Catching crooks with computers.
Law enforcement agencies are increasingly turning to new, high-tech weapons like computers and digital imaging systems to fight the war on crime.
When people think about the traditional methods of fighting crime, they envision policemen with guns, dogs, nightsticks and handcuffs. But the information revolution has given law enforcement officials a new, high-tech weapon in their war on crime. Computers and information management and digital imaging systems are increasingly being used to aid in the apprehension of criminals.
While the use of imaging technology in law enforcement is a relatively new concept, it is one that has created considerable interest in the crime-fighting community.
Imaging technology emerged and became widely available in the law enforcement arena three years ago with the development of higher-quality digital cameras and photo compact disc technology, which gives police departments quick, cheap and easy access to digital images.
There have been some stumbling blocks, however, to getting imaging into police departments. First, few police departments are aware of the extent to which imaging is available to them, and those that are aware, rarely have personnel well-trained enough to use it. Additionally, few people have the knowledge to effectively apply the technology, and there is a lack of professional training for those interested in using it.
To remedy this, Purdue University’s Schools of Science and Technology and Indiana University’s law and medical schools are working with Eastman Kodak, Rochester, N.Y., to create an Institute for Forensic Imaging that would develop new methodologies for applying imaging technology in law enforcement. In addition to possibly publishing several how-to books, experts would give the information to continuing education faculty who would then conduct training classes for law enforcement officials.
Despite the logistical difficulties involved in implementation, however, some law enforcement agencies have already introduced some level of imaging into their departments.
In the past, Indianapolis Police Department (IPD) detectives had to conduct time-consuming searches in sever, al different locations in order to examine case evidence. But with the introduction of a pilot information management system, detectives can now pull up all the information they need by striking a couple of keys on their computers.
The system part of a pilot program begun in May 1994, improves the efficiency and productivity of criminal investigations by providing electronic storage and retrieval of evidence on a PC-based platform.
“I have been very impressed with the technology and capabilities of the new information management system for law enforcement,” Indianapolis Police Chief James Toler says. “Our employees have found it to be a tremendous asset.”
The IPD originally intended to use the system to archive old homicide cases. However, officials realized the system’s value in providing immediate electronic access to all types of information and began using it to examine evidence in active cases.
The system interacts with electronic imaging devices to give detectives and investigators immediate access to crime scene photographs, witness statements, crime lab reports, videotape segments, fingerprints, mug shots and audiotapes of 9-1-1 calls.
When fully implemented, the system will allow detectives to better use their office time, saving the department time and money. “In [case] review time alone, there’s probably more than a 50 percent time savings,” IPD Lt. Lou Christ says.
Photographs, audiotapes, videotapes and documents are scanned into the system and stored on CDs, and computer records can be downloaded from the department’s mainframe or local area network (LAN). Crime scene photographs are stored by case number, and thumbnail versions of the photographs can be displayed on the screen for quick visual identification.
Videotapes can be displayed as full-motion digitized video shown on high-resolution monitors, and digitized audiotapes of witness statements and 9-1-1 calls can be played through speakers at the workstation.
Sophisticated indexing by keyword fields and captions allows detectives to examine cases for similar modus operandi that could include method of entry, weapons used, crime scene characteristics and other aspects of a case. In this way, detectives can link suspects to unsolved cases with similar characteristics.
Detectives can also incorporate sections of text or images into newly-created documents. Users can search the database by means of user-defined fields, customized keywords and caption fields. Items that fit the description are displayed in seconds.
The system, which IPD hopes to fully implement soon, makes it easy to electronically search for evidence. Searches that previously took hours of reading through reports and tracking down physical evidence can now be done in minutes without leaving the workstation. “It’s the best thing I’ve seen come into investigative work,” Christ says.
The use of digital cameras for procedures such as collecting fingerprint evidence is also gaining wide acceptance. Digital cameras operate much like traditional cameras except that instead of images being transferred to film, they are stored on the camera’s hard drive. Up to 48 images can be stored and then downloaded from the camera to Macintosh computers or PCs.
