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Closing Cases with Technology

New tools for analyzing images, DNA samples, ballistics, and video are helping agencies speed up the investigative process.

David Griffith 2017 Headshot

Editor David GriffithEditor David GriffithPhoto: Kelly Bracken

On the TV police procedurals felony cases are solved in 45 minutes by detectives who have technology the military would envy. When they need to capture detail such as a license plate number in a blurry photo taken at night, all they have to do is say "enhance it." When they need to go through millions of fingerprints, the right one is found in minutes. When they need DNA results from the lab, there is no backlog.

Of course, real-world criminal investigations do not work like that. Closing some cases can be a long slog of interviews and re-interviews, crime scene reports, and enough paperwork and digital files to kill a redwood forest and choke a cloud server.

Investigations often take many hours of painstaking labor just to develop leads. But that may be changing. We are seeing the development and refinement of high-tech tools that can help investigators clear their caseloads much quicker. These tools have been spotlighted at the last several International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) shows and they are now making their presence felt in the profession.

You can learn more about these new investigative technologies this month in Managing Editor Melanie Basich's cover feature: "Closing Cases with New Investigative Technologies." But let's discuss them here for a bit.

One of the most effective and most controversial law enforcement technologies is facial recognition. Practical automated facial recognition technology has been around for more than two decades. In the years after 9/11 it was used to try to identify known terrorists in the nation's airports and transit centers. Those systems were prohibitively expensive for most local law enforcement agencies.

Now facial recognition tools are much less expensive and many local departments are using them to search for common criminals instead of terrorist masterminds. These systems can compare still images and even video with databases of images collected by law enforcement. Getting a hit on such a system is not enough evidence for an arrest, but it can help an investigator develop a lead and identify a person who can be investigated further.

Facial recognition is one of the most useful tools available to overwhelmed law enforcement investigators. And it is one of the most misunderstood. Community activists want it banned because it can yield false "hits" and because they claim the systems discriminate against people with dark skin. Banning these systems would rob law enforcement of a force-multiplier that makes investigators much more efficient. So it's important for police agencies to educate people on how this tool is being used, what it can and can't do, and how the accuracy of facial recognition is improving.

Rapid DNA technology is another new tool that is helping investigators work smarter and faster. DNA labs are overwhelmed and analysis on samples in some jurisdictions is pretty much limited to violent felony crimes.

Even the processing of felony crime DNA samples can take weeks or months before investigators see the results. In contrast, rapid DNA systems can yield results in as little as 90 minutes. They are commonly used to identify suspects in custody who often have multiple street names and aliases. They are also frequently used to identify suspects and victims at crime scenes. This quick ID information can lead to much faster development of leads by the investigators.

Rapid ballistics processing is another recently developed tool that investigators are using to close cases. This technology allows users to perform presumptive analysis on casings and bullets. The information can be used to show that a specific firearm was at a crime scene, and it is not unusual for investigators to be able to track the use of a specific weapon at more than one scene, which can help them close multiple cases.

One of the biggest dilemmas facing law enforcement agencies in general and detective divisions specifically is: What to do with all the video? So many criminal cases now involve video, sometimes from multiple sources, and there is no way that investigators can sit and watch it all. Thankfully, they don't have to. There are now a number of different tools that can quickly review video and search for faces or other key images.

Providing law enforcement with tools to speed up the investigative process is more critical now than ever. Agencies are facing critical officer shortages and one of the first things they do in these situations is send detectives out on patrol. We saw that last month as the coronavirus crisis intensified.

That leaves the detectives who are still investigating cases with even more work. Which means agencies need to find ways to make their detectives more efficient and more productive. The tools mentioned in this column and others in development may be the answer to how that can be done.

David Griffith is editor of POLICE/

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