2014-01-22

Co.Labs

How An iPad App Is Transforming The Way Police Work Crime Scenes

Two forensic scientists deploy the Trojan horse of technology in their fight to transform how CSIs work crime scenes.



A woman is attacked and stabbed while out running. A Crime Scene Investigator works through the night to collect and catalog all the evidence--just hand-writing the evidence labels for a complex scene can consume several hours. Exhausted, the CSI goes home at 6 a.m. to grab a few hours sleep before writing up the report he uses to brief the criminal investigators assigned to the case.

Almost 24 hours have already passed since the stabbing occurred. That in itself is a problem; the first 48 hours after a crime has been committed are considered critical since the ability to track an offender, and often the value of the evidence itself, diminishes over time. Every hour that passes reduces the likelihood that the perpetrators will be caught.

Still, crime scene investigation is currently a tedious, manual, and largely paper-based process of documenting the conditions at a crime scene and collecting physical evidence. Smaller law enforcement agencies often only have one or two police officers trained as CSIs and they cannot be experts in all types of evidence. Then there’s the often a lengthy time lag between the collection of evidence and the point at which it becomes useful in the criminal investigation because of the manual process of collection, documentation, and lab work. These are the problems which an iPad app called CrimePad is designed to address.

Jane Homeyer, a forensic scientist and FBI trainer, is one of the founders of Visionations, the company which makes CrimePad.

“It wasn't about the software. It wasn't about the app,“ she says. “It was about an opportunity to transform how people work crime scenes.”

Crime Scene “Accounting”

Homeyer was already mulling over these issues during the eight years she spent at the Northern Illinois Police Crime Laboratory, of which she eventually became the executive director. A colleague at the lab, Jeff Gurvis, who is an expert is blood spatter analysis, was toying with similar ideas at around the same time. Homeyer later moved on to the FBI where Gurvis also did some work as an consultant training FBI employees. In 2012, the two colleagues decided to start a company together to tackle some of the problems they saw in their profession.

CrimePad is a tool for making a complete electronic record of a crime scene. This isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. No two crime scenes are the same and they vary hugely in complexity from a straightforward burglary to multiple scenes and homicides as in the case of the Boston marathon bombings. A wide range of evidence may be found at a single scene: trace evidence like paint residue or broken glass, impressions like fingerprints, footwear and tool marks, bodily fluids, hair and fibers, weapons evidence and documents. There is no standard data format or taxonomy for crime scene investigation data. One department may consider money to be part of document evidence, whereas another will put it into a different category since it's held in the vaults separate to all other evidence.

A CSI will walk through the scene in a prescribed manner in order to disturb it as little as possible, take photographs and video, make sketches, take measurements, perform techniques to collect evidence like taking a latent fingerprint, tag, log, and describe all the evidence collected. The total record of the scene needs to provide a level of detail sufficient for someone who was not there, like the criminal investigators or the legal teams involved in a later court case, to reconstruct it.

In CrimePad, data is entered only once, at the scene itself when the information has the highest fidelity to reality, and is used to generate labels, crime scene reports, access logs, evidence logs, and all the other documentation required. CrimePad also allows you to relate different objects and locations in a way which isn’t possible in the current manual process.

“This photo is a photo of the same thing I did a sketch of, is the same thing I did this fingerprint processing of, is the same thing that I collect this standard evidence on,” says Homeyer.

An important part of a CSI's job is testifying in court about the evidence collected. “Later on when that person goes to court and the prosecutor says 'I'm going to have you testify about this firearm,'" Homeyer continues. “Instead of them going back through their notes, now they can say 'show me everything about this firearm that I did at the crime scene.'” That's crucial when sometimes two or three years elapse before a case goes to court.

CrimePad Customers

CrimePad is currently being used by local police departments in California, Virginia, and Tennessee as well as by another state-wide agency (which does not wish to be identified) with special agents who support local police.

Max Houck is director of the Washington D.C. Department of Forensic Science. His department is planning to trial CrimePad. In response to recommendations in the Justice Department’s 2009 report "Strengthening forensic Science in the U.S.," Houck’s department is one of the first in the U.S. to move from the standard practice of using specially trained police officers process crime scenes to deploying civilian crime scene scientists. Within two years, its crime scene teams will consist entirely of civilians.

“Our crime scene scientists are definitely knowledge workers,“ says Houck. “They traffic in information and that's why we are thinking of using CrimePad. It helps get them away from essentially being accountants at the scene and having to worry about where's my form, where's my clipboard, is my pen out of ink, do we call this number one or number two? Are we calling this the front room or the living room? All those little decisions, you want to push those to rote activity with accuracy so they can be there and think. A product like CrimePad has the potential to help the scientists to use their brain. That's their number one tool.”

