Crime Scene Processing Apps

They are everywhere: On television commercials, in your kid’s backpack, at industry tradeshows, and probably on your desk. Since the introduction of the Apple iPad tablet device in April 2010, a number of other manufacturers have released their own interpretation of a sleek, handheld computer that you interact with through a series of multi-touch gestures on a smooth piece of glass. They are word processors, calendars, sketchpads, digital cameras, video recorders, and dictation devices all wrapped into one tiny package. Tablets are everywhere because, it seems, they can do anything.


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But can they do crime scenes?

That is precisely the question Dr. Edgard Espinoza asked about one year ago. Espinoza is deputy director of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Forensic Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon. Federal agents with the USFWS—like all other federal agents except those with the FBI—are trained at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia. This training includes a one-week long session on crime scene response.

The kind of crime scene that federal agents with the USFWS respond to can be significantly different from a “typical” crime scene involving a homicide or burglary. That’s because the cases these agents deal with are crimes against wildlife. Crime scenes are often out in the middle of the wilderness. They can cover very large areas, as in the case of oil spills or widespread poaching incidents. Some-times it is unclear whether the “crime” was even perpetrated by a human or by an animal predator attacking its natural prey. And, often, only a single agent—or a pair of agents—encounters the crime scene initially.

When Espinoza looked at the capabilities of this latest generation of tablet devices, he saw the potential to apply them to some of these issues that USFWS agents deal with on a regular basis.

 

MobileCSI Pro by Siamese Systems Inc.
MobileCSI Pro records case information, notes, evidence information, photographs, and allows mapping of the scene using drag-and-drop objects and tools. It also includes tips and reminders for proper collection and preservation of evidence.
Platforms: Blackberry PlayBook, Android (tablets), iPad
Release Date: Nov. 2012
Price:
Enterprise licensing model

 

CrimePad by Visionations
CrimePad is a professional-grade solution that covers the documentation of all activity performed at a crime scene, including access, techniques performed, evidence collected, photos, sketches, notes, and interviews.
Platforms: iPad; versions planned for Android and Windows 8
Release Date: around Jan. 2013
Price:
est. $199

 

iCrime Fighter LE by At-Scene, LLC
iCrime Fighter is an evidence-gathering application, including documentation with photographs, video, audio, and field notes.
Platforms: iPhone, iPad, Android (phones and tablets)
Release Date: Dec. 2012
Price:
Free for download; licensing pricing dependent on number of users and package selected

Pocket CSI by Law Enforcement Training Group
Pocket CSI features include audio notes, caliper, level, DOA notes, and document references; calculators for skidmark/yaw calculations and bloodspatter angle; capture of scaled and pre-scaled videos and photographs; and field-contact report and audio recorder.
Platforms: iPhone, iPad, Android (phones and tablets)
Release Date: New version Dec. 2012
Price: $109 - $139 (pricing dependent on number of licenses)

“Because our agents are often working alone (or sometimes with one partner), we needed a way to make it easier,” said Espinoza. “Typical best practices for processing crime scenes always talk about teams of people. When we teach the crime scene class to our agents, we have a group of five people who go out and do a crime scene. One person does the perimeter. One person does the walkthrough and puts down placards. Another person goes through and starts photo-graphing wherever there’s a numbered placard—doing a far away, medium, and close-up shot. And then another person does the collection.

“It’s a process. And we teach the process with five people doing it, because that’s the easiest way to teach it,” continued Espinoza. “But the bottom line is, when you arrive at the crime scene, most of the time you only have one or two people, and you think, Now what do I do?”

In addition to working solo or in pairs, USFWS agents may only periodically have the opportunity to work a crime scene. Espinoza said it’s not unusual for confusion to creep in. “Am I supposed to dry the evidence before I put it into paper? Am I supposed to freeze it?” he said. “They forget those details.”

The tablets had the potential to change all that. “Suddenly there was a vision that a lot of the problems we are encountering with some frequency could be solved with these mobile apps,” said Espinoza. “We could use this tool to not only document the scene but also to map the scene, to make notes about each evidence item we collect—and, in addition, when we’re done with the scene, have the app print out A) the chain of custody, B) the whole document of what was recorded, and C) if we are going to a suspect’s house and receiving evidence, we can print out the property receipt form that has to stay there after the case is done.”

Initially, Espinoza went shopping for a ready-made app that would realize this vision of using a tablet device to manage the processing of a crime scene. At that time, he found apps that do crime scene mapping. He found apps that do photography. “But I couldn’t find any that did crime scene processing, documentation, annotation—in addition to having a cheat sheet of what to do, for example, when you have liquid blood versus dried blood. I couldn’t find one that had those pieces that I thought were essential to make a friendly, useful tool for an agent.”

