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Today's Police Photofinishing

Written by Gregory Joe

The photo departments of law enforcement agencies across the United States face many challenges today. Yet despite heavy workloads and limited staff, some agencies, such as the Baltimore Police Department, the Connecticut State Police Forensic Lab and the Miami Beach Police Department, are leveraging advances in photofinishing technology to get the job done.

In Baltimore, the police department’s photo lab staff has seen a number of staffing cuts in the past two decades. The digital lab equipment it uses from Noritsu America Corp. has helped it accomplish more with fewer employees. The staff has several Noritsu minilabs at its disposal—the QSS-2301, QSS-3213, and dDP-621. The units are used for a variety of jobs such as printing, scanning, and copying. In addition, the QSS-3213 is equipped with Adobe Photoshop and a built-in scale so the staff can size and clarify fingerprints, shoe prints, and tire impressions.

In the past, the lab printed old black-and-white negatives with an enlarger. But with the QSS-3213, the lab can scan items on the flatbed scanner, drop them into Photoshop, and make enlargements up to 12 x 18 inches without having to return to the darkroom. It is much quicker than the old way, and most of the work can be done on one console.

The QSS-3213 also helps correct crime-scene images that are poorly exposed. Sometimes on a set of negatives, it isn’t clear where one frame starts and the next one ends. The machine has a feature that fixes that, plus it does a lot of things that can’t be done by hand on a custom enlarger.

The unit also provides large thumbnails so lab techs can really see what they are dealing with. The lab uses both the QSS-2301 and dDP-621 on a regular basis, but they are mainly considered backups for the QSS-3213 because it can’t afford to be without photographic services for any extended period of time. Next year, the Baltimore photo lab will be ASCLD (American Society of Crime Lab Directors) certified, and the lab’s staff credits its minilabs for helping them achieve that status.

Digital and Analog Working Together

Mark Newth of the Connecticut State Police Forensic Lab is one of three forensic photographers who handles the photo processing for the state police. The CSP’s 1,200 troopers photograph a variety of crime scenes from violent crimes and bank robberies to homicides. The troopers’ film is the department’s highest priority. For major crimes such as homicides, primary images are photographed with film and backed up with a digital camera. A few years ago, those secondary images were made with either slide film or Polaroids. The department still shoots mostly film, but it now uses digital input.

Newth and his team process film and images for the entire department. They produce between 1,000 and 1,500 images a day. They archive all negatives and CDs, as well as produce all reprints for the state for court usage. The State Police has a division called Reports and Records where attorneys can order case-related images. The lab’s standard production size (printed from rolls of film shot by various people) is 3½ by 5 inches. The lab’s new minilab—the Noritsu QSS-3211—produces images up to 12 x 18 inches, which is the preferred image size for many state attorneys who use them for court presentations.

The machine also makes index prints in any size. “We’re making 8- by 12-inch index prints that many of the troopers say is all they need for their reports,” Newth said. “I no longer have to make sets of pictures for some of the more minor cases. They simply file away the index print, and if [the case] goes to court and pictures are needed, they can order them down the road. That has saved both time and money.”

This is the lab’s third Noritsu machine. Its first minilab, bought in 1992, was a Noritsu QSS-1501 that is no longer in use. In 1998, the lab purchased a Noritsu QSS-2211. “That unit was a workhorse that kept up with our demand,” Newth said, “but it didn’t accept digital input, which we started to get a lot of from troopers in the field. The only thing we could do with those was put them in our PCs and attempt to burn CDs or print inkjet and dye-sub prints. It took forever, and it wasn’t cost efficient.”

The department made an effort to standardize the cameras that the police used, but it was difficult to get all the troopers and different specialized task forces to conform. “We needed processing equipment that could handle the input from all the different cameras out there. For us, the Noritsu QSS-3211 (bought in 2005) creates a marriage between the digital and film worlds,” Newth said. “With this machine, we can take almost any digital input and simultaneously produce prints and CDs at high volume.”

When the department bought the QSS-3211, it also bought three CT-2 Kiosks, which were sent out to the three major crime squads in the state. “They’ll allow major crimes to shoot more often with digital, take the cards out of their cameras, stick them in the unit, and send the pictures to us immediately,” Newth said. “Processing time will be reduced by two to three weeks from the time a homicide scene occurs to the time they can deliver everything to the state attorney’s office. And that’s a huge advantage for a murder investigation,” Newth said.

Photo Options

The Miami Beach Police Department’s photo lab processes its film on a Noritsu QSFV-30SM. According to department photographer Hermes Brezo, one of the main reasons the department selected the Noritsu equipment is that it gives them expandability options; it allows the department to operate in either analog or digital media. “Crime-scene film is not something that can be replaced,” he says. “We have a zero tolerance for failures.” That said, the Noritsu machine hasn’t let them down yet. “It’s quite efficient and allows us to have all our film processed by day’s end.”

The department also uses a Noritsu QSS-3311 digital minilab. Although the unit can make prints up to 12 x 36 inches, a majority of the department’s prints are in the 8-inch category. They rarely get requests for anything bigger than 8 x 10 inches. In addition to gaining much-needed time, the lab saved money on materials because the old processor used three times the paper as the QSS-3311.

Once the technician installed the machine, it was good to go. Images are previewed on a screen and can be adjusted for contrast, density, and color balance. The Miami lab currently has all the processing equipment it needs but anticipates buying a faster film processor after the department grows a little more.

Gregory Joe is the strategic marketing manager for Noritsu America Corp. Noritsu has provided the police community with photofinishing technology for 25 years and currently serves 85 major police agencies in the United States. He can be reached at gjoe@noritsu.com.


Published in Law and Order, Oct 2006

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