Imaging system performs forensics processing in law enforcement

Dual-PC system serves investigative forensics by confirming photographic information for criminal and civil cases.

Apr 1st, 2000
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Dual-PC system serves investigative forensics by confirming photographic information for criminal and civil cases.

By Lawrence J. Curran, Contributing Editor

Image-processing systems have become vital tools in law enforcement by establishing factual information in criminal and civil cases. Indeed, such an imaging system serves as a valuable asset in the Union County Sheriff's Office (Elizabeth, NJ). It processes fingerprints, mug shots,and background information of everyone indicted in the county, which has a population of more than 500,000. Last year, the Office's Bureau of Identification handled more than 11,000 photographic prints in its conventional wet-chemical photography laboratory.

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FIGURE 1. An integrated image-processing system used by the Union County Sheriff's Office (Elizabeth, NJ) includes a Pentium III-based Dell Dimension PC (left), which is used for video-image editing and other tasks. The Eastman Kodak Rembrandt computer (right) is used for the forensics processing of mug shots and fingerprints. Both computers are connected to the Eastman Kodak CD Library 144 jukebox (center), which is being upgraded from CD-ROMs to DVDs.

Bureau supervisor Lt. Vince Manning says that its duties would have been unmanageable without the assistance of a Windows NT-based image-processing system from Eastman Kodak Co. (Rochester NY). This system is built around a customized PC-1 Rembrandt computer that uses a 300-MHz Pentium II microprocessor from Intel Corp. (Santa Clara, CA). It was augmented recently by the addition of a second computerµa 500-MHz Dimension XPS T500 PC supplied by Dell Computer Corp. (Round Rock, TX; see Fig. 1). The entire system was integrated for the bureau by Penn Camera Exchange (Beltsville, MD).

In addition to operating both a traditional darkroom and a digital photo laboratory, the bureau is also responsible for processing images of most major crime scenes in the county, including suspected arson fires. All those responsibilities have benefited from the bureau's conversion to expanded digital image processing via the second computer. Lt. Manning says he realized three years ago that the bureau's conventional photo equipment, then consisting of two enlargers and two print processors, was outdated and overburdened. Moreover, the photo laboratory's dependency on wet chemistry caused ventilation concerns in a building deliberately built with thick, hard walls for security.

Subsequently, he began exploring the advantages of an all-digital system, including cameras. "We had dealt with Eastman Kodak all along [for the conventional chemical photo lab]," Lt. Manning says, "so we asked Kodak to recommend a system integrator who was good at digital photography." The Penn Camera Exchange was one of three firms suggested, and its system integrator, Chris Butcher, was knowledgeable about digital systems. However, the Maryland firm still had to win a competitive bid.

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FIGURE 2. A latent fingerprint from a crime scene is examined for comparison with those on file at the Union County, NJ, Sheriff's Office Bureau of Identification. The bureau's PC-based image-processing system uses Eastman Kodak hardware extensively, as well as Eastman Kodak's Quicksolve image-management and relational database software. Other software includes Adobe Photoshop print-editing and Adobe Premiere video image-editing software.

Butcher says Eastman Kodak representatives asked him to contact Lt. Manning "because of my experience in digital imaging systems and Penn Camera's commitment to the law-enforcement market for more than 45 years. We discussed the imaging needs of the department and worked together to come up with a viable workflow and the proper hardware to get the job done."

Going digital

Included in the system are six Eastman Kodak digital cameras: one DCS 460, two DCS 420s, two DCS 120s, and one DC 220. The system also incorporates two scanners: a Umax Technologies Inc. (Fremont, CA) Astra 1200S flatbed unit for photo scanning and an Eastman Kodak Professional RFS 3570 film scanner for negatives. Some negatives are 80 years old, Lt. Manning says. The system also uses three printers: an Eastman Kodak dye-sublimation unit, a Hewlett-Packard Co. (Corvallis, OR) Color Laserjet 5, and a Stylus 800 inkjet printer from Epson America Inc. (Torrance, CA).

These peripheral devices are all interconnected to the Rembrandt computer, which incorporates two SCSI cardsµone to run the internal devices and one to run the external peripherals. Mounted in the computer chassis are a CD-ROM, a CD writer, a PCMCIA card reader, and a standard floppy drive. The back panel of the computer contains connectors for printers, serial devices, a modem, a network card, and a high-end video card to drive the 21-in. monitor from Mag InnoVision Corp. (Irvine, CA).

"The three printers give the operator a choice of high-quality, high-speed, or low-cost printing," Butcher points out. "The inkjet printer is a standard model that enables quick and moderate-quality photographic printing on plain paper. The color laser printer offers a higher-speed option that is especially useful for graphics and text." The dye-sublimation printer allows the operator to produce an image with the look and feel of a traditional photograph. "The trade-off with the dye-sublimation printer is cost," Butcher says, "because it costs a little more than $2 in materials to produce an 8- by 10-in. image."

For input devices, the operator can choose between the film scanner and the flatbed scanner. "The film scanner will produce high-quality images from 35-mm and medium-format film, while the flatbed scanner is used for reflective artwork, such as existing photographs, sketches, and blueprints," Butcher notes. Information is also entered into the system from the digital cameras, which are used for a range of tasks, such as crime scene forensics work to mug-shot processing.

Storage and software

All the information the bureau accumulates requires substantial storage. "We calculated that we would need about 100 650-Mbyte disks to accommodate a year's worth of storage," Butcher says. "That's when we turned to the Eastman Kodak CD Library 144 jukebox for our long-time storage needs. This device, which is connected directly to the computer, can hold and access as many as 144 CD-ROMs."

