Spherical Image Capture for Crime and Crash Scenes
Written by Hank Kula   


As a crime or crash scene investigator, how many times have you wished that?

In our quest for answers, we rush. Time quietly becomes our biggest adversary as we push to find an assailant quickly, open a highway sooner, and restore order.

Trevor DiMarco of L-Tron "OSCRs" a scene with an OSCR camera, tripod, and tablet during an active homicide investigation. Photo: Patrick St Clair

Our good intentions can result in details missed, evidence overlooked, scenes trampled, and cases compromised.

L-Tron Corporation's spherical imaging camera solution, OSCR360, grants our wish to go back-back to the scene, right in the middle of it-over and over again. Virtually bring other cops into your scene without trampling evidence. Zoom in on details. Let a judge see exactly why you need that warrant. Refresh a victim's memory or put a witness back at the scene.

Behind the Technology
The software was developed with the user and courtroom in mind, according to L-Tron's Director of Solutions, Trevor DiMarco. "We built this with input from law enforcement and prosecutors-their voices," DiMarco said. "It transforms how evidence is captured and presented."

OSCR360's camera operates remotely from a tablet, automatically stitches spherical images in a few seconds, and transmits them back to the operator for immediate viewing. Investigators or command officers outside the perimeter tape can now see inside a scene without compromising it. Included in the recorded data are GPS coordinates and the direction north.

With the ability to shoot high dynamic range (HDR) images, OSCR360 brings rapid digital 360-degree spherical photography to crime scenes and crash scenes. Its small size and footprint enables crime scene technicians to easily photograph open spaces as well as tight quarters. Users have discovered the camera brings new perspectives to areas like bathrooms, closets and vehicle interiors. When opened in OSCR's presentation software, viewers can "walk" to-and through-remote areas of a scene.

As if its images aren't convincing enough, each spherical shot "packages" other digital evidence. The desktop software packages DSLR images, documents, security or bodycam footage, and sound files into a simple, convincing presentation, putting the jury right in the thick of it.

"Imagine a clear playground ball," said DiMarco. "The inside of that sphere is your container for all your digital evidence…video, written reports, orders of protection, DSLR images, CAD diagrams, hand-drawn sketches…anything you can digitize you can embed inside the sphere for presentation."

OSCR360 in Action
DiMarco says camera setup and operation are so easy, even a kid can do it. He explained, "We tell police officers what OSCR is for, hand it to them, and each one sets up the camera and tablet and takes their first image in under five minutes. Without training."

Built on the latest hardware platforms, OSCR360 produces 360-degree imagery that police in New York State say enhances workflow in ways they're still uncovering.

Command staff reviews the 360-degree photos shot during an active homicide investigation. Photo: Patrick St Clair

Initially the Yates County Sheriff's Department thought it would use OSCR360 for crash reconstruction, but according to Deputy Pete Butler, the agency uses it on burglaries, grand larcenies, death investigations, motor-vehicle crashes, and recently, a search warrant on a methamphetamine lab.

As a department, Yates Country has increasingly integrated OSCR360 into its everyday casework. Butler said his agency has mirrored others who have used spherical photography, finding it complements existing technology and fits in with more and more of their workflow.

"Look at manpower. You're doing a reconstruction in the winter. Everybody is freezing. It's dangerous. Imagine using this," Butler said. "I can still do my total station, but I use OSCR in conjunction with that. Man, I got some nice images. I can walk right into the debris field and quick, get some shots before anything gets contaminated or compromised-and even afterwards, I can do it again."

Ease of use and relative low cost are the reasons why Butler's office chose OSCR360 over other imaging technology. As one of the agency's more experienced assets-a "retired" police officer with 37 years in law enforcement-Butler knew 360-degree imaging was the way to go in his rural southern-tier community.

Deputy Butler had used cylindrical (as opposed to spherical) panoramic imaging in a homicide case "back in the day" while working for the Rochester Police Department as a crime scene technician. That was more than a decade ago, back when printed film images were scanned into digital files and stitched individually.

He speaks highly of the latest spherical panoramic imaging technology. "This is a no-brainer," Butler said. "I can [virtually] walk through a crime scene with someone. I can take that into the courtroom and walk a jury through the scene. This is just so quick. The innovative side of it is a breath of fresh air. This takes care of some of your photography, overalls of the scene, and videography."

Courtroom Impact
Outside of Yates County, OSCR360 was recently used in death investigations with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Chautauqua County Sheriff's Office, and Seneca County Sheriff's Office, as well as homicide cases at the Greece Police Department and Monroe County Sheriff's Office. The presentation software has been used and accepted in grand juries and at trial.

