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El Paso police, Sandia working together on high-tech approach to law enforcement, forensics investigations


El Paso police, Sandia working together on high-tech approach to law enforcement, forensics investigations

radar inspection

"El Paso Crime Scene Investigations" may not have the glitter of "CSI: Miami," but it has some technology and an approach to technology that many in law enforcement very much admire. Through the help of the Border Research and Technology Center (BRTC) – operated by Sandia from offices in San Diego, Calif. – and some strong local initiative, this department in a city of 600,000 citizens is providing national leadership.

"In the area of teleforensics, the El Paso Police Department is the pathfinding agency," says Sandia’s Chris Aldridge (4142), who is BRTC director. Chris and the center, with National Institute of Justice funding, helped the El Paso department get started with some equipment in 1999. From there, Commander Michael Czerwinsky and his team have taken the project to new levels.

For Chris, the BRTC is a way to work with a multitude of law enforcement and legal agencies to strengthen technology capabilities and awareness. The BRTC is part of the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center system, a program of the research and development arm of the Department of Justice. The work in El Paso is a success story for the effort.

When the El Paso Police Department first received camera equipment through the BRTC program, Czerwinsky was a lieutenant in the city’s vice unit, which sought to use the equipment to provide better evidence for prosecution. Working with Sgt. Darwin Armitage, a detective in the unit known affectionately as "Radar," the vice team put the equipment to work with a bang. In its first test, a detective transmitted a conversation at a bar with a tiny camera hidden in a pager, while Armitage sat in the lobby nearby and watched and recorded the entire transaction for evidence using a briefcase full of equipment, including a small monitor.

"Our old equipment was bulky, hard to hide, costly, and expensive to maintain," says Armitage, who worked with Sandia’s Richard Sparks (4142) to put the so-called "Investigators Toolkit" into use. "The new equipment had all the pieces, time-and-date stamps, recording units, cameras, transmitters and everything was off the shelf."

The resulting improved evidentiary tapes drastically curtailed (by about 50 percent) the number of vice cases going to court, generating instead an increase in plea bargain cases. "This had a direct impact on our operations," says Czerwinsky. "From there things just snowballed."

Enter teleforensics

Moving to major crime investigations with his promotion to captain, Czerwinsky pressed Armitage to develop the technology for forensics use. The idea was to use the same concept, transferring the technology to major crime scenes. To improve investigations and avoid crime scene contamination, a crime scene tech would wirelessly transmit a video feed to a nearby command post where the investigators could view it. Radar’s first attempt, a camera mounted on a lanyard, was disappointing. After some experimenting, he developed the concept of attaching a transmitter to a handheld video camera, where the scene could be surveyed, objects could be looked at closely by zooming, and a record could be made without touching any objects. This proved a major step forward. One strong plus was that detectives outside the scene could direct the recording. The first use of the technology on an actual homicide case proved to be "a home run," says Czerwinsky.

Detectives outside a victim’s home, observing the scene on a monitor, noticed some mail on a desk and asked the recording technician to zoom in. A return address on one of the letters identified a person incarcerated at an out-of-state detention facility. This in turn provided investigators a possible motive early in the investigation. This kind of success has also helped convince long-time investigators of the power of the tool, says Czerwinsky. "They are often cautious, and rightfully so, about new technology, especially at a major crime scene."

Taping at another multiple homicide scene revealed more pluses for the technology. "In a homicide the first 24 to 48 hours are critical to solving a case, and this is a tool that helps save time on a number of fronts," says Czerwinsky. The tape provides help to both the field investigators and those conducting interviews away from the site, helping them to get a better idea of what happened. "You can’t articulate some of this information without the video," Czerwinsky notes.

At a scene now, with the addition of a special SUV mobile command center and 27-inch monitor, the recording technician can transmit information to help the crime scene unit determine what special resources may be needed, help detectives understand what happened and when, and help others, such as medical examiners, speed their work. "The bottom line is it accelerates the investigation. Like those television commercials, it’s priceless to us. You can’t replace lost time," Czerwinsky says

Phase 3: Critical events

As a police commander, Czerwinsky took the camera technology toward what he calls "phase three," just after the Columbine High School tragedy. Armitage, in consultation with Richard Sparks, developed a pole camera (for peeking around corners) and a helmet camera as extensions of the original Investigator’s Toolkit. The two devices, with implications for riots, hostage situations, or other critical events, were tested at a mock high school hostage exercise. This tool provides important information at critical incidents, as "what the SWAT officer sees" is transmitted to a command post to supplement the decision-making process. "It’s an invaluable tool when split-second decisions have to be made," Czerwinsky says.

Armitage is also working to expand the reach of the information, both in increasing transmission range in the field and by using the department’s intranet capabilities. Although he’s demonstrated the intranet potential with assistance from the department’s information technology staff and some borrowed equipment, issues remain with securing the information through some type of encryption.

Cost has been a driving force in all of these efforts, the two officers note. "Too often law enforcement agencies are slaves to vendors," says Czerwinsky. "They show us what products they have and we choose. Working with BRTC has been more of a ‘What do you want?’ arrangement. We want plug-and-play equipment that we can build upon for different needs. We want inexpensive equipment that will interface and not several proprietary competing systems."

While the department’s pole camera, adapted with the Investigator’s Toolkit equipment and a collapsing painter’s handle from a local hardware store, cost a few dollars, similar kits offered through law enforcement vendors sell for $3,000. Because 80 percent of US law enforcement agencies have 50 or fewer officers, "a place with 25 deputies just isn’t going to have the budget for most of this expensive stuff," Czerwinsky says. He and Armitage have pointed this out on national webcasts to law enforcement agencies and at a number of national and regional meetings.

"The center is a place where you have the labs and where we have a national law enforcement technology council. These people speak our language. This is where it is coming together. Chris Aldridge and Richard Sparks have been instrumental in opening doors for us," Czerwinsky says.