Why your agency should aim for a fully digital scene-mapping workflow
Digital geospatial tools have been redefining the capabilities of forensic and public safety mapping ever since the technology first arrived on the scene. Today, another major change is underway. This time, it goes beyond a single tool or approach. It’s a complete digitalization of the entire workflow from the crime or collision scene to the case file and courtroom.
Advances in hardware and software combined with a variety of financing options have made digitization feasible for any application and budget. 3D laser scanning remains the recognized gold standard for speed, accuracy and comprehensiveness and is easier than ever for anyone to use. It’s also the most versatile with the ability to capture data from a stationary tripod or on-the-go from a handheld sensor, moving vehicle or unmanned-aircraft system. For agencies needing basic measurement and positioning data, total stations and scanning total stations—alone or in tandem with GNSS receivers—are an affordable and effective option. Importantly, mapping software has undergone a complete transformation that makes it easy to pull together data from multiple sensors as well as video evidence to create accurate and compelling diagrams and visualizations.
Wherever your agency is on the path to digitization, new solutions make it easy to take the next step and transform your approach. If you’ve been wondering about the practical implications of moving from manual to digital documentation methods, here are some key benefits you can expect to achieve.
Make Better Use of Time and Human Resources
Manual scene documentation is time-consuming. Using a camera with a theodolite, tape measure or other manual method and making hand sketches of the evidence takes hours on the scene and days or weeks to complete for the case file. Even with the utmost diligence and expertise, you can never be confident you captured everything, and you have to be able to share the data with other investigators, attorneys and possibly jurors in a format they can easily understand.
Using sensors and software that keep scene data digital can significantly streamline your approach.
For example, transitioning from manual to robotic total stations and intelligent scene mapping software allowed the Minnesota State Patrol Crash Reconstruction Unit to cut scene documentation and mapping time in half by enabling one person to do it all. A handheld data collector uploads the total station data into CAD-based drawing software for diagramming. A library of crash- and crime-scene-related features makes it easy to import, process, analyze, visualize and create court-ready deliverables. Once complete, the sergeant provides the county attorney with a flash drive containing the raw data, the finished map, screenshots, and diagrams. Even documenting large, complex scenes is now much easier. “I can get out there, map it, and get the roadway back open fast,” says Technical Sergeant Kelly Phillips, of the MSP Metro Crash Reconstruction Unit.
Moving from a theodolite to high-speed 3D laser scanning substantially reduced the amount of time Santa Ana Police Department’s Collision Investigations Unit spends on a scene. Instead of closing down roadways for four or five hours, investigators capture the entire scene—billions of highly accurate data points—in less than 30 minutes. The laser scanner also pre-registers the point cloud data in the field automatically, which makes it easy to use and saves even more time back in the office. “It’s such a significant increase in our efficiency,” says Investigator Weston Hadley.
Crime Scene Investigator Clint Norris, of the New Mexico State Police in Las Cruces, has saved countless hours in scene documentation and diagramming by combining 3D laser scanning with intelligent and intuitive forensic mapping software. Following an active-shooter incident at a local high school, Norris was able to quickly and easily reduce 1.5 billion points of scan data to a series of informative diagrams that support post-incident training and analysis. “The ease of bringing in and working with a point cloud is tremendous,” he says.
Increase Safety on the Scene
The less time you spend at the scene documenting the evidence, the less risk you face from exposure to hazardous materials or biohazards, passing vehicles, or assailants. The speed and comprehensive nature of digital scene documentation and mapping lets you move through a scene quickly while capturing the data needed to bring the case to justice.
District 1 Lead Collision Reconstructionist William Bush, of the Oregon State Police in St. Helens, has streamlined crash scene mapping by combining total station and GNSS scene data with mobile mapping point cloud data captured by the Oregon Department of Transportation. When he was called to the scene of a weather-related crash, he was able to gather the data he needed in less than an hour, which minimized his time on the scene. “It was already hazardous enough with the weather—let alone with the additional blockage over the rise of the highway,” he says. “I shot those controls and then captured my evidence and was able to expedite opening up the roadway.”
Safety is a key reason Investigator Weston Hadley appreciates 3D laser scanning as a scene documentation tool. Hadley can now walk away after just minutes on scene, confident that the scanner captured everything with millimeter accuracy. “The quicker we can get what we need and get out of that road and that right-of-way, the better,” he says.
Using digital data also allows for real-world training of firefighters, police officers, and crime scene investigators with an immersive photorealistic virtual reality experience. These simulations provide valuable context and locational awareness of situations that would be otherwise difficult to replicate without significant costs and risks. Crime Scene Investigator Clint Norris believes comprehensive 3D scan data is crucial in preparing for active-shooter events like school shootings, where every second counts. “Studies have shown that as many as four shots can be fired in one second,” Norris says. “And those four shots could mean four lives. It could mean four different kinds of injuries that would have their own consequences. So even one second is a tremendous amount of time.”
Above: Digital workflows can be used to create immersive photorealistic virtual reality training.
Create Accurate and Compelling Deliverables
Clear visualizations are imperative in solving crimes and bringing criminals to justice. To understand all the nuances of a case, investigators, attorneys and juries need to experience the scene from different angles and immerse themselves in the evidence. Digital scene documentation and mapping allows you to move beyond hand-drawn sketches to provide detailed and informative diagrams, illustrations, animations and flythroughs.
Norris, for example, uses software that combines point clouds and photographic imagery and then adds details such as expansion joints in exterior concrete walks and pads. “If there was anything to help clarify the memory of a participant, to me, that’s important,” he says.
Bush uses software to combine digital datasets from various sensors into one coordinate-correct final diagram that clearly shows both overhead and side views. In the weather-related crash case, his deliverables enabled the district attorney’s office to determine in less than a month from call to closure that the incident was noncriminal.
Hadley and his team overlay millions of data points with high dynamic range (HDR) photography, along with geotagged photos and notes, to provide an immersive 360-degree, 3D experience that is admissible as scientific evidence.
Other agencies are combining video evidence and point clouds to define crucial details. In a double-homicide case in Woodbridge, Ontario, Canada, this approach was key to refuting expert witness testimony and achieving a conviction. “Once we had our trajectory rods placed and scanned,” says Detective Sergeant Brad Joice, commander of the York Regional Police Forensic Identification Unit, “we were then able to validate the process by the video overlay, comparing the trajectory analysis to the actual position of the firearm at the time of discharge.”
Balance the Scales of Justice
Speed, safety, comprehensive and accurate scene documentation, high-quality data and compelling visualizations are just some of the benefits of digital scene documentation and mapping. Whether you’re looking to advance from manual to robotic scene documentation or take advantage of the latest state-of-the-art in 3D reality capture and immersive deliverables, today’s hardware and software makes digitization easy. Even more importantly, it gives detectives, clients, lawyers and jurors the tools they need to ensure justice is served.
With all these advantages, what’s holding you back from taking the next step? A fully digital scene mapping workflow can move your agency from competent to exceptional and give you the recognition you deserve.
Contact us today for insights and guidance on taking your agency to the next level of digital scene documentation and mapping.