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Data Technology Changes the Face of On-Site Criminal Investigations

April 1999
By Michelle L. Hankins

Developers offer specialized systems for law enforcement that provide increased capabilities in evidence collection.

New data collection technology can provide a virtual image of a crime scene to give a visual representation of the scenario in criminal cases. This technology, which uses a pen-based computer, is being developed with input from law enforcement communities to help investigators and officers in the field.

The system, called Orasis, representing the Greek terminology for vision or sight, can be customized to assist in re-creating a crime scene. With its existing capabilities, Orasis offers law enforcement agencies an accurate picture of crime scenes. Developers hope the product will provide an advantage to officers in the field and also aid in investigations by linking them to a base command.

For law enforcement agencies, accurate data retrieval at a crime scene is crucial. Officials cite a need for specialized technology to ensure that evidence is collected efficiently at the crime scene and tracked as it is used throughout litigation proceedings. Experts point to the O.J. Simpson case and the JonBenet Ramsey incident as just two examples of situations where crime analysis technology would have been useful.

All levels of state, local and federal investigative organizations can benefit from the technology, which enhances accuracy, reduces evidence processing time, and incorporates images, audio and text into one system, its developers say. The system can provide cost and time savings that result in a dramatic return on investment. With customizable features such as a remote communication capability, data can be transferred from a crime scene to a central command into a database or onto a desktop computer for further use. And options, such as global positioning system capability, can assist a dispatcher when directing officers to the location of a crime scene.

Orasis is part of an effort by the federal government to spur crime mapping technology. In what is known as ScenePro, government and industry are teaming in a national crime scene computer project to create an effective tool for law enforcement. ScenePro represents a commercial venture by Nichols Research Corporation, headquartered in Huntsville, Alabama, and developed in cooperation with the Energy Department’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, Washington. With knowledge of the law enforcement community, the National Forensic Science Technology Center, St. Petersburg, Florida, is acting as a functional consultant on the project as testing is being conducted.

Three years ago, the Energy Department funded laboratory work to develop a multimedia data collection and capture device. The department sought customized software that included voice capture software, digital video, global positioning system and near-real-time communications capabilities. It specified that both the hardware and software for the system must be commercial off-the-shelf technology. So, the laboratory set out to find such existing technology in a project that was then called Team Leader.

Originally, designs for the law enforcement tool included an eyepiece that would give the user sole sight of the information being entered into the system.  Designers imagined this head-mounted display would give officers the privacy and security that might be needed at the crime scene. However, after consulting with the police community, developers learned that, for officers in the field, this type of system was not practical or convenient. Instead, project administrators saw the need for a pen-based system without an eyepiece. Orasis offered the ScenePro project as a solution.

First announced in the fall of 1997 by Dauphin Technology Incorporated, Palatine, Illinois, Orasis is a fully capable handheld Pentium computer with a microprocessor upgradeable from 166 megahertz to 266 megahertz. This system operates in Windows 95, 98 or NT environments with a 2.1- to 4.3-gigabyte hard drive. The standard system includes an electromagnetic pen, two lithium ion battery packs that sustain three hours of use, and two Type II or one Type III Personal Computer Memory Card International Association, or PCMCIA, slots. The system also includes an internal microphone and speaker, extended data out (EDO) or synchronous dynamic random access memory (SDRAM), and 2-megabyte video memory. Optional upgrades include a video camera and digital video disc as well as compact disc-read only memory, 3.5-inch floppy disk drive and integrated wireless local area network expansion bays. The computer is year 2000 compliant and can include capabilities such as cellular digital packet data, which gives the user a real-time connection via the Internet or local host and offers a transparent connection to the server.

“It basically has all the features of your personal computer, but in a 4.5-pound package,” Les Veres, vertical markets manager for government at Dauphin Technology Incorporated says. Veres believes Orasis can be used with specialized software to serve as an “extension of the toolchest” for law enforcement agencies.

