USING SMARTPHONES TO DEFEAT NOT-SO-SMART CRIMINALS
My boss, the supervisor of our forensic unit, insists that soon we will be able to process an entire crime scene with nothing but a smartphone. Everything from photographs to sketching to measuring to note-taking, all on a 2 ½ x 5” flat item which one needs reading glasses to see unless one is under fifty which I, alas, will never be again.
Most phones now come with 10 or 12 megapixel cameras, which are more than sufficient for forensic purposes. You can get attachments for tripods and flashes. My boss can open and close the shutter from his Apple Watch (important for taking ninety-degree close-ups of fingerprints or tire tracks where the slightest vibration could blur the details).
Simply browsing through the tablet he got us for crime scene work and nagged us for a few months to use before he finally gave up, I find:
The flashlight app. Of course. (I was at a crime scene yesterday where the two young men were trying to plug my USB into the video system, cleverly hidden in the ceiling panels. It’s dark up there, of course, and they were stymied as they had never downloaded a flashlight to their relatively new phones. I pulled my mini-Mag out of my pocket and suggested they use an actual flashlight. Sometimes us old chicks rule.)
Pill Identifier, with which you can enter the color and shape of a medication and it will help you narrow down to the name of the drug, then link to information on purpose, dosage, side effects and drug interactions.
Photo Measures, which allows you to take a photo of a room and then annotate it with measurements. This way my boss, the detectives, the prosecutors and the jury no longer have to suffer through trying to decipher my hastily scribbled sketches of uneven walls and amorphous blobs representing the pit couch. I can take a photo of the room and write the dimensions right over the picture, then add the feet and inches from the south wall to the bloody knife on the floor. The only catch is you still have to take the measurements yourself.
And for that, we have RoomScanPro. Simply start it up, give each room a name like ‘dining’, hold the phone against each wall, in order but at any particular spot on the wall until you’ve gone around the whole room. The app will create a floor plan including measurements. Do a complete walk-through and it will give you the whole house. Be warned, however, that these apps may only be accurate to half a foot, so that you could wind up with an attorney grilling you how the murder weapon could have been five and a half inches from the victim’s body instead of six.
For traffic incidents, Vehicle Identification System can give you pictures of nearly every make and model available in the last decade to aid witnesses in describing the getaway car. And Cargo Decoder can translate the four-digit DOT code on a truck’s placard to tell you what kind of materials they’re hauling.
There are a number of panoramic photo apps, so that you can quickly scan a 360° shot of the crime scene as is before EMTs, firemen, reporters, angry mobs or bigwig looky-lous breach your perimeter.
So the next time you see a team processing a crime scene it might not only be the nerdy young guy using the newfangled gadgets to do the job. It might be the grizzled old detective using a smartphone and a rubber-tipped stylus.
And reading glasses.
Lisa Black has spent over 20 years in forensic science, first at the coroner’s office in Cleveland Ohio and now as a certified latent print examiner and CSI at a Florida police dept. Her books have been translated into 6 languages, one reached the NYT Bestseller’s List and one has been optioned for film and a possible TV series.