By Scott Harris, Freelance Writer
|Note: Police Chief magazine, from time-to-time, offers feature-length articles on products and services that are useful to law enforcement administrators. This article features forensics and investigation equipment and services.|
ake it fast. Make it inexpensive. Keep it simple. Those three tenets are driving much of the innovation around investigation and forensics tools.
Given dwindling budgets and capabilities in agencies around the country, law enforcement professionals—many of whom do not have extensive forensics training—are being asked to do more on their own and in the field, even as they are compelled to use resources more judiciously.
Device manufacturers and service providers, however, are responding to these and other needs with a raft of technologies that raise the bar for what can be done in the field, while lowering the threshold of knowledge one needs to use them.
“Products that come out of the laboratory need to be smaller and easier to use,” said Aaron Gagnon, director of product management for Smiths Detection, a threat-detection equipment maker. “It comes down to time. The world is operating at 1,000 miles per hour. Information spreads quickly. Doing more in the field puts more into the hands of scientists quicker. It’s all about time, and I see that
That is the essence of the new approach in forensics and investigation. No one is expecting police officers to double as scientists, but with smaller, easier-to-use tools in hand, they can be a faster and better conduit for information. This is particularly true when it comes to devices that help officers identify substances like narcotics or explosives. Some law enforcement agencies may feel stuck with devices that are difficult to use. This can lead to inaccurate results and slow down investigations.
Smiths, a British company with American offices in Maryland and Connecticut, has released the HazMatID Elite and SABRE 5000, both newer, sleeker generations of handheld devices that can detect and identify explosives, chemical warfare agents, toxic industrial materials, and narcotics in the field more quickly and more accurately.
“You have suspicious powders at the crime scene, and you need to get a very quick ID in the field instead of bagging it up and sending it to the lab,” Gagnon said. “This gives scientists more information. Instead of waiting hours or even days, it gives them something immediately.”
The latest SABRE model includes more of an ability to detect trace particles and vapor, thus expanding its range of substance identification. The SABRE 5000 can identify more than 40 threat substances in approximately 20 seconds.
The HazMatID Elite is Smiths’ newest iteration of a device using Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR), a common field-portable substance detection technique. HazMatID Elite is 10 times smaller and 4 times lighter than previous models, and personnel can train to use the system in under an hour—far less time than required for comparable equipment, particularly when considering that the device allows officers to identify tens of thousands of substances in real time.
“Whether you’re talking about C4, baking powder, or ammonium nitrate, all have their own fingerprints,” Gagnon said. “We have an onboard library containing more than 30,000 materials.”
According to Gagnon, the New Jersey State Police is among the agencies that have ordered the HazMatID Elite this year. In addition, Smiths also offers ReachBackID Support, a support service that gives users round-the-clock access to scientists dedicated to spectral interpretation, chemical classification, and hazardous materials.
Laboratory expertise is, of course, ultimately necessary. As a result, law enforcement and public safety agencies that face greater budget constraints are forced to outsource laboratory services when public laboratories lose funding. That can be an expensive proposition. It is a good thing, then, that field detection devices are increasingly sensitive. This can reduce the need for laboratory services, and provide scientists with a greater baseline of information, thus making their work more efficient.
Maryland-based RedXDefense offers the XCAT (Capillary Analysis Test)—a one-step detection of narcotics, explosives, and gunshot residue. The device is streamlined and cost-effective.
“There really hasn’t been a solution available to many agencies that they can afford. It can cost $15,000 or even $20,000 for a system,” said Christina Ellis, vice president of sales and marketing for RedXDefense. “That’s a good price for a laboratory, but it doesn’t always make sense for a police department. You’d rather buy a car with that.”2
According to Ellis, the XCAT prices out at around $1,895. The device can help fill the “capability gap” that exists as labs are downsized.
“It has multiple capacities. Most labs are discontinuing gunshot residue, so law enforcement would need to engage a private laboratory for $1,200,” Ellis said. “With XCAT, there is low opportunity for making a mistake. It’s more sensitive than what officers typically have. It’s down to micrograms instead of milligrams.”
The XCAT comes equipped with six different detection cards, each specially formulated to identify characteristics unique to a different category of substances that can be detected.
