs that can further deteriorate the more they are touched.


3. Invest in a scanner

Some people prefer to use a desktop scanner to handle their digitization jobs, especially if they’re regularly compiling a significant number of documents and photos.. If you already have a desktop printer, the scanning function on that device could also serve the same function. 

However, if you are processing a significant number of documents, you may want to consider a quality desktop scanner. These devices cost about $100 or less. This device could come in handy if you have the room on your desk and if you plan to use it for other projects, such as scanning family photographs for an ancestry project.


4. Outsource your digitization project

Got a full-time job and don’t want to be bothered with digitizing your documents? Or would you rather spend your time just sticking to the details of your investigation? As with anything else, a third party will be happy to take over those responsibilities.

While many companies, like Docufree, and ScansAmerica are targeted to businesses, you can look for local digitizing services in your area that will take on your projects, whether they’re documents, photos or receipts. If your project primarily consists of photos, iMemories will digitize the materials you send in a secure box.


Three quick tips for quality digitization

When scanning, here are a few tips to ensure that you have quality documents:

  1. Make sure the document is scanned at a high resolution (at 600 DPI in grayscale, for example) so that the words or images are not blurry
  2. Scan documents in the proper format (i.e. horizontal or vertical)
  3. Ensure to address unreadable text, i.e. words that are covered with stains


Questions to ask when starting your digitizing of a cold case

Before choosing from among your different options for digitizing documents and photos, consider answering some key questions to help you get started. Here are a few to help you in the process:

  • How much material do I need to digitize? 
  • What type of materials (photos, documents, maps, notes, etc.) need to be digitized?  
  • Do the documents have sensitive information that will need to be secure?
  • Is there a concern about damaging the document?
  • How much time do I have to invest in digitizing the materials?
  • How much money do I want to invest in this digitizing project?
  • What type of quality am I seeking? Just easy enough to read (low resolution)? High quality (high resolution with color?) 
  • Where am I storing/organizing the information?
  • Do I plan on sharing the materials with others?
  • What will I do with the original documents (shred, return, store)?

After assessing your needs, you should have the insights you need to make sure that you’re choosing a digitization plan that works best for your project.