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How 3D laser scanners are changing crime scene investigations

From traffic collisions to homicides, 3D laser scanners improve the efficiency and effectiveness of crime scene investigation, crash reconstruction and subsequent expert testimony

The following content is sponsored by FARO Technologies 

By Police1 BrandFocus Staff

There’s no way around it: processing a crime scene takes a lot of time.

An officer uses a laser scanner to investigate the scene of an accident.
An officer uses a laser scanner to investigate the scene of an accident. (Photo courtesy of FARO Technologies)

That’s why the increased prevalence of 3D laser scanners in crime scene investigations has been important for departments across the country and why departments are finding them an effective and efficient means of enhancing their crime scene investigation capabilities. From quickly gathering the data at the scene to preserving it for later analysis and creating effective presentations for trials, the laser scanner is proving to be a critical tool for crime scene investigators.

Whether used at major crime scenes, such as homicides, or traffic accident reconstructions, here’s a profile of how 3D laser scanners are transforming evidence collection, scene analysis and courtroom presentations.

Improving investigator workflow

One of the greatest benefits of the 3D laser scanner is that it reduces the amount of time it takes for investigators to fully clear a crime scene while still capturing an abundance of data. The 3D laser scanner can capture data much more precisely than can an investigator working by hand who has to constantly wonder “Am I holding the measuring tape straight?” or “Is this Total Station level?”

For a small scene, setting up the 3D laser scanner takes about 10 minutes. “The setup is actually the longest part,” said Heather White of the Osceola County Sheriff's Office Forensics Unit. “Prep time scales with the size and complexity of the scene, so a multi-room house would take longer. However, the scan itself takes just minutes.”

For investigators and departments, this means less field hours or, potentially, more crime scenes being processed. It also means fewer people need to be sent to process each scene, which has the potential to greatly increase the efficiency of crime scene processing department-wide and helps keep agencies on budget.

Improving officer safety in the field

There are other benefits besides efficiency for departments looking to use a 3D laser scanner. This is especially true when used in accident reconstruction.

Being able to quickly clear a collision, particularly one on a busy thoroughfare, can reduce the chance of officer injury. In fact, roadside accidents are among the most common ways officers are injured on the job. Cutting down on the time spent in the field collecting the evidence from a crime scene leads to a lower chance of injury in such a situation.

It also cuts down on the amount traffic and congestion caused by the investigation of the scene. This has wide ranging effects not just on the department, but on citizens as well. Traffic tends to multiply and the longer a roadway is tied up due one accident, the greater the chance of another, potentially more serious collision could occur.  

Preserving evidence digitally

The evidence collected at the scene using the 3D laser scanner is preserved digitally, meaning investigators can use the stored crime scene data to continue their investigations. For investigators operating without the aid of laser scanners, any measurements not taken at the scene can be lost forever. By using the digitally preserved crime scene, investigators can go back - virtually - and get the measurements they need.

Beating the “CSI effect” in court

The “CSI effect” is a huge issue facing law enforcement today. The police technology depicted on “CSI” and other shows like it often includes instant and irrefutable DNA test results, 3D visualization on par with Hollywood budgets, and similar fictional investigation methods.

While those who work in law enforcement understand that these are exaggerations of current capabilities, the effect on citizens unfamiliar with law enforcement can be jarring. Jurors often have skewed understandings of exactly what constitutes reasonable proof and fully expect to see that kind of evidence provided in court. When it can’t be, it can have a negative effect on conviction rates.

Laser scanning technology and the 3D trial-admissible models it can provide can help change that negative trend.  

“TV shows have escalated the public perception of what we can do. This tool allows us to take scans into the courtroom and give [jurors] that ‘wow factor’,” said White, “We can essentially put the jury in the scene in a 3D environment.” 

More than simply “wowing” the jury, 3D laser scanning provides solid scientific data and measurement that is more reliable because it doesn’t have the same level of manual work (and thus possible human error) that traditional methods do. 

Laser scanners offer a new way of collecting, storing, and presenting crime scene data that improves upon the methods currently used by most departments across the country. From more accurate measurements to more effective trial testimony, 3D laser scanners are becoming an indispensable part of the investigation toolkit. 

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