Despite these innovations for field work, outsourcing forensics work to external laboratories remains a common reality. As such, demands on those labs are going up. Utah’s Sorenson Forensics lab has responded by instituting new practices that help the work get done faster and more efficiently, without sacrificing quality. Their secret is Laboratory Lean Six Sigma, a set of organization and management processes based on those first championed by the business world, most notably Motorola. The concept generally focuses on eliminating waste by focusing resources entirely on efforts that create value for the end customer. According to Sorensen data, since implementing their approach in the lab, the number of cases the lab completes each month has skyrocketed by 505 percent.
|Motorola and Six Sigma|
In 1981, Motorola, a leading provider of mission-critical communication products and services for government customers, pioneered the quality program Six Sigma. Six Sigma improves the quality of process outputs by identifying and removing the causes of defects or errors and minimizing variability in the manufacturing and business processes. At Motorola, Six Sigma has evolved into DSS, a business improvement methodology that focuses on customer requirements, process alignment, analytical rigor, and timely execution—all using applied technology. Whereas these tools have been used traditionally in business, recent years have shown the benefit of applying them to the public safety sector.
Other laboratories and tools that can assist with forensics and investigation efforts include West Virginia firm Backbone Security’s Steganography Analysis and Research Center, which analyzes hidden meanings in physical or digital messages and other forms of encryption, and the Tarantula 2.0, a resource from California-based EDEC that has the ability to extract and analyze data from just about any Chinese-made cellphone.
Another key piece of investigation, of course, is surveillance. New York company ELSAG North America provides advanced Automatic License Plate Recognition Technology. The Trackstick from California-based Telespial Systems provides advanced GPS-based tracking tools.
One aspect of surveillance that is rapidly changing is video and audio recording. More and more, recording applies to the suspect and the law enforcement professional alike.
“The biggest change facing many law enforcement agencies is recording,” said Radhika Anand, senior manager of products and marketing at Arizona-based For The Record. “Not all states mandate that you record interviews, but more are moving toward that. For those that do it, it’s becoming digital. You want to not just record but find solutions to manage the content more easily.”3
This change is spurred in large part by a 2011 report released by the Better Government Association in Illinois and the Northwestern University Law School Center on Wrongful Conviction. The report, based on a seven-month investigation, revealed that, between 1989 and 2010, the state of Illinois wrongfully convicted 85 individuals, at a cost of $214 million and 926 total prison years for innocent persons. The report detailed several overlapping reasons for the wrongful convictions, but alleged police error or misconduct played a role in 66 of the 85 convictions, while alleged prosecutorial error and false confessions were reportedly involved in 44 and 33 of the cases, respectively.
“When you record something, you have tangible evidence,” Anand said. “There is a push from DAs to get things captured.”
The FTR Interrogator from For The Record enables officers to record any interview they choose, and an individual link to each interview allows easy access. According to Anand, the DVR option is a common recording tool, but can be harder to manage.
“Our technology allows you to save, share, and access specific parts of an interview more easily,” Anand said. “It’s as easy as accessing a web page and that makes for easy training.”
Also in the recording realm, Canada’s CVDS Inc. offers the ComLog, a line of devices that can record on as many as 192 channels and store up to 1 million hours of communications. The Georgia-based Documentation Services Group (DSG) provides recording technology for the workforce side, with voice-activated transcription services that eliminate the need for typing. In addition, DSG’s RODI Enterprise Software coordinates all of an agency’s audio and video sources (interview room video, in-car video, 9-1-1 tip lines, etc.) into one network. That means quicker correlations, connections, and, ultimately, case resolutions.
Certainly, as long as crimes take place in a tangible world, physical solutions will remain a key pillar of law enforcement. High-tech solutions play an ever-larger role, but there are some links in the chain that will always be of the brick-and-mortar variety.
For example, evidence lockers from Colorado-based DeBourgh Manufacturing Co. offer secure and tamper-resistant evidence storage before or after processing.
Doxtech, headquartered in Oregon, manufactures high-security containers for the collection, transport, and storage of specimens for drug testing, forensic evidence, food samples, and potable water samples. Doxtech comes with an irreverisble positive lock and label to prevent tampering. ♦
1Aaron Gagnon, phone interview with the author, June 28, 2013.
2Christina Ellis, phone interview with the author, July 1, 2013.
3Radhika Anand, phone interview with the author, June 28, 2013.
Please cite as:
Scott Harris, "Forensics and Investigation Tools Flourish in the Field," Product Feature, The Police Chief 80 (September 2013): 22–24.