Interview: Orlando CSI Karen Livengood Advances Forensic Scanning in the Sunshine State

Karen Livengood OPD CSU
Karen Livengood OPD CSU

CSI Karen Livengood, of the Orlando Police Department Crime Scene Unit, is generally cautious when it comes to new technology. She doesn’t like buying anything that she can’t verify for herself. When she was tasked with researching laser scanning technology for her unit, she wanted to see how the scanners would perform in a true-to-life scene before she could believe all the claims.

So Livengood set up a mock crime scene at the police department where she ‘killed’ her nieces with the help of a professional makeup artist and asked representatives from Leica Geosystems and another scanner manufacturer to come in. Both reps scanned the scene, post-processed the data and showed Livengood, her supervisor and upper chain of command their final work products.

Since deploying the ScanStation in 2011, the Orlando CSIs can capture an entire scene, comprising millions of highly accurate data points, with a push of a button.

One of the manufacturer’s representatives captured the scene in black-and-white and was disorganized in his approach. Livengood was unimpressed. The Leica Geosystems’ representative, Frank Hahnel, scanned the scene, registered the data right in front of her and immediately created a Leica TruView 3D visualization. He also provided Daubert rulings and case numbers to prove the ScanStation’s track record in U.S. court. “Leica had all of its t’s crossed and i’s dotted,” said Livengood. “That’s why we went with Leica.”

Before the U.S. Department of Homeland Security purchased the scanner for the Orlando Police Department, the 18-year veteran and her fellow CSIs documented crime scenes by hand with tape measure and Rolatape and then entered the data into Crime Zone software. Since deploying the ScanStation in 2011, the Orlando CSIs can capture an entire scene, comprising millions of highly accurate data points, with a push of a button.

The ScanStation gets frequent use. It’s the department’s technology of choice for homicides, traffic homicides, shootings and police use-of-force incidents. In addition, the unit supports 12 neighboring cities as part of a program called the Joint Homicide Investigative Team, or J.H.I.T. If there’s a homicide in any of those jurisdictions, they’re deployed to assist the local crime scene personnel. “Our scan data has been introduced and accepted as scientific evidence on two of our court cases,” Livengood said, “but it has been brought up several times in depositions. The state attorneys have requested copies on several cases, including officer-involved shootings and a number of homicides, that are coming up for court.”

What are the major public safety challenges in your part of Florida?

Livengood: Orlando is booming and getting bigger and bigger every single day. We’re constantly having accidents on Interstate 4 and the 408 down by Disney World. On top of that, the Florida Department of Transportation is doing a major six-year construction project on I-4, which is causing more problems due to lane shifts. The laser scanner is definitely being used a lot for traffic homicides.

It has made us much more efficient—the fact that we can go back into the dataset anytime and get measurements without having to return to the actual scene.

What’s the No. 1 benefit of forensic scanning in your opinion?

Livengood: The fact that you don’t have to be in the scene to walk through it. Anyone can virtually walk the scene at any time. In my opinion, the more people I can keep out of our scenes, the better. That’s the way I look at it.

How has the scanner helped your unit’s crime- and crash-scene documentation?

Livengood: It has made us much more efficient—the fact that we can go back into the dataset anytime and get measurements without having to return to the actual scene. And we’ve had to do that numerous times on multiple cases where detectives will come down and want to know if we’ve gotten a measurement. We simply go into the scan data to get them the desired measurement. Not everybody takes the right measurements when you’re at a scene because you never know what you’re going to need and not need. For example, if there’s a skid mark that a traffic homicide detective wants that we didn’t see. The scanner captures everything on the scene. That ability, to me, is what makes the scanner worth it.

Has your scan data been challenged in court?

Livengood: I know it was challenged on a life-sentence case involving a two-block-radius shooting. The scene started in one location, and because the victim ran as he was being shot at, it ended in another area completely around the building. One of the witnesses claimed she saw the whole thing. But when they put the witness in the position she said she was in, there was no way she could have because the buildings were in the way.

The defense claimed we were manipulating the data like Photoshop. Of course, we were saying, ‘No, that is not true.’ (I was in the audience watching, and I was texting Frank Hahnel, our Leica rep, telling him what they were challenging us on.) The defense kept saying we were moving people from their original locations, which was not true. We explained that we were taking out officers who were standing in the scene, but that they were still in the scene technically; it was just a layer of the data that was being turned off to clean up the scene for viewing purposes. I think the challenge was because laser scanning is so new. People think it’s Photoshop, and it’s not.

Is educating the district attorneys who will use the scan data an important part of your job?

Livengood: Yes. The laser scanner is still new to attorneys as well as jurors. For that reason, I’ve performed demonstrations for our state attorneys, showing them what it can do and how we can come back in and extract highly accurate measurements after the fact. Both my state attorneys and traffic homicide attorneys are now on board with it. I even know of one defense traffic homicide attorney who is in love with the ScanStation.

How important is customer support to you?

Livengood: It’s very important to me. If I’m in the middle of working a scene and have a question—but I can’t get a hold of anybody—that can cause delays. But I can always reach our local rep, Frank Hahnel. He’s always been there for us when we’ve needed him. He’s even come to scenes to help me out whenever I’ve had an issue. For example, we had a homicide scene where the victim was stabbed multiple times in a living room. I needed to get the blood that was on the ground everywhere, and I wasn’t sure how to do that. I called Frank, and he came over with his scanner. We had his ScanStation scanning at ground level, and ours was simultaneously scanning on a tripod. Then we merged the scans together. He’s been the best person in the world to work with.

In your opinion, has the ScanStation paid for itself?

Livengood: Yes, by all means. We have become more efficient in capturing scenes, and the accuracy of the measurements has been so much better. The diagramming—the overall picture of a scene—being able to incorporate that for court and go back in and take extra measurements if need be—all of that has completely changed.

Additionally, presentation in court has just been phenomenal, especially when it comes to bullet trajectories or skid marks for traffic homicides. The data gets shown to defense attorneys, and they show it to clients. Sometimes, it changes the outcome of the case. If you can see it, to me, that right there pays for itself.

Karen Livengood

How do you think the laser scanner will affect the future of crime-scene documentation?

Livengood: I think it’s going to take over. Everybody’s going to have a scanner one way or another. I can’t see it not being that way. It’s definitely the wave of the future, and I think it’s going to be in the near future.
It’s not just for police agencies either. When I was taking a course at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville Forensic Anthropology Center body farm, I made the comment, “Why wouldn’t a Leica laser scanner be used at the body farm?” At any type of a dig, you have a body on the surface; you have skeletal remains; and you have remains underground. The researchers need precise measurements, and the Leica ScanStation is so accurate that it would be perfect to use in my opinion.

Any final thoughts?

Livengood: I believe wholeheartedly in the system. I am one of the Leica ScanStation’s biggest fans.

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