In Newport Beach, Calif., a small, affluent Orange County community with a population less than 70,000, the police department is using digital cameras to collect and prepare fingerprint evidence.
The beachfront community has its share of crime, mostly car and home break-ins. “The digital camera saves an incredible amount of time in preparing fingerprint evidence,” says George Reis, photographer for the Newport Beach Police Department. “The bottom line for our community is that we will solve cases faster, apprehend suspects quicker and give our department more time to devote to non-investigative police services.”
Reis, a civilian photographer who heads the police photography operation, first became interested in digital photography two years ago. After first rejecting digital cameras due to cost and image quality, he later purchased a higher-quality product in january 1993.
With the aid of a laser or forensic light source, the camera allows a fluorescing fingerprint image to be made. Prints can then be sent to CAL ID — a state-wide criminal fingerprint database — in an hour, rather than the eight hours required using conventional means.
“You get a better quality fingerprint image and get it into the system quickly to catch suspects faster, cutting crime and making citizens happy,” Reis says.
Reis primarily uses his camera to take pictures of fingerprints collected by traditional lifting methods. With conventional black powder lifts, the camera provides clarity and detail allowing print enhancement capabilities and enlargement. On some occasions though, pictures have been taken directly of fingerprints at crime scenes.
The department uses a scanner to input fingerprint images lifted from objects with tape. “The lift tape picks up a lot of stray powder, surface texture and other background material,” Reis says. “Photographing the print with the camera before making the lift provides a cleaner print to work with.”
The camera brings images directly into the computer for immediate viewing, networking from one person to another and enhancement. Distracting backgrounds can be elimimated in the computer, making prints easier to view.
The camera is linked to the computer and prepares fingerprint evidence using Adobe Photoshop software. “In southern California, fingerprints are a very important part of forensics,” Reis says.
Additionally, the system can be used to prepare court displays of fingerprint evidence. Typically this involves making posters of two fingerprints, the known and a latent, and marking important points on each for juries. Using conventional methods, this process normally takes one to two days.
However, by taking photographs of the prints and importing the images into the computer, black and white or color printouts can easily be blown up to poster size. Using this method, displays can be produced in an hour.
Reis foresees other applications for the camera beyond fingerprint work, including surveillance and situations that require immediate viewing of images. “As a photographer working with other specialists, you often need to see results immediately to determine if you are showing the subject correctly”, Reis says. “For instance, when photographing bite marks with a forensic dentist or odontologist, we are able to view an image right away. Usually, the specialist is not at the scene, but using the camera we can easily transmit an image to the odontologist.”
Reis also expects to totally eliminate conventional chemical photography processing in July if the budget allows. Developed film would not be made into prints but would instead be scanned into the computer system, and prints would be made from the computer.
This is beneficial because it helps comply with OSHA regulations governing the use of chemicals in the workplace and creates a healthier work environment. It also creates faster and easier printing capabilities and reduces the number of prints made because officers will be able to view photos on their computers.
The camera also allows immediate viewing of reflective UV photography, which normally requires film development to determine results, and photogrammetry, which aids measurement verification on accident and crime scene photography. To produce a measurable image, a grid is superimposed over a photograph allowing accurate measurements to be made directly from the print. A photogram of the scene confirms measurements taken at the site.
Reis sees the cost of the system as justified. “It’s paying for itself in terms of results,” he says. “The large volume justifies the cost in materials alone.”
In order to implement a basic imaging system, there are several necessary components. Depending on the application, departments need standard PCs or Macintosh computers, some type of printer (either thermal or laser), special software packages, standard cameras, digital cameras and other peripherals. A department starting from scratch could pay about $95,000 for a fully-configured system.
Experts predict that in the next few years, better products will be available for lower prices. An imaging system that will be able to convert traditional crime scene photographs into a 3-D computer model of the crime scene is on the horizon.