So, Espinoza’s next step was to work with an app developer who already had one essential piece of the puzzle established—photography and annotation—to create a turnkey solution for crime scene use.

Development and testing took about six months. Particular attention was given to building the app around the best practices outlined in the National Institute of Justice’s Guide for General Crime Scene Investigation. The result is an all-in-one tablet app that simply makes processing a crime scene easier. The USFWS is currently using the app on a Blackberry Play-book tablet, but versions for Android and iOS devices are also available.

“The reason I prefer it is because I don’t need to be carrying a bunch of extra equipment,” said Espinoza. “Typically, if you’re doing it by the book, you have a camera on one side. In some cases you have video on the other. You have a notebook to annotate all the stuff you’re dealing with, then your crime scene bag that has your placards and all the other stuff you have to deal with. And as soon as you reach down to pick something up, things fall out of your pocket and your camera smashes against the video recorder… I like the fact that with this little tablet, I don’t need to have all that other stuff.”

The introduction of the tablet app to USFWS agents has elicited the usual mixed response: some love it, some hate it. Espinoza said he, for one, loves it. “I have done plenty of crime scenes in my time,” he said. “We created a test crime scene in the back of our lab with about 12 items. And doing it the old-fashioned way would probably have taken between four and five hours because of the documentation requirements—and that’s for me, an experienced agent, knowing what to do. With the tablet, I think I was done in roughly 45 minutes. And I was super pleased with it.”

The technology does come with limitations, however—primarily with the hardware, not the software.

First, an app with so many functions to collect all of the information needed to process a crime scene (the photographs, photo logs, evidence logs, maps, etc.) demands a large amount of memory and hard-drive space. Working with the Blackberry PlayBook, equipped with 1 GB of RAM, Espinoza said the speed of the app diminishes as more and more data is collected. The majority of the top-of-the-line tablets available on the market currently have 1 GB of RAM, so one would presume that this limitation will persist until tablet manufacturers increase their offerings in the memory department.

Second, most of the tablets currently specify a 5 megapixel built-in camera. The quality of those resulting images is adequate “if you’re going to testify to ‘this is what I saw’—but they’re not really great for the few times in which the photograph itself is the evidence item.” Such instances would include fingerprints, tire tracks, footwear impressions, or any other situation where a 1:1 image will be required for a forensic examination.

“Sometimes you simply need professional photography equipment,” said Espinoza. “But, in all fairness, in those cases, a USFWS agent rarely has the expertise to document that evidence correctly. That is when the agent would have a crime scene unit respond to provide assistance.”

In addition to the relatively small size of the camera sensor on the tablets, most—such as the Blackberry PlayBook and Apple iPad—do not include a built-in flash. So, without an external light source, photography is only possible in the daylight.

Finally, security may be a concern when using tablets in the field, specifically when it comes to transfer of data. The app utilized by the USFWS creates a locked Adobe PDF document that can be emailed or uploaded to the agency’s cloud via Wi-Fi. “At the most basic level, the PDF is coming off the device sealed so that it cannot be easily manipulated,” said Espinoza. “You know and I know that if you’re clever enough, you can manipulate anything. It’s one of those extraordinary cases of this could happen, but how probable is it…?”

Another security concern could be loss of the tablet device. “If you lost your tablet, would you lose your data? Well, all of the evidence gets transferred to your desktop as soon as you are in a location where you can email or upload via Wi-Fi. Then it’s on your secure desktop. And, of course, the tablet has a password, as well.”

One might also raise concerns regarding the possible interception of data, for example, on an unsecured network. “Yes, that would be a security risk,” said Espinoza. “Which is why policies should be made to say that the transfer of this information can only happen within devices that are secured in some manner. That would be for the IT people to develop.”

Hardware and security concerns, Espinoza suggested, are evidence of the cutting-edge nature of using these tablet devices in the field. Early adopters are the ones who naturally endure the tedium of experimentation
—discovering problems and subsequently working to create solutions. “The early adopters are going to show us where the problems are, and then the late adopters are going to come into fully mature applications.”

Espinoza added that the benefits of this technology outweigh the limitations. And, in the real world of crime scene processing, no situation is ideal.

“At a crime scene, you’re always dealing with the issues of timeliness. The weather. Agency budget… All of these things are real,” he said. “You are always trying to find that sweet spot, where accuracy and efficiency of collection are optimized to allow you to reconstruct that scene in the future. And that all depends on this one moment. It’s a one-shot deal in history.”

About the Author

This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it is the editor of Evidence Technology Magazine.

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