Having customized the Orasis system with software and optional features to suit the needs of the law enforcement community, Nichols and the Pacific laboratory remain in contact with two local law enforcement jurisdictions to gather insight about the communities’ needs. Developers have been working with the Baltimore City Police Department and the Los Angeles Sheriffs Office to build the product, slated for testing this spring.

Dan Irwin, research scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, believes the computer system is ideal for medium-sized agencies, such as the Los Angeles or Baltimore sites, or for areas like Raleigh, North Carolina. Irwin is product manager of the ScenePro effort at the laboratory.

Characterizing the system during its development, Irwin notes that several of the original capabilities envisioned for the product in law enforcement use have been left out. For now, the ScenePro project leaders have focused on the importance and benefits of having documentation at the user’s fingertips, such as standard forms that would ordinarily be completed on paper and entered into a system later. Users also benefit from on-line help and instruction features that investigators can refer to while combing a crime scene for evidence. Electronic instructions and on-line help functions ensure that the correct procedure is followed while handling or submitting evidence.

Voice recognition technology is also being used as part of the system, while a laser-mapping component will allow officers to map out a room with a laser range finder to build and re-create a crime scene. This information is placed electronically in a dimensionally correct rendition of the area. The idea is that an officer can electronically re-create a crime scene with icons or images representing key objects or people at the scene. If the user activates the icons, digital images, notes, text or voice files, further information could be accessed. Files could also be kept of evidence as it is tagged with a barcode scanner to ensure proper chain of custody of the material. These files, Irwin notes, could be used from the crime scene to the courtroom as officials gather and rely on evidence in a case.

In the future, additional technology could expand the visibility of evidence in the courtroom based on the information gathered by the machine on site, according to Irwin. Attorneys often develop animation to show a jury the crime scene, but this expanded capability to display the information from the ScenePro system could assist lawyers in the courtroom by presenting real data rather than just animation. This is significant because sometimes a visual representation of the site can persuade jury members to one side of a story since they actually see an image of the scene.

Other capabilities that have been intentionally excluded from the system are integrated global positioning system and communications features. While developers of the project may add these later, issues such as encryption procedures for private communications between a remote site and a central command database still must be addressed. Currently, the computer, software, camera, barcode scanner and vest compose the system. All information that is gathered at the crime scene can be uploaded to a desktop computer or database, or output to a printer.

Already, the system’s developers are realizing its benefits to law enforcement agencies across the nation. Veres notes the system’s potential for saving time. It is more efficient and can reduce paperwork, eliminating redundancy. The digital transfer of information and the global positioning system capability that can be added also offer great benefits in housing and tracking information, according to Veres. The system can “significantly speed up the amount of time in which one can process a crime scene, but in doing that, it will not sacrifice the fidelity of the data,” Irwin says.

Systems like the one developed in the ScenePro project are proving useful for a variety of applications. “As we demonstrated the system, it became obvious there were a number of other uses,” Irwin relates. For the Energy Department alone, the system could be used in environmental or search and rescue missions. One Florida gas company is also using Orasis to view electronic maps instead of producing paper maps for field distribution, resulting in an average time savings of two hours a day. Now, electronic versions of the maps can be accessed by computer disc-read only memory through the system.

This additional time savings translates into financial savings as well. Orasis is being used by Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) personnel in multifamily housing inspections. The inspections consist of a physical on-site examination of MSHDA properties that include almost 50,000 apartment units that must be scrutinized every year. Because these premises must be in compliance with housing quality standards, regular inspections are required to determine the habitability of the property.

Although the state housing authority has been using this type of system on site for some time, MSHDA included Orasis in its upgrades in January. Officials at the agency have recognized the true return on investment that the product offers. With standardized forms and easy data transfer from the inspection site to the home computer, authorities are saving money that previously was entangled in vast amounts of paperwork and labor hours.

In many applications, pen-based computers with extensive options for transferring data between a small mobile unit and a home site are increasingly becoming a practical solution for users in the field who must bring information back to a central data collection site. For law enforcement communities, the capabilities are now being tested, but developers hope that the system will increase accuracy and efficiency in a practical solution for the on-site user.