OSCR360 drew heavy media attention in July 2017 when it was used to organize and present an overwhelming amount of evidence amassed in the Craig Rideout murder trial held in Rochester. The Monroe County District Attorney's Office used the images to give jurors interactive visual references to better understand evidence locations in the prosecutor's closing argument.

OSCR360 presentation software plants "points of interest" (POIs), onto a map. When clicked, POIs reveal the embedded digital evidence a prosecutor wants the judge or jury to see next. Once a project is constructed, the software user can produce a simple presentation for the prosecutor to present.

"The presentation in the Rideout trial visually walked jurors through portions of the case, consolidating crime scene images and surveillance footage in a comprehensive format," DiMarco said.

At the conclusion of the trial, Craig Rideout's ex-wife and one of his sons were convicted of second-degree murder and tampering with evidence. A second son was convicted of two counts of tampering with evidence.

In October 2016, a similar presentation was used in Rochester to prosecute and convict a sixth defendant of second-degree murder in the 2014 shooting of Jamall Chester. The jury was able to watch and listen to evidence simultaneously, providing clarity in the case, according to the prosecutor.

The OSCR360 desktop presentation software, OSCR camera, and DXTR sensor tube. Photo: Patrick St Clair

Uncovering New Merits
As OSCR360's presence grows, so do the ideas for its use.

Brighton Police Department Investigator Tim Karch said when members of his agency first saw OSCR360, they immediately wanted to use it to organize evidence in open cases. Spherical images as containers for evidence intrigued them. Karch's tech unit went back and re-photographed the scene of an open case to organize the investigation in an entirely different manner.

"We shot from the corners of each room. We went around large furniture so there weren't any voids. All the areas were covered," Karch said. "I loved it for the bathroom-small spaces. Before, trying with our regular camera, you'd have to cram yourself into their tiny bathroom and try and get an angle where you're not in the mirror, you're not getting the flash bounce or anything like that. With OSCR you just set the camera up out of the way and you get the entire bathroom. And you don't even have to be in it. It's awesome."

Karch sees Brighton Police going back in time by embedding scans of film evidence in cold cases that predate digital photography. "We can go back and re-shoot an entire scene as it exists today, so if we are able to bring charges forward in the future, we can walk someone virtually through the scene."

Taking yesterday's evidence and incorporating it into today's data-driven environment creates a historical crime scene juxtaposition. Think resolved cases repurposed as presentations for investigations and forensic training. "Things were done differently back then," Karch said. "It's interesting to go through the pictures and compare with today."

Brighton Police Department is one of OSCR360's early adopters. Photo: Hank Kula

An Everyday Tool
Like the Yates County Sheriff's Office, the Brighton Police Department discovered OSCR360 isn't just for major cases. The agency's specific protocol remains under review as the equipment is kept charged and available for on-duty technicians to make case-by-case decisions on its use.

Karch believes OSCR360 may eliminate the need for processing and post-scene processing overall photographs, as well as video-citing the hard-to-watch, unsteady nature of handheld camera work.

"I was thinking 'Why am I taking overalls when I can just use OSCR?' Taking overall still shots just duplicates what I'm doing with OSCR," Karch said.

In fact, Karch can see a time when his agency will use OSCR360 for most any matter.

"Will it ever become a 'use on everything you break a conventional camera out' on?" he questioned.

"I can see that happening down the road, absolutely," he said. "I can see that happening for most things: unattended deaths, drug overdoses, burglaries, crashes where we'd normally take pictures anyway… or any other scenario you'd think 360s might be helpful.

"But for the bigger things - I could see it absolutely becoming the requirement."

Both agencies are working through specific workflow considerations. Where Brighton has OSCR360 available to all eight of its technicians, Yates County currently limits its use to investigators.

"Initially, we were going to use it just on major cases, but when we saw the ease and the flow of the work and how it could be utilized, it opened the door so there was no reason not to use it for most anything," Butler said. "Particularly if it involves a felony or something that is hard to explain."

Butler is cautious when it comes to widespread use within his department, due to his protective nature of the equipment. "For now, we limit the hands we have on it. I'd be more open to saying 'use it for whatever you want, as long as you treat it with care,'" he said. "I want to see it out there being utilized."

Butler is one of OSCR360's biggest cheerleaders. When asked if he'd recommend it to other agencies, his excitement gets the best of him. "I already have!" he said. "I highly recommend it. I just see it for what it is. It's a good product."

