Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Pencils to Processors, Part 1

Data Collection at Crime Scenes

Part One “Living in the Past”



“Crime scene investigation, or forensic science, involves the group effort of a team of professionals who study the scene of a crime. It takes many individuals who apply a wide range of specific sciences upon every aspect of the scene to complete this investigation. Investigators collect and study evidence such as fingerprints, biologicals like body fluids or skin cells, and ballistics (trajectory dynamics). The earliest forms of forensic science date back to prehistoric times."

Modern crime scene investigation advanced rapidly through the late 1900s and the early 2000s. Using the solid foundation developed over thousands of years of forensic investigation, modern forensics built upon these technologies and expanded their application to include computer forensics, DNA forensics, entomological (insect) forensics and enhanced biological studies”. (Taylor, 2012)

The Mission Space

A crime will more often than not consist of multiple crime scenes.  Consider that an act of domestic violence can start outside of a residence and move to a room or rooms within the residence. Though the “scenes” themselves are contiguous, they can be and often are treated individually.  The more cliché example of a bank robbery could be even more complex.  The February 1997 North Hollywood shootout was an armed confrontation between two heavily armed bank robbers and officers of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in the North Hollywood district of Los Angeles.  This crime could be described as being multiple scenes over a six block area to include the bank’s ATM lobby, teller and vault areas, the initial LAPD response at Laurel Canyon, the getaway vehicle, the scene of the Phillips suicide, and many others.  

A crime scene can be defined from macroscopic and microscopic points of view.  The macroscopic view focuses on crime scenes within a crime scene in the manner of previously mentioned examples.  The microscopic view culminates in the aggregation of individual physical elements relating the crime.  Every case investigated can contain multiple macro and microscopic scenes.  The interrelations between these definitions must all be considered as each has the potential to yield information critical to the investigation and eventual prosecutorial effort.  (Lee, Palmbach, & Miller, 2001)

The Challenge

When looking at the construct of a crime scene the one universal constant is its complexity.  So why is the primary methodology of crime scene investigation still reliant on the pencil and yellow legal pad as the tool of choice?   Every law enforcement agency has a formal procedure for the method by which written documentation is recorded and used.  The primary goal of this exercise is the accurate recording of the information with an eye on the future information sharing requirements of the case and/or future potentially related cases.  The Miami Dade Police Department Crime Scene Investigations unit uses a narrative section divided into five categories.  These categories are summary, scene, processing, and evidence collected, and pending.  Miami Dade Investigator Mike Byrd relates a recent request illustrating the importance of complete, detailed, and accurate recording of investigative information: 

 “Recently I was asked to give an opinion on the crime scene portion of a cold case investigation which had occurred more than 20 years earlier. I agreed to take a look at everything to give my interpretation of the crime scene from the work product. So the reports and pictures were ordered from the original files.
When the items came in the mail the report consisted of a one page, one paragraph narrative. The scene photographs consisted of several overall prospective of a wooded area. I could be of no assistance to my fellow colleague. But the experience best illustrates how important it is to properly use the tools at hand. We are brought in to assist in the beginning stages of an investigation when very limited information is known. We should realize that our work product may need to be viewed extensively by someone years from now for interpretation.”  (Byrd, 2010-2012).

Why we still relay on century old tools to support investigations with twenty first century expectations with regard to accuracy, detail, and recall is indicative of a traditional institution still clinging to the familiarity and perceived reliability of past methods while still operating in a contemporary society. So why is this attitude prevalent?  One could argue that these are time honored traditions with a proven track record.  Modern forensics goes back centuries.  Generally speaking the first modern forensic science publication detailing an investigative technique is attributed to by Tz'u Sung.  His thirteenth century text, “Hsi Duan Yu” (the Washing Away of Wrong) was written in 1248 AD. It detailed a process of distinguishing drowning from strangulation, portions of which are still used today. (Sung, 1248, 1981)  It has been the introduction of digital forensics, digital still and video, and the leap forward in DNA evidence thanks to the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) technology invented by Nobel prize winner Kary Mullis that has become the tip of the investigative spear.

Current Choices?

