Jan 14, 2016 | By Tess

In certain complicated criminal cases, such as the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by a police officer in 2014, the visualization of the occurrence is paramount to understanding what happened and judging whether a crime was committed. Traditionally, investigators and prosecutors have depicted these scenes to juries with the help of photographs and descriptions, which are undoubtedly helpful but leave gaps in the scene and are not often exhaustive. In recent years, however, a new technology has become increasingly important to criminal investigators, especially in the case of Tamir Rice’s killing, and has allowed them to more accurately convey crime scenes to juries. What I am referring to, of course, is 3D scanning technology.

Since 2009, 3D scanning technologies have become more and more prevalent in U.S. law enforcement and criminal investigations. They have been used in many notable and controversial cases that took place last year, such as the shooting and killing of Tamir Rice, the killings of New York City cops, and the recent massacre in San Bernardino.

For those unfamiliar with the Tamir Rice case, the 12 year old Cleveland citizen was fatally shot by police officer Timothy Loehmann, who mistakenly thought Rice was holding a loaded gun. Though Rice was only carrying a toy bb gun while sitting in the park outside of Cleveland’s Cudell Recreation Center, a precautionary call was made to police by someone who noticed the young teen. Unfortunately, some information from the call, the fact that Rice was a youth, and that the witness thought the gun was likely fake, were not relayed, so when police officers Garmback and Loehmann drove up to the scene, they almost immediately shot and killed 12 year old Rice.

While an undeniable tragedy, the case remained complicated as prosecutors tried to determine whether Loehmann and Garmback were actually guilty of criminal misconduct. During the trial, a surveillance video of the shooting was presented though its evidence was not clear or conclusive. To help understand the case further and to give jurors as much information as possible, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) turned to 3D scanning technologies in order to recreate a virtual model of the setting where the shooting took place.

As Joseph Frolik, the director of communications and public policy for Cuyahoga County prosutor’s office who dealt with the case, says, “We used [3D scanning] in two ways: to make accurate measurements of objects at the scene, and then they recreated vantage points, so there would be a rough approximation of what you would have seen at the scene.”

Surveillance video and virtual rendering of park where Tamir Rice was shot

The 3D scanners used, which have been supplied by tech company FARO, which specializes in 3D measurements and 3D scanning, are able to effectively scan crime scenes, collecting minute details and capturing everything that can be visually detected. Mike Russ, a crime scene specialist with San Bernardino County sheriff’s department explains, “It is the most complete documentation tool, aside from digging up the house and bringing the entire house with me.”

The Faro 3D scanner works by placing it on a tripod in the center or the edge of a crime scene, from there the scanner emits three laser beams and sweeps up and down and around the space. As the laser beams reach certain objects, they are recorded with a light detector which compiles the data. The FARO 3D scanner is also capable of simultaneously capturing images, to help the scene be as detailed as possible. “They’ll capture up to 1,000 feet of data in each direction, plus full color photographs, with an accuracy of 2 millimeters,” explains Kelly Watt, a regional manager of FARO’s forensic division.

For the best results, the scene can be captured from many different vantage points in order to collect the most data possible for a crime scene. One scan can collect up to 44 million data points traditionally, so when a scene is scanned 50-60 times, the investigators have billions of data points to work with. When the scanning is complete, the data is put through a computer program which stitches together the data and images to make a virtual 3D space of the crime scene.

The technology has been of utmost importance in helping jurors and others involved in the case to visualize what could have taken place at the scene of the crime. Using the images captured by the 3D scanner, one can virtually be taken through a crime scene, whether to see how things were strewn about, or even to understand the perpetrator or victim’s perspective.

As BCI special agent supervisor Dennis Sweet, says of the 3D technology in relation to Tamir Rice’s case, “We’re able to show the officer’s point of view or sometimes the victim’s point of view, which just wasn’t able to happen before. We were able to take pictures before, but the scans allow us to take a look at angles and aspects that we never had access to before.”

Not only that, however, the 3D scanning technologies can also help to uncover elements of a crime scene by zooming in on certain details such as bullet casings or glass or better demonstrate them to a jury. The software used by criminal investigators with the 3D scans is also capable of detecting blood spatter patterns and can determine where and how a person was impacted based on the blood.

Outside of the crime scene context, the Secret Service also reportedly uses FARO 3D laser scanners when casing and securing an area before a presidential visit, to make sure that there are no potential threats or weapons in the vicinity. The scanners are also being successfully used to reconstruct a person’s likeness based off of a scan from a skull, which has been useful in autopsy’s as well as in solving cold cases.

As the 3D scanning technology is supposed to measure and represent every detail in the space it is scanning, the images it puts forth are said to be unbiased, a crucial element in convicting or acquitting people. That being said, the technology can also be used to bolster an argument. As Eugene Liscio, a 3D forensic specialist says, “3D reconstructions are certainly more powerful. It’s much less likely that a jury will dispute a version of events with a 3D reconstruction versus a version of events backed by 2D photographs.”

Since 2009, the FBI, Department of Justice, and the Department of Homeland Security have spent nearly $1 million on the 3D scanners, which is quite significant considering the most expensive FARO model costs $59,000, and can be as low as $11,000.

As 3D scanning technology continues to gain sway in the law enforcement world, it is also important to remember that not every public defender or attorney will have access to a 3D scanner for their crime scene, which can mean an imbalance in certain cases. For instance, in the Tamir Rice case a 3D scan that depicted his point of view was not made, which can be seen as a slight disadvantage. Despite this, we are sure that as 3D scans and virtual models of crime scenes become more commonplace in the United States, and can be used by all defenders and prosecutors, the technology will help to present the most exhaustive evidence possible.




Posted in 3D Scanning



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John Dee wrote at 1/15/2016 2:49:35 AM:

"The technology has been of utmost importance in helping jurors and others involved in the case to visualize what COULD have taken place at the scene of the crime." Trying to blind the jurors with science more like, the video was pretty damning in my eyes, gun's where drawn far too quickly, I think before the car even came to a halt, shoot first ask questions later. I once did some visualizations for police forensics and while it may help the police to explain their version of events, it is prejudicial and not really evidence. Camera's can lie, but in this case the cops where bang out of order.

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