In the five years since the National Academy of Sciences exposed the need for systematic and scientific advancement in forensic science, many public safety agencies have made the technological leap from tape measurements to point clouds for crime scene documentation. Now, with the 2014 launching of both the National Commission on Forensic Science and the NIST Organization of Scientific Area Committees, this much-need progress has finally begun. While some will be struggling to catch up, agencies already deploying cutting-edge laser scanning technology are well-positioned to meet future protocols and standards that will be developed to guide this critical first step of forensic investigation.
One public safety agency leading the way forward is the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office Criminalistics Laboratory (JCCL) in Olathe, Kan. Accredited by the American Society of Crime Lab Directors, this new state-of-the-art facility, including its integrated Crime Scene Investigation Section, features a roster of 42 scientific staff with the knowledge, resources and sophisticated instrumentation to deliver comprehensive, cutting-edge forensics to the area’s 19 law enforcement agencies far into the 21st century.
Among the crime lab’s most advanced measurement technologies is the CSI Section’s Leica ScanStation C10*. Since 2011, the six-member team has been routinely deploying the high-definition 3D laser scanner for scene documentation and digital reconstruction. As an experienced and creative user of laser scanning technology, CSI Section Supervisor Ryan Rezzelle, MFS, CSCSA, shares his insight on the role high-definition 3D laser scanning technology is likely to play as crime scene investigation progresses further along the scientific path. PSG: You’ve been involved in crime scene investigation for nearly 15 years. How has the profession changed over the years? Rezzelle: If you look historically at crime scene investigation, it was a very police-driven action as late as the 1980s. As we’ve moved forward from the ’80s, there has been a steady evolution toward a science-based discipline, away from the cop-centric response of days gone past. In this era—whether you’re sworn or civilian staff—science trumps all in this industry. This evolution has occurred most notably over the past 20 years with advances in the application of science at crime scenes increasing daily as we see today.
Because of the 2009 National Academy of Sciences report on forensic science, this trend continues with a near daily shift toward a more scientific response to crime scenes. And where many crime scene units are going today is toward accreditation. The JCCL is an ASCLD/LAB-accredited laboratory at the International standard. Our entire laboratory is accredited, including our crime scene section. That’s worthy of note because it’s somewhat of a rarity not only to have a dedicated crime scene section integrated into a laboratory but also for the section to be accredited. The good thing for our industry is that, while it has been the exception, more CSI teams are moving toward accreditation. PSG: You mentioned the National Academy of Sciences report on forensic science. How does that report relate to crime scene investigation and documentation? Rezzelle: The 2009 National Academy of Sciences report on forensic science basically called for the science to be put back into forensic science. Well, crime scene investigation is a scientific discipline of the forensic sciences. We are the field element of crime laboratories. We are the field element employing sound scientific applications in the solving of crimes. Our laboratory director has said in the past, “Why should sound scientific principles be applied to evidence once it hits the front door of the crime lab?” We want to put these things into play at the crime scene.
When you talk about applying science at a crime scene, included in that conversation is the scientific collection of measurements, and the Leica ScanStation C10 allows for that. It gives you the peace of mind that you have the oversight in having collected all the measurements that will be necessary. PSG: How do you think the laser scanner–with its ability to capture millions of highly accurate measurements at the push of a button–will affect the future of crime scene documentation? Rezzelle: I don’t know if it will simply affect it; I think it will become the future. When you talk about the ability to completely capture spatial relationships at a crime scene, you are defining what will become the standard.
Documenting a crime scene is a critical component of reconstructing a crime scene. We don’t only want to know what something is. We want to know where it came from in time and in space, and that space part is important. Reconstructing the actual mechanical aspects of a crime scene starts with the reconstruction of the spatial aspects of the crime scene. So I don’t think that the recording of 22 measurements using a Rolatape and a tape measure at a crime scene is going to be sufficient in five years. Truly, it really isn’t sufficient today.
PSG: As an accredited crime lab, you need to ensure that measurement devices are scientifically accurate and reliable. Did that include the Leica ScanStation? Rezzelle: Yes. Prior to deploying our C10, we validated it; we put it through a scientific validation. So not only are we operating with sophisticated equipment but we are holding it to the high scientific standards that are required of sensitive instrumentation used throughout crime laboratories and forensic science. PSG: Laser scanning technology has obviously had a tremendous impact on your work as a CSI. What would you do if you had to revert to manual methods of data collection? Rezzelle: I would probably start trying to figure out where I could be that I would have access to the scanner and continue to be able to use it. To be honest, it’s become that instrumental of a device in my life that I see it as a must-have as opposed to a should-have, and I feel pretty strongly about it—not to mention that I have such a good time using it and then reconstructing virtual workspaces from the spatial data I’ve collected.
* The C10 is equivalent to the PS10.
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