The use of computers in crime scene analysis and forensic investigation has been a growing phenomenon over the last twenty years.  However the use of computers at a crime scene is not as widespread as you may come to expect in this day and age.  Crime scene utilization of a tool most Americans accept as commonplace is largely restricted to the gathering and processing of digital evidence, the area some investigators refer to as the “crime scene within the crime scene”.  This additional dimension, if you will, is focused on the information that can be gleaned from a computer when it is treated as evidence.  A computer itself is, typically, only one piece of physical evidence, but it can be processed to identify thousands of pieces of digital evidence and each piece of digital evidence can be analyzed to identify ownership, location, and timing. (Carrier & Spafford, 2003) 

With increasing expectations with regard to documentation what are the options?  Law enforcement departments in two Tennessee counties have turned to the Apple® iPad®.   The Jefferson County Police Department recently purchased 19 Apple iPads, one for each officer, with a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.  In adjacent Knox County, Sheriff’s Office Major Crimes and Family Crisis units recently began using the tablet computers, and detectives have enjoyed the mobility the iPads give them.  Functionality inherent in the popular devices proved to be the selling points.  Applications, known as “Apps” from the Apple® store allow officers to leverage the touch screen to draw sketches.  Built in microphones facilitate recording testimony at crime scenes while WiFi and CDMA allow officers to send reports, share information with colleagues and investigate background information without calling dispatch. (Katims, 2011)

The iPad is an impressive device.  In 2010 the New York Times proclaimed that 2010 would be the “Year of the Tablet.” (Daigneau, 2011)  In retrospect Apple dominated the market forcing the competition to delay or table forecasted launches in a scramble to produce competitively priced and feature rich challengers.  “[iPads] could critically accelerate and improve our utilization of digital information, and through that, the performance of government. Thus, they possess great strategic potential, but they could also serve as a risky distraction”. (Mechling, 2011)  But the iPad is not without its drawbacks, as web columnist Jerry Mechling alludes to in the afore mentioned quote.  Apple® maintains strict control over application development, licensing and deployment.   The device was created to allow an individual unlimited access to information but does so in a completely closed system.  Security tools built into the device are not without their vulnerabilities.  The fact that the Apple® “Jailbreak” community often has security patches published on the web before Apple® does is indicative of the weaknesses in the Apple® armor. The simplicity of the iPad masks its transformational power.  Navigating with your fingers rather than a keyboard marks a fundamental change in user interfaces.  

Despite its success the iPad® is not the only game in town.   In the two years the iPad® has been on the street a plethora of manufactures have entered the market with strongly competitive devices and operating systems.  Enter the other industry behemoth Microsoft.  In late 2012 Microsoft® will release Windows 8 with an accompanying tablet PC version. Partnered with Nvidia®, supplying the Tegra 3™ chip to be used with ARM based hardware, Microsoft will move to level the playing field currently dominated by Apple® and protagonist Android®.  Although this does not herald a coming competitive nirvana it does open the door to adaptation of software solutions known to the public safety community as well as allowing the open source community its opportunity to make a mark.   

Works Cited - Parts One and Two

Byrd, M. (2010-2012). Written Documentation at a Crime Scene. Retrieved May 7, 2012, from Crime Scene Investigator Network: http://www.crime-scene-investigator.net/document.html

Carrier, B., & Spafford, E. H. (2003). Getting Physical with the Digital Investigation Process. Purdue University, Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security – CERIAS. Utica: International Journal of Digital Evidence.

Committee on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Sciences Community, National Research Council. (2009). Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States, A Path Forward. National Academy of Sciences, National Institute of Justice. Washington DC: National Academies Press.

Daigneau, E. (2011, March). Tablets: Government's Newest Tool. (E-Republic) Retrieved May 7, 2012, from Governing the States and Localities: http://www.governing.com/topics/technology/Tablets-Governments-Newest-Tool.html

Katims, L. (2011, January 12). IPads Helping Tenn. Police Fight Crimes on the Go . Retrieved May 7, 2012, from Government Technology Magizine: http://www.govtech.com/featured/IPads-Helping-Tenn-Police-Fight-Crimes-on-the-Go.html

Lee, H. C., Palmbach, T., & Miller, M. T. (2001). Henry Lee's Crime Scene Handbook. San Diego, California: Elsevier Academic Press.

Mechling, J. (2011, March 9). Will the iPad, and competing tablet computers, help us manage information overload or add to the distractions? (e-Republic) Retrieved May 7, 2012, from Governing the States and Localities: http://www.governing.com/columns/mgmt-insights/iPad-risky-game-changer.html

Schecter, P. (2011). Crime Scene Management, Evidence Tracking System Overview and Summary. Fairfax: Advanced Response Concepts Corporation.

Sung, T. (1248, 1981). The Washing Away of Wrongs: Forensic Medicine in Thirteenth-Century China (Science, Medicine, and Technology in East Asia) (1981 ed.). (B. McKnight, Ed., & B. McKnight, Trans.) Center for Chinease Studies.

Taylor, S. (2012). The History of Crime Scene Investigation. Retrieved May 7, 2012, from E-How: http://www.ehow.com/about_5371617_history-crime-scene-investigation.html

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