The OSCR360 capture kit includes the carrying case, OSCR tablet, OSCR camera, DXSTR sensor tube, charging cables, tripod, and a rain tube. Photo: Patrick St Clair

Law Enforcement Advocates
Karch and Butler's enthusiasm for OSCR not only leads to other police agencies requesting demos, but even requests to L-Tron Corporation to bring the gear to active scenes. The real satisfaction in bringing OSCR360 directly to the field, according to L-Tron's Chief Operating Officer, Gayle DeRose, is simply being able to help.

"As a company — and, more importantly, as people who actively advocate for law enforcement officers — anything we can do to put technology in the hands of those who need it most is our priority and passion," DeRose said.

Among requesters are tech-savvy departments always under budgetary pressure. Police agencies have been generous with time and personnel to beta test OSCR360, which has led to improvements in operation of the capture unit and tweaks to the presentation software. That includes helping L-Tron bring its photographic solution to law enforcement economically, according to DeRose.

"We can say OSCR360 has been built with the voice of law enforcement-police officers, forensic personnel, and prosecuting attorneys," said DeRose. "That continues as use spreads."

L-Tron has added two retired police sergeants and a sheriff's deputy to its support staff in the past year, all three trained in forensics and crash reconstruction.

DeRose is quick to point out the information value of an image that captures everything. The camera/capture unit is only half of the solution's equation. Bringing a crime scene virtually into the courtroom speaks volumes to a visuals-based society.

"It goes beyond the 'a picture is worth a thousand words' expression," she said. "OSCR360 integrates multiple visual data points within singular spherical photographs. It not only organizes the facts of a case in an intuitive way, it connects with people in an interactive environment. It has a huge impact."

Practical Advice from Users
Fresh solutions and ideas come out of real-world issues, said DiMarco, who has an engineering background. "Police officers are pragmatists and quick to come up with fixes," he said. "We love the fact that users are so excited about it, they're willing to share their ideas."

In addition to fixes like sandbags on the legs of the tripod to prevent the camera from being blown over in the wind, users have recommended tweaks to the presentation software. At crash scenes, the user should put distance between the gear and radio frequency equipment like GPS locators, computers, radios, cell phones, radar, and VPN whenever possible to avoid radio frequency interference (RFI).

OSCR360 can be mounted on virtually any standard tripod and, to keep officers safe, one of the options L-Tron recommends is the carbon fiber 27.5-foot mast, which is useful at crash scenes for aerial views.

A 27.5-foot carbon fiber mega-mast allows for aerial photos, specifically aiding in crash reconstruction, and eliminates the need for a drone. Photo: Patrick St Clair

Back on the ground, Brighton's Karch found that for tight quarters, placement on tables, or attachment to objects, Joby's Gorillapod has worked well.

Karch also noted that as simple as it is to use, there's an on-scene practical learning curve. Because OSCR360 captures everything it can see, technicians need to remind themselves, and others, to get out of view if possible.

L-Tron plans a secure user group for customers to share ideas and challenges between colleagues and OSCR360 developers. The group will be administered by the retired police officers on L-Tron's staff, according to DeRose.

Down the Road
Not only was OSCR360 conceived from the voice of law enforcement, it is also the photographic and digital evidence solution's future. For instance, prospective users typically inquire about measurement capability but L-Tron's DiMarco said OSCR360's purpose is strictly photograph capture and presentation. For now.

"We recognized from the beginning that location and direction were important to the law enforcement community, and that's one of the reasons we developed the sensor tube the camera sits on," he said. "The sensor tube sends GPS coordinates and cardinal direction to OSCR, which is recorded into the metadata of each picture."

DiMarco added, "GPS is state-of-the-art in mapping, so we started from the bird's eye perspective with that, and cardinal direction, keeping the final product-courtroom presentation-in mind."

What continues to resonate with L-Tron's development team is something that comes up when speaking with police officers at nearly every demo: the courtroom standard, "fair and accurate representation of the scene the way you found it." To that end, OSCR360 has been tested in the courtroom, met the standard, and has been accepted repeatedly.

"We continue to look at adding functionality based on suggestions from users. We're happy users find OSCR makes processing a scene easier and more effective when used hand-in-hand with other technologies, DiMarco said. "Capturing the entire scene quickly, being able to go back to it over and over again is huge. Placing the evidence immediately into the hands of investigators, victims, and witnesses and bringing it into the courtroom for accuracy and understanding all promote justice."

"And isn't that what it's all about?"

About the Author
Hank Kula is a member of the L-Tron Training and Education Team and works as Law Enforcement Support.

For More Information
L-Tron Corporation has worked for more than 17 years with law enforcement, public safety, and government agencies. The company's solutions are deployed across 2,000 municipalities in 48 states nationwide. To learn more about OSCR360, visit: https://www.l-tron.com/oscr360

This article appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.

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