Aside from photographs and rudimentary sketches, the Simi Valley, Calif., Police Department has added a laser to its tools for investigating car crashes and crime scenes.

The FARO 3-D laser scanner can take 360-degree photos of scenes that are then processed by software. The images can be rendered to create animation and provide different points of view depending on the incident — for example, the driver’s perspective during a major-injury crash or a suspect’s vantage point in a bloody murder.

The laser also can be used to investigate bullet trajectory and can help SWAT operations.

The department hopes to use the device not only to gather and examine evidence for investigations, but also for prosecutions and trials.

“This gives us an in-depth investigation and in-depth explanation of what happened,” officer Howard Horwitz said. “It helps us retell that story later, and the jury can actually see what happened.”

Horwitz is one of four officers in the agency’s traffic unit trained this month by FARO Technologies. The device already is being used to investigate traffic collisions in the city.

The laser cost $87,000 and was purchased with Simi Valley funds from seized assets related to crimes. Horwitz said his department is the first in Ventura County to have a 3-D laser.

“It’s a phenomenal tool,” Horwitz said. “You can almost bring the jury inside the room where the crime happened.”

Traffic officers traditionally take photos and measurements at a scene to figure out what might have occurred. Crime scene investigators use yarn to trace blood spatter and determine where a suspect stood during a crime.

While these tools are still available, the laser can take photos that show measurements so officers don’t have to spend time measuring at the scene. It also can measure vehicle damage and trace blood spatter to centralized points.

The images are stored on a memory card and transferred to a computer, where officers can shift the point of view and even see an aerial view of the scene, Horwitz said. If the laser isn’t used immediately after a crash, officers can return to the scene and recreate the incident using 3-D images of almost any make and model of car available in the software.

After a week of training with FARO, Horwitz is confident of being able to gather and process evidence using the device. But like everything else, it will take practice to perfect.

“The complexity comes in taking multiple scans because they don’t register perfectly. That’s where the science requires a little art,” Horwitz said.

©2014 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.)