February 1, 2012 By Elaine Pittman
Police crime scene investigation units on television are armed with an array of futuristic gadgets — some of them grounded in reality, others bordering on science fiction. There have been mixed theories about what’s come to be known as the “CSI effect” — inflated citizen expectations driven by TV crime dramas — and how it’s changing what jurors want to see during a trial and how citizens expect police to investigate crimes.
What technology and equipment do local police departments actually use for crime scene investigations? A look at the Roseville, Calif., Police Department’s forensics division provides insight into the equipment and capabilities that real-life local agencies have at their disposal.
The city of Roseville is a relatively affluent suburb of Sacramento that’s home to about 120,000 people. Scott Koll, a crime scene technician for the Roseville Police Department, said the technology used by his city is fairly common among similar size municipalities. But the Police Department’s forensics division can conduct some unique tests in-house, thanks to grants and a few generous gifts from community members.
Across the three levels of government, there are about 18,000 law enforcement agencies nationally. Of that total, about 72 percent are local governments with small and medium police departments, according to Bob Zinn, group manager of the forensic services group for Oak Ridge Associated Universities, a nonprofit consortium of universities.
Zinn said small and medium-size police departments need more technology and more training in crime scene investigations and forensic science. Being able to detect or locate latent prints, hairs, fibers and biological materials that contain DNA is important, because they are powerful forms of evidence.
“But crime scene investigators need those tools and technologies to allow them to visualize that evidence, to be able to find it when it’s essentially invisible,” Zinn said.
Funding is the main barrier to technology procurement and adoption, and although federal entities provide significant support to police departments, Zinn said more money needs to be available to the officers on the front lines. Zinn hopes that at some point technology will become smaller, cheaper, faster and more portable so that it can get into the hands of officers in smaller agencies.
Technology is constantly evolving and replacing traditional processes, but the basis for forensics work still relies on tried-and-true practices. Dusting for fingerprints and photographing them and other pieces of evidence with high-quality cameras remains the foundation for crime scene investigations.
“We start with the basics and evolve from there,” Koll said. “We might need to use chemicals, we might need to use certain superglues, but the idea is to start here [and] know your basics.”
The new twist is that technology is making it easier for investigators to manipulate and pull evidence from objects and crime scenes.
About five years ago, Roseville acquired an alternate light source, which Koll described as the “bread and butter of forensic work in the modern technological age.” Essentially, by shining different spectrums of light, such as infrared or ultraviolet, over objects, details are shown that can’t be seen with the bare eye or standard lighting. Koll demonstrated by dusting a can with a fine carbon powder that fluoresces under infrared light. Fingerprints that were barely visible in normal light became much clearer when struck by the infrared light. In an actual investigation, the next step would have been to photograph the fingerprints using a camera that has different filters to visualize the evidence under the different spectrums of light.
“You can only imagine how crucial technology is because without something like this, you miss evidence or you have to find other ways to visualize it, which become more difficult or costly because you’re piecing it together,” Koll said. “So one initial investment like this helps you find so much more evidence than you ever would have done before.”
As new technology augments traditional forensic methods, it saves time and increases accuracy. The Roseville Police Department has three pieces of technology that provide an additional layer to its investigations.
An unassuming, binocular-looking device is what Koll calls the “most sophisticated toy” in the lab. The SceneScope RUVIS (short for Reflective Ultra Violet Imaging System) allows a technician to search for fingerprints at a crime scene without dusting surfaces or objects with powders or other materials. The device costs about $15,000, but Roseville received it as a gift from a community member. Koll said one of RUVIS’ benefits is that it reduces the amount of intrusion the technician may need to do when processing a crime scene.
“This allows us to work around a scene without actually getting in and manipulating it [by] adding powder, changing something, adding any chemicals, whatever it might be,” he said.
After locating a fingerprint or other type of evidence with RUVIS, a camera can be connected to the device to take pictures of the evidence for later inspection. Fingerprints can be uploaded into the FBI’s Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS).
|Fact vs. Fiction
Although real-world crime scene investigations don’t always match what’s portrayed on popular TV shows, the CSI effect isn’t all bad. Scott Koll, a crime scene technician for the Roseville, Calif., Police Department, said TV has changed how citizens view the job for the better. “That’s important because they need to know what we’re doing when we show up, that we’re not just making a mess of their house,” he said.
On the other hand, TV forensics cause what Koll calls “couch experience.” He said television showcases some of the finer tools in the industry, like technology that only exists in a couple of labs in the world.
For example, Koll was investigating a recent residential burglary, and the home-owner had seen an episode in which the fictional CSI team used a process that involved shooting tiny pieces of gold at surfaces to search for fingerprints. The resident asked, “Do you guys do that?” Even though the Roseville Police Department doesn’t use the gold-shooting method, it can reach out to the California Department of Justice and other agencies that have more money and resources to help with investigations.
Although many may think that every police department can run fingerprints through AFIS in-house, until February 2010, the Roseville Police Department sent fingerprints to the California Department of Justice’s Sacramento office to help with fingerprint identification. Roseville still works closely with the state justice department, but can now upload fingerprint images into AFIS to find possible matches. But unlike CSI, the TV show where the fingerprint system quickly scans through its database and then provides an identity, Koll and his colleagues must manually examine each possible match.
“You really need to have an eye for detail,” he said. “You definitely need to be concerned about minute events … because one mistake and you put the wrong person in jail.”
And the Police Department’s technology doesn’t stop there. Another step for processing evidence recently received a big upgrade. The department’s cyanoacrylate fuming chamber, which resembles a refrigerator, is an “elemental piece of forensics” that’s used nearly every day. Koll said the chamber explodes superglue that adheres to proteins left from skin, for example, on a gun. The glue leaves white powder on evidentiary items in places where there may be a fingerprint. But before the department had the high-tech version, it used a homemade solution: a fish tank and a coffee warmer. Although both versions conduct the same test, the high-tech chamber standardizes the process, making it safer and more efficient.
“Forensics is all about adjusting what you do with what you have,” Koll said.
And it’s also about being a master of many trades. While larger police departments have separate crime scene technicians for the lab and in the field, those who work in smaller departments are responsible for both. This means they must be proficient in all the different processes — from chemistry to photography to research and writing. Koll called the “dual world” of lab and field work the most interesting part of the job.