How Bergen County Creates Compelling Crime Scene Visualizations

When documenting a crime scene, how can you be absolutely certain that you capture all the evidence you need to prosecute the case? And how do you take that information to a jury in a compelling way, especially if the trial doesn’t occur until three or four years after the crime?

For the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office in New Jersey, being at the forefront of technology is imperative to achieving the best criminal prosecution. In 2010, the agency invested in a Leica ScanStation to document fatal accident scenes, homicide scenes, police involved shootings, and arsons.

“It's definitely changed the way we we approach things,” says Chris Kelley, detective sergeant in the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office. “We put on the best possible criminal prosecution that we can, and to do that we need the the best available equipment. This is at the top of the list as far as technology that we we have available to us. It gives us the confidence of knowing that we are getting everything that we that we need, even if we don't know that it's pertinent at the time.”

Making the Crime Scene More Accessible

Douglas Rager, a Bergen County homicide detective, says the ScanStation makes investigators more effective at the scene. “You're actually seeing more of [the scene] because you're thinking about where to set up the scanner, what you need to capture. And as you're doing that, you're uncovering more and more details of that scene than you would have if you just came in and snapped a photograph or documented on a sketch.”

Once the scene has been captured with the 3D laser scanner, the team can go back into the point cloud at any time and revisit the scene virtually to look for any evidence they might have overlooked. The level of detail and accuracy in the scans brings the reality of the crime scene into the investigation and into the courtroom.

“Crime scenes are a very intense experience, and I don't think you can you can portray that to a juror with still photos or with a two-dimensional line drawing,” says Kelley. “Even if that drawing is to scale, they can't they can't truly appreciate how how intense and how emotional that scene was at the time unless we are able to put them back into that scene. Using a 3D laser scanner is a very successful way of doing that.”

Using the ‘CSI Effect’ to Reveal the Truth

Being able to recreate the crime scene in 3D visualizations also provides another important benefit. As TV shows like CSI have exaggerated the real-life work done by investigators, jurors often have unrealistic expectations about the technology that should be used to convict suspects. Dubbed the “CSI effect,” this situation makes it increasingly difficult to achieve a successful prosecution. Laser scanning is turning the tables. “Although we're not where Hollywood has put us, we are we're pretty close when we use a scanner out on the scenes,” says Rager.

“They say a picture is worth a thousand words,” he adds. “Utilizing the scanners, we're at a million plus words, where we show them what the truth is.”