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Cops revisit crime scenes months later via imaging tech

Investigators “returned to the scene of the crime” multiple times for more research — not by holding a scene closed, but by reviewing panoramic images stored in the agency’s computer system

By Becky Lewis
Tech Beat Magazine 

The report on the District Attorney’s desk lays out the evidence piece by piece, measurement by measurement, the result of months of careful investigation. Precision crime scene reconstruction details help lay out the case, details made available because the investigators “returned to the scene of the crime” multiple times for more research. Details provided not by holding a scene closed, but by reviewing panoramic images stored in the agency’s computer system.

The Department of Forensic Science at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), through the National Institute of Justice Forensic Technology Center of Excellence (FTCoE), recently concluded an evaluation of three panoramic imaging technologies used for digital crime scene documentation. VCU’s Michelle Peace says that over and over again, agencies that had successfully implemented one of the technologies told her how much they valued the ability to revisit a crime scene days, even weeks or months later.

“Every agency that we talked to seemed passionate about the technology and had confidence in their ability to use it,” Peace says. “It can deliver a lot of strengths to an investigation, but it doesn’t necessarily replace taking photographs and measurements at the physical scene. Instead, it’s another tool in the toolbox.”

The evaluation, which objectively compared three different technologies to assess their capabilities, requirements, benefits and challenges, resulted in the December 2013 publication of A Technical Evaluation of Three Panoramic Crime Scene Imaging Technologies, available for download from the Technology Transition reports page of the FTCoE website.

Researchers looked at operational use, hardware and software needs, pricing, and training and technical requirements for 3rd Tech’s SceneVision-Panorama, the Pansocan MK-3 and the Leica ScanStation C10. SceneVision-Panorama uses limited on-scene hardware to blend traditional photographs into a single panorama; Panoscan MK-3 rotates to record a complete panorama as a single image; and the Leica ScanStation C10 system records a full panorama and collects millions of data points via a three-dimensional laser scanner, thus allowing additional measurements to be taken at a later time.

“I work and help train crime scene investigators through the Virginia Forensic Science Academy,” Peace says. “We’re always talking about advancements in crime scene investigation, and I realized that some really small agencies were buying expensive tools that turned out to be so complicated, the agency never used them. There’s a wide spectrum of these tools available, and no one had objectively evaluated any of them head-to-head, so we developed a plan to look at several technologies that had a wide range of capabilities.”

As a follow-on to the evaluation, the FTCoE also held a technology transition workshop, and FTCoE Director Jeri Ropero-Miller says many participants came to the event not realizing that panoramic technology complements, rather than replaces, established photography and measurement techniques.

“We also heard from some agencies that they had the go-ahead to buy a high-end device, but when they learned more about the options available, they decided another device better met their needs,” she says.

Deciding up front how an agency will use the technology is one of the most significant steps in its procurement decision, Peace says. Agencies can implement panoramic imaging technology in multiple ways, ranging from making a quick scan of a crime scene before physically collecting evidence to taking detailed scans of potential targets such as courthouses and schools as part of a preparedness plan.

“Every agency talked about the value of going back into a crime scene after it’s been released, to revisit it and better understand the spatial relationships, to potentially put themselves at a victim’s or suspect’s or witness’s vantage point,” Peace says. “This could be a week after a scene is released, or two or three years. The ability to document spatial relationships is invaluable when you get to court. It can be used to reconstruct crash scenes or more quickly document really large scenes like fire or explosion scenes.”

“It may or may not speed up the process, but it will definitely change the logistics. It all goes back to why they chose to adopt the technology in the first place,” Ropero-Miller adds.

Agencies may not need to invest in the most expensive instrument, Ropero-Miller says, and should remember that more complex technologies also require more complex ongoing training.

“Some agencies are able to dedicate personnel to these more complex technologies, but a smaller agency might want something simpler that all their investigators can use as needed,” she says.

With research on panoramic technologies complete, the FTCoE plans to continue the evaluation process with other technologies. Several research efforts are underway, but the Center also welcomes input from the field as to future technology needs. Visit www.forensiccoe.org or call (866) 252-8415. For information on the FTCoE and other National Institute of Justice forensic programs, contact Gerald LaPorte, acting director, Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences, at Gerald.Laporte@usdoj.gov.

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