The software that controls the jukebox allows the operator to access any file on any CD-ROM directly from the computer. Butcher says the task of organizing and quickly finding thousands of images is handled by Eastman Kodak's Quicksolve image-management software. This relational database allows the operator to assign many types of information and keywords to an image or a series of images, so that they can be queried through the Quicksolve search program. "Asset-management software, such as Quicksolve, is the key to any application that must deal with large amounts of visual information," Butcher reports.

He adds that at the time Penn Camera integrated the system, some of Butcher's biggest challenges were to take what might have been considered a turnkey system from Eastman Kodak and customize it for the bureau's needs. "As I started to pull all the components together, I found that even though many of them were manufactured by Eastman Kodak, they came from different parts of the company." For example, the CD jukebox comes from Kodak's Business Group, the computer and Quicksolve come from the Law-Enforcement Group, and the film scanner, cameras, and dye-sublimation printer come from the Professional Products Group. Technical support and integration are handled by yet another group.

"We then had to integrate pieces from other manufacturers and bring the whole thing together from a concept into a working integrated system. I worked with Eastman Kodak people from their integration departments, who were instrumental in that process," Butcher stresses.

An early problem was that the flatbed scanner wouldn't operate if the printer was on, and vice versa. It turned out to be a driver problem that was corrected by substituting a different Eastman Kodak scanner. Another obstacle that was overcome occurred when an inexpensive SCSI cable was installed to correct an electrical intermittent condition in one of the drivers. "We eliminated that condition by installing a higher-quality cable, and it taught us that we shouldn't take shortcuts," Butcher says.

He says that his office has not added much to the system as delivered, except for Microsoft Office. We're also in the process of upgrading the CD jukebox to a DVD jukebox," a process Butcher says wasn't going smoothly because of a communications breakdown involving Penn Camera, a distributor, and the software vendor, but was readily resolved.

Linking the DVD jukebox and the Dell computer allows the bureau to process and print images from the videotapes used in surveillance cameras operated by several towns in Union County. Initially, however, the video-capture card in the Dell computer wouldn't talk to the Adobe Premiere software the bureau used for digital video editing. The bureau also uses Adobe Photoshop software from Adobe Systems Inc. (San Jose, CA) for print-image editing. Penn Camera worked through a distributor to upgrade the CD jukebox to a DVD jukebox, which was an Eastman Kodak option. Butcher sought the upgrade hardware and software from the distributor, and was able to install the proper video-capture card.

Getting results

George Valladares, a sergeant in the Sheriff's Office who operates the bureau's image-processing system, says the two computers are being linked, like all the other hardware, with SCSI cables to give them access to the DVD jukebox. He has used the system to photograph fingerprints lifted from a crime scene for comparison with the 10-fingerprint cards on file in the Bureau of Identification obtained during routine investigations (see Fig. 2). The digital camera used at the scene to photograph potential evidence is equipped with a PCMCIA card that stores the image. The image is then transferred at the scene to one of the bureau's two IBM 770 laptop computers to verify that a usable image has been captured. "This works much better than using Polaroid pictures taken at a crime scene," he reports.

Back at the bureau, "we'll scan the prints from a ten-print card and the prints lifted from a crime at the same resolution. If we have to enlarge them [to compare them], we enlarge the two proportionately" to prevent compromising them as evidence. "The system works well," Sgt. Valladares says.

He has also used the system's enhancement capability for photo-lineup identification of suspects. The Quicksolve database software and the Photoshop print-editing software are combined to handle image enhancement and search. "Quicksolve allows us to add asset fields, such as hair and skin color, facial hair, and glasses, to mug shots," Sgt. Valladares says. "Then, if we need to do a lineup, we can bring upµwith a double clickµall suspects [in the database] who have those characteristics, for example."

In one instance, a dark-haired suspect had a distinctive white streak in his hair. "I got permission from the prosecutor's office to enhance the photos of the four other suspects used in the photo-lineup by putting a similar streak in their hair." He adds quickly, however, that the bureau is judicious in its use of enhancement to maintain the integrity of evidence.

The system as delivered was priced at about $110,000, according to Butcher, which included hardware, software, and integration. "We also did on-site installation and operator training," he adds. "I can't stress enough the importance of training for anyone buying one of these systems, whether it sells for $5000 or $500,000. Too often a buyer spends all the money on hardware and software and either none or not enough on training. That buyer usually winds up frustrated, disappointed, and left with an expensive paperweight," Butcher concludes.

Company Information

Adobe Systems Inc.
San Jose, CA 95110
Web: www.adobe.com

Dell Computer Corp.
Round Rock, TX 78682
Web: www.dell.com

Eastman Kodak Co.
Rochester, NY 14653
Web: www.kodak.com

Epson America Inc.
Torrance, CA 90509
Web: www.epson.com

Hewlett-Packard Co.
Corvallis, OR 97330
Web: www.hp.com

Intel Corp.
Santa Clara, CA 95052
Web: www.intel.com

Mag InnoVision Corp.
Irvine, CA 92618-1813
Web: www.maginnovision.com

Penn Camera Exchange
Beltsville, MD 20705
Web: www.penncamera.com

Umax Technologies Inc.
Fremont, CA 94538
Web: www.umax.com

Union County Sheriff
Elizabeth, NJ 07207
Web: www.unioncountynj.com

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