Teleforensics
Written by Dale Garrison   

Teleforensics:
It has potential but needs some funding

USE OF COMMUNICATIONS and other advanced technology to transmit real-time data from a crime scene to remote locations may be one of the most under-utilized tools of modern law enforcement in the United States and around the world. Even though it is not used widely, it still has a name that most of us know: teleforensics.

Considering the dramatic advances in other technologies—ranging from DNA to satellite communications to miniaturization—the relative absence of more extensive teleforensics use is somewhat surprising.

That wasn’t always expected to be the case. As recently as 2005, several research and prototype projects were underway that seemed to promise the coming of a new forensics technology. But somewhere along the way, those projects fell by the side of the road. The common denominator in the lack of progress and subsequent application is largely the need for adequate funding. Ironically, much of the groundwork has been completed or at least started.

What is missing, however, is the research needed to launch a fledgling technology into the field.

Teleforensics is not science fiction

Several teleforensics advocates see the discipline’s potential as equal to that of DNA in the early 1990s. They argue that teleforensics

This Mobile Command Center was designed and manufactured by LDV, Inc. of Burlington, Wisconsin. The center’s main purpose is to interface audio and video functions for the Delaware State Police. The communications features in this center include flat-screen monitors capable of receiving satellite, closed-circuit video, and dual external video, as well as television broadcasts. A Sytech Interoperability System provides the ability to communicate with audio systems from other areas in the state. Microwave technology is used to receive video from the department’s helicopter. This is one kind of command-center technology that could be adapted for the needs of a teleforensics unit.

could allow the best forensic specialists to advise on a case in real time from just about anywhere in the world. With this technology, even small police departments could utilize the experience of qualified experts. Also, by capturing and documenting evidence that might otherwise be ignored or lost, teleforensics could help solve more crimes. Even with the use of relatively simple technology that already exists today, the better review of a crime scene is almost certain.

“Think about it,” says Peter Massey, interim director of the Henry Lee Institute of Forensic Science in New Haven, Connecticut. “You can have an investigator at a scene, connecting in real time to a transmission device that is sending key evidence to a forensic scientist or a qualified expert who is at another location. That person is instruct-ing the officer on the scene. He can say, ‘Hey, you should look over here,’ or, ‘Check that out.’ We do it with a Rover on Mars. They find something of interest and they get the Rover to that area and gather some soil and send results back and interpret it. The concept is there. It is just a matter of making it work for law enforcement.”

Michael Czerwinsky, who is now working with El Paso County (Texas) 911 District Board of Managers, was involved in several of the teleforensics research-and-development projects from 1999 through 2005. One effort was an attempt to develop precisely the kind of remote equipment that would allow a front-line officer, with some training, to act as the eyes and ears of more advanced forensic specialists who would be stationed at a remote location. Even using what today would be considered primitive cellphones and other equipment, Czerwinsky said the work was largely successful.

“We proved it worked,” Czerwinsky says today. “Considering what we had to work with in terms of technology, it was very promising.”

Real-world crime-scene investigation

In just one case, a single investigator on a murder scene transmitted real-time video to a group of officers and forensics experts at a remote location. The crime scene had been left relatively pristine by the perpetrator, but one of the off-site specialists saw something on the video that intrigued him. He asked the officer on location to zoom in to a particular spot—and the result was evidence that helped investigators develop a motive right there at the scene. As illustrated in the murder case, one of the biggest advantages with teleforensics protocol might be that you can visit a site with a limited number of personnel while still allowing an almost unlimited number of specialists to view the evidence that is at the scene. This “over the shoulder” expertise can obviously occur in real time, even permitting the viewers to tell the on-scene investigator to point a high-resolution video camera one way or the other.

“I think the true value of using this technology is even more valuable today,” Czerwinsky said. “You can have one guy on the scene and your crack investigators can be miles away looking at a monitor, even telling him to zoom in here or pan over there.”

Delayed review of the recorded material can be very useful, as well. Czerwinsky noted that some departments, especially small ones, often have just a limited number of specialists— and at some point, they must get some rest or even sleep. Video recordings can be reviewed after a department’s forensics specialist has caught some rest after a long day on other cases. Even in its basic form, crime-scene recordings are valuable—which is one reason this technology is among only a few related to teleforensics that are seeing widespread use.

“You only get one crack at a pristine crime scene,” Czerwinsky said. “This allows you to extend that.” Czerwinsky and the El Paso Police Department first began working in teleforensics as early as 1999. Like others in the field, he and the department were working with equipment that today would be considered primitive. “Advanced” technology of those days took the form of a 56Kbps modem that transmitted data at a speed slower than a snail when compared to even the consumer-level broadband that is available today. Other more recent advances include relatively easy encryption that is used to protect data during transmission; smaller, more user-friendly equipment for both the recording and the viewing of information; and a relatively affordable selection of technology ranging from handy geo-positioning devices to infrared photography.

Despite the limits of the available equipment, some of the early work was quite productive. The technology drew a lot of attention. Among the organizations researching teleforensics with the El Paso Police was the Border Research and Technology Center (BRTC); Sandia National Laboratories (SNL); and the Henry C. Lee Institute of Forensic Science at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. Other research-and-development projects involved the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Unfortunately, funding dried up for most of the large and smaller projects. Work in this field has essentially stood still for five years.

It might be of consolation to know that some of the work showed how even relatively affordable technology can work wonders. “You can now use off-the-shelf technology and employ encryption techniques so the media can’t get your signals,” Czerwinsky noted. “But you and I can understand the advantages that this technology offers. We can appreciate what it offers for the end user.”