A number of units in Houck’s lab are evaluating CrimePad in a training format and he will probably seek grants to fund more extensive field testing. “We've got facilities here in the laboratory that which we can use to mock up controlled scenes,” he says. “The Metropolitan police has the tactical village, which is about four or five city blocks of a controlled warehouse environment that mimics external situations so they can do breaches, they can do hostage situations, they can do a wide variety of policing training, but we could also take the CrimePad over there in a more realistic setting but still controlled.”

Calling In The Experts

Crime Scene investigation and forensic science are increasingly complex and high-tech affairs. That comes with its own problems. “The O.J. Simpson case pointed out deficiencies in how police work crime scenes," says Homeyer “and largely the case collapsed because they didn't handle the evidence correctly. They didn't take advantage of everything because they are asked to wear 10 different hats, and now because of the advances in science that gap is even greater.”

“Policing is a complicated, technical, and demanding profession,” adds Houck. “So is science. And asking one person to do both is like saying my neurosurgeon should also be my dentist.”

Despite this most smaller CSI teams still consist of police officers who are not experts in how to handle every type of evidence, whether that evidence is questioned documents (anything from a damaged suicide note to electronic documents like caller ID), paint traces, or firearm evidence.

For this reason CrimePad is adding a feature which will allow investigators at a scene to call on remote experts in real time. Instead of the consultation with an expert happening at the lab, it can happen at the scene itself, allowing evidence which would otherwise be overlooked or impossible to retrieve to be collected. Using remote experts also means having fewer people at the scene itself, reducing the possibility of contamination.

Homeyer’s cofounder Gurvis already trains and certifies the (non-homicidal) Dexters of the world in blood spatter analysis. Visionations is developing a set of criteria to rate the skill sets and capabilities of experts in blood spatter and other specialities to ensure that they would be accepted as such in court. The company plans to introduce access to experts into their SaaS offering.

Moving To Real Time

CrimePad has already been used by CSIs to share relevant information from the crime scene with criminal investigators in real time. A lead is any piece of information on which action should be taken to further the investigation such as a witness or suspect to locate, a vehicle check, address check, or weapons check. One CrimePad customer had a police officer at a complex crime scene dedicated to recording leads in Excel sheets and then calling the criminal investigators on the radio to go through them. The company built leads into the product so that CSIs can now share them directly.

Houck is less convinced about the merits of real-time sharing. “I'm not sure that real time is actually what we want,” he says. “What you want is actionable, valid information in as timely a fashion as possible. Any one scene might throw up five or six different individuals. Do you really want the police chasing all of those down? That might be a waste of their time. You can't collect everything and then dump it on the lab and say sort it out. That's how you get backlogs, which is one of the things that plagues crime labs across the country. What you want to be able to do is take all the noise of crime scene and turn it into usable signal.”

Currently, it can take days to identify even a simple fingerprint, so the ultimate aim for CrimePad is real-time analysis of evidence performed at the scene itself and linked to various police systems and databases.“There's a lot of science which can happen at a crime scene if you have people who are trained to do it," says Houck.

“We know there are opportunities emerging that we could take advantage of pretty much today to give the investigators the information almost real time as the evidence is being collected,” says Homeyer. “There's DNA technology on a chip. You see some of the technologies which could be integrated with sampling and testing results, connecting to national databases for both fingerprints and DNA, convicted offender databases, stand-off technology for detection of hazardous materials. That's just not done today.”

Given In Evidence

Ultimately, CSIs must produce evidence which is admissible in court so CrimePad’s founders have devised training materials covering not just the use of the application itself, but how to introduce the application into court. Since CrimePad was released in 2013, several cases in which it was used have gone through the court process, but the use of an iPad app for documenting evidence is still novel in most courtrooms.

“There's a reason police officers are slow to change something that works, something that has already been admitted into court,” says Homeyer. “We have to make sure that we lay that foundation so that when this does get to the courtroom, it too will be admitted into court. In large cases defense attorney's go after technicalities. It will get challenged. It's only a matter of time before a case is prominent enough that they go after every angle they can get and new technology is ripe for that.”

Houck is less concerned.” As long as you can show that it's accurate,” he says. “That we have complete documentation that wouldn't be any different from what we would do normally, or is even better, and that it's valid, it's trustworthy, I think it would be a pretty easy sell."

[Image: Flickr user Alan Cleaver]