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The Next Dimension

Detectives and crime scene investigators are using 3-D technology to bring crime scenes to life.

November 01, 2004  |  by David Spraggs


Another immersive photography system that's being used for law enforcement applications comes from Van Nuys, Calif.-based PanoScan. The PanoScan system features a high-resolution, high-dynamic-range camera on a tripod mount that rotates 360 degrees. As the camera rotates, it captures a seamless image of an entire scene. The image can be output as a panoramic print or shown on screen.

PanoScan's new Mark 3 camera captures images much faster than its predecessors, has increased data storage capacity, and downloads faster with USB 2.0 connectivity. PanoScan equipment is currently on duty with a number of agencies, including the San Bernardino County (Calif.) Sheriff's Department, the Kern County (Calif.) Sheriff's Department, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Take a Test Drive

Agencies considering the purchase of 3-D diagramming and imaging tools need to consider many factors, including system cost, simplicity, training issues, and support.

That's why the old adage, "Try before you buy," is true here. Most vendors provide a demo version of their software so you can use the product and really determine if it fits your needs.

Immersive and 3-D technology will continue to evolve but it's mature enough that most agencies can benefit. Maybe now is the time to consider adding this tool to your agency's toolbox.

How Investigators are Using 3D Graphics

A recent police shooting in Creswell, Ore., illustrates how effective a 3D diagram can be for showing bullet trajectory.

Det. Doug Jordan of the Eugene Police Department used the CAD Zone's Crime Zone product to create 2D and 3D diagrams of the shooting.

In the incident, a male suspect kidnapped his girlfriend in a trailer park. Shortly after the kidnapping, the girlfriend escaped. When Lane County deputies arrived at the scene, the suspect fired several shots through his trailer's walls. The Eugene-Lane County Metro SWAT team was activated, arriving about midnight that day. The suspect continued shooting outside through the walls of his trailer.

Houston Crime Scene Investigator Jeff Cruser created these 3D images with Crime Zone software. They document the scene of a carjacking.

Negotiators tried to talk the suspect out, but when the suspect emerged from the trailer the next morning, he began shooting at the SWAT team with a handgun. The SWAT team returned fire, hitting the suspect several times. During this shooting, some of the SWAT team's rounds, fired from across the street from the suspect's trailer, penetrated a modular home on the north side of the fence that ran between the RV portion of the trailer park and the modular home section.

The Use of Force Review Board wanted to know from what location the rounds that struck the modular home were fired. Therefore, it was critical to determine the trajectory (from which angle/height the shots occurred) of those rounds.

Pragmatically, the trajectory could be determined only by using a scale diagram in which the location of the SWAT personnel was carefully plotted. The 3D diagram clearly showed that a SWAT Team member lying prone across the street from the suspect's trailer had fired the errant rounds and that those rounds had been fired at the suspect.

Another example of how 3D diagrams are helping investigators involves a drug-related shooting in Mendocino, Calif.

One of the suspects had given the victim money early one day to purchase marijuana. The victim failed to make the purchase, after which time the suspect and an accomplice visited the victim's house to retrieve their money.

When the suspects arrived at the victim's home, gunfire erupted from both parties. Two people were struck by bullets. One person was shot twice in the head, while a second person was struck in the left shoulder and mouth.

Witnesses, police officers, victims, and even suspects used diagrams of the incident to show where they were during the shooting. The jury could see the exact location of the furniture and evidence as well as the structure of the house. Each witness' view was important. And having the witnesses pinpoint where in the crime scene they were when the bullets began flying made their individual testimony more credible.

Another example of 3D imaging as a police application involves a police shooting in Houston. In that case, officers were dispatched to an assault in progress. What they didn't know was that a home invasion robbery was actually taking place.

Four officers responded to the scene and knocked on the apartment door. A man answered, telling the officers that everything was all right inside. The man was acting suspicious and making furtive movements with his body. The officer demanded to see the man's hands, at which point the suspect raised a large handgun and fired, striking the officer in the forearm.

A gunfight ensued, and the officers retreated to cover under the onslaught. The suspects managed to enter their stolen pickup truck, which was partially blocked by two police cruisers. The suspect vehicle rammed the police cars and fled the scene.

Officers continued to return fire. One round struck the suspect's rear tire, causing it to go flat. The suspects abandoned the truck a short distance away and fled on foot, eventually carjacking a man for his vehicle. Both suspects were quickly identified by evidence left behind in the ditched truck.
They were caught a few hours later in a nearby city. Both were eventually convicted of attempted murder on a police officer.

Homicide Division Crime Scene Investigator Jeff Cruser was tasked with the job of recreating this crime scene in the form of a diagram. Cruser knew that traditional hand-drawn methods would be difficult in this case because of the complexity of the scenes.

So Cruser chose to work in Crime Zone. He was able to measure the crime scenes and import the data into the software to quickly generate accurate diagrams of all the vehicles and evidence. Being able to create a 3D model with the click of a button was particularly useful in giving the jury another way to visualize the scene.

For More Information


CAD Zone


Linear Systems



Spheron (SpheroCam HDR)

David Spraggs is an investigator and firearms instructor with the Boulder (Colo.) Police Department. He also teaches forensic photography and crime scene investigation.

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