Different perspectives from other research organizations

Research and development in the area of teleforensics began back in the 1990s and progressed at a reasonable pace until funding seemed to disappear. One interesting study by Dr. Jeffrey S. Schweitzer was funded by the NIJ and NASA. It involved the development of equipment to measure trace elements (such as gunpowder and bone chips) using X-ray fluoresence (XRF). This photo shows Sam Floyd of the Goddard Space Flight Center and the prototype—the small aluminum frame with the brass piece on top—in the laboratory. Testing was required to create a database that would prove the efficacy of the device—but funding was stopped.

A more abstract perspective of off-site investigation comes from Dr. Jeffrey S. Schweitzer, professor of physics at the University of Connecticut and a participant in a study that was funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and NASA. Where Czerwinksy’s work involved the use of technology not far removed from consumer products—including consumer-oriented prices—Schweitzer was involved in a team effort to develop systems that could be part of a Mars Exploration Rover.

An intriguing study included the development of equipment to measure trace elements using X-ray fluorescence (XRF). The idea was to use different energy emissions to determine the presence of different substances such as gunpowder, paint chips, or other trace evidence that potentially could be found at a crime scene. But like Czerwinsky’s projects, lack of funding ultimately became a roadblock to the project. Although developing the equipment was not easy, the real investment would have come in extensive testing to create a database of results from the new equipment. That database could then be used to quantify the results and validate the technology so that it would stand up in court.

“We took it far enough to develop a working prototype,” Schweitzer said. “Unfortunately, NIJ was not able to fund the key effort to develop a database so that we could have the high degree of reliability needed. It is the same problem encountered in any new area, like DNA. Until you could show that you could unambiguously say that there was something like one chance in 300 million, DNA was almost useless. That level of certainty only comes through testing—and we did not get that far.”

While this may sound like science that is useful only in a laboratory, the goal of the work done by Schweitzer’s team was the creation of a briefcase-sized device or mechanism that could perform highly detailed trace analysis at a crime scene, greatly expanding what could be detected and subsequently collected soon after a crime.

“The idea was that the device could go anywhere so you could collect data anywhere,” Schweitzer said. “Although the operators of the device would need training, they wouldn’t have to be your top forensics specialists. It would give you a way to have that specialist in two places at once and still have confidence that the evidence you were getting would stand up in court.”

Several relatively common devices that could play a role in teleforensics were examined in some of Schweitzer’s planning. “We gave a lot of thought to other technologies that could piggyback on this,” he said. “GPS devices for pinning down location, digital cameras—those are relatively widespread and people are using them all over now.”

Missed opportunities... or just opportunities delayed?

Like Czerwinsky, Schweitzer has sort of a bittersweet view of the unfinished development of teleforensics. He compares it to running 25 miles of a 26-mile marathon and then being forced to stop by the race organizers. Although he was disappointed in the ultimate lack of funding—especially compared to the relative abundance of work done in biological areas such as DNA, he did see several positive advances come from the work.

“If nothing else, we assembled a good group that will ultimately move forward,” he said. “And we also came up with some solutions that were used in other areas.”

At the Henry Lee Institute, Massey said the study targeted relatively large teleforensics systems such as a well-equipped forensic van that would have not only a portable laboratory but also equipment that could then be operated at a nearby crime scene, relaying the data back to the van. Work similar to this was done in a collaborative effort between New York and Massachusetts State Police.

It should be noted that supporters of teleforensics are not unsympathetic to budget issues. Nor do they discount the merits of the “human touch”—the on-the-scene technicians. “There are issues of cost with robotics,” Massey said. “And, you can ask whether you really are more sanitary than you are with a human who has the ability to change protective clothing. I think there are advantages, but you can see how budget issues would be affected by that.”

Despite an overall slow pace, some real-world use of the technology is in place. While not directly involving forensics, tactical teams regularly use video and other equipment to allow remote command of tactical personnel.

Czerwinsky, who developed several prototype systems, said this could easily be enhanced with greater application of even existing, off-the-shelf equipment. He also advocates greater use of similar applications for other public-safety uses, especially those involving fire suppression.

“Small cameras and small monitors are available today that can do a lot of this,” he said. “I’m surprised we do not see more of that. Police and fire officers make life-or-death decisions in an instant. A small video camera on a firefighter’s helmet and a handheld monitor at the command center could give everyone a lot more information.”

Schweitzer is also optimistic that the effort will be picked up. “There really is great potential with this,” he said. “There are huge opportunities in the field of trace evidence. There are so many areas where you could use it.”

Unfortunately, major steps will likely await major funding, probably by a government that for the present is short on funds for such efforts.

“The potential of teleforensics is huge,” Massey concluded. “Someone needs to step up to make the technology more widely known. A lot of these smaller agencies rely on the larger agencies to come in and assist them.”

A law-enforcement professional for 29 years, Czerwinsky may be the most impatient person you could talk to about this topic. He hopes he can contribute to another surge of research.

“We are moving forward, but it is pretty much baby steps,” Czerwinsky concluded. “I think the ideas we have already developed could really do a lot more to help the technology grow.”

About the Author

Dale Garrison is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to the magazine. He is based in Liberty, Missouri and can be reached by e-mail at: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it


ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED:
"Teleforensics," written by Dale Garrison
January-February 2009 (Volume 7, Number 1)
Evidence Technology Magazine
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