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3D Laser Scanning

Law enforcement agencies are moving to the use of high-definition 3D laser surveying for crime scene and accident collision sites imaging. Complete and accurate documentation is made of everything at the scene, keeping officers from having to return to the site again and again. This high-definition laser scanning can also re-create the scene of an officer involved shooting or other serious situation. Precise measurements can be made from the captures of the scene, even years in the future.

3D laser scanning allows for 360-degree imaging of the complete scene. Not only is everything at the scene captured for future reference or court proceedings, but it can be done in less time, allowing the scene to be released earlier. When the scene involves a major highway or an outdoor crime scene that might be ruined by weather conditions, time is important. The imaging can also prevent officers from being exposed to chemical or biological hazards, or in situations where explosives are involved.

Leica Geosystems

The weather-resistant Leica ScanStation can measure up to 300 meters, indoors or out, from bright sunlight to total darkness. Evidence collection is quicker, up to 80 percent less time, and the technology provides more useful data, making crime scene reconstruction more accurate, reliable, and easier to explain to a jury.

Tony Grissim, Major Account Manager for Leica Geosystems Inc., Public Safety Group, reports that Leica offers a complete system for law enforcement and provides free grant assistance for Homeland Security funding. Their ScanStation is used at homicide scenes, post blast scenes, accident reconstruction, and even officer involved shootings. It is used with bomb squad robots to go down range in dangerous environments to do initial assessments in a hot zone.

Grissim stated that Leica’s dedicated public safety team often briefs attorneys and investigators on laser scanning technology. He reported, “We take the admissibility of evidence very seriously and quality control and assurance is built into our products.” He stated that one department paid for the ScanStation with one case when an officer was cleared of wrongdoing in a use of force case. “You may pay a little more for Leica, but if a police agency has one opportunity to document a scene in a capital case, the scanner must always work” and other considerations are safety, ability to overcome environmental issues, and court admissibility.

The ScanStation makes up to 1 million measurements per second, rotating around the environment, with a pulse of eye-safe laser light and bounces it off and then back to the ScanStation. Each one provides a coordinate or very accurate XYZ point, and these millions of points provide a 3D model of the crime scene called a “point cloud” of 3D measurements. Investigators can move around in this point cloud and the method protects investigators from overlooking something they don’t know is important at that time.

Sgt. Jeff Davis, Crime Scene Unit, Arlington (Texas) Police Department, reported that his department bought a 3D Leica C10 ScanStation, utilizing Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) funding. They were the only department in their area to have the scanner and their funding agreement with UASI is that they will deploy their scanner to other areas if there are major incidents and scanning is needed.

Sgt. Davis stated that the big selling point for 3D laser scanning is that “we can freeze the scene for eternity. That allows us to bring the jury to the scene in court and the jury can see the scene as it appeared at the time of the crime.” They primarily use it for homicide scenes. They can also determine witness viewpoints and assist prosecutors in what the witness would actually be able to see. He said referring to the 3D scanner, “We can extract measurements at any time. Also, something that didn’t seem important at the time they were at the scene can become important later,” and they can examine the scan to get that needed information.

FARO Laser Scanning

Dr. Bernd Becker FARO’s Chief Technology Strategist and Evangelist, reported that “FARO Technologies Focus3D Laser Scanners are lightweight, easy to store and transport, quick to set up, and the affordable pricing gives agencies the flexibility to purchase multiple systems for use in the field.” The ease of use and portability of the scanning equipment is important to law enforcement, and allows agencies to adapt to the environment and quickly take scans from multiple locations without moving obstacles or obstructions and risk contaminating an investigation scene.

The learning curve is very fast and most users are taking data with the Focus3D in a matter of hours. FARO includes a basic three-day training program with the Focus3D system, which includes instruction on how to operate the system, establish a site plan, and process the data.

He reported that the Focus3D has a very high-data capture rate. This allows crime scene documentation of weapons’ placement, footprints, blood spatter, and other evidence before the scene becomes disturbed or contaminated during the investigation. In the case of documenting an accident scene, the Focus3D allows for rapid gathering of data, including the road conditions, skid marks, vehicle positioning, impact areas, and external elements prior to the cleanup process and as an added benefit, agencies are able to reopen highways more quickly.

Laser Scanners, such as the Focus3D, provide law enforcement the ability to revisit a scene at any time and once the scene has been documented accurately, the scene images can be preserved indefinitely. The 3D virtual scene can be measured and analyzed from different viewing angles.

The Focus3D X 330 has a scanning distance of up to 330 meters, and the Focus3D S 120 can scan up to 120 meters. Both systems scan at a rate of 976,000 points per second. The greater distance capability means that the user can position the equipment to scan larger areas and make fewer physical scans. This saves time and money in collecting data.

The Focus3D has the flexibility to adjust the scan time and quality, which is vital when working with different applications, and scans can be done from low to mid or high resolution. It is even possible to scan smaller objects, such as a skull, with textures and finer details. The FARO Laser ScanArm, with its high accuracy, can provide measurements that can be easily documented in a 3D model.

Dr. Becker stated, “The Focus3D is often used to provide large amounts of data for the re-creation of accident scenes. Entire roadways, bridges, intersections and vehicles can all be scanned and then imported into 3D animation software. Crash data, scrapes, and damage markings can be analyzed to verify the point of contact and help establish speed, direction, and damage to each vehicle. An increasing number of prosecutors are using 3D animations to present visual evidence in the courtroom.”

Sgt. Donny Patterson, Forensics Unit Supervisor, Alachua County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office reported, “We chose the FARO scanner because of the cost and because the user friendly system was quite easy to learn to operate with some training. “Their FARO system was purchased with drug forfeiture money and cost approximately $65,000 with a two-year warranty, training, and two years of laser calibrations and maintenance. He stated that these scanners are just starting to break into the areas of crime scene documentation and traffic accident reconstruction partially due to the “CSI effect” as evidenced by the public interest in this field.

RIEGL Laser Scanners

Susan Licari, Marketing Manager for RIEGL USA, reported that the law enforcement industry uses the RIEGL VZ-400 and the RIEGL RiSOLVE software because the speed, accuracy, integration and workflow are the best match. The RIEGL VZ-400 acquires data at 300khz, which is 122,000 points per second with an accuracy of 3mm. An integrated external digital Nikon D800E camera for photogrammetry, an internal digital compass, a L1 GPS, and an inclination sensor makes the VZ-400 an effortless system to acquire data.

The RIEGL VZ-400 is designed for a single user to quickly respond to crime/accident scenes. The RIEGL RiSolve software’s streamlined process is the fastest and most efficient solution to acquire, register, and colorize outdoor 3D scan data and enables rapid turnaround of critical information.

Jim Van Rens, CEO at RIEGL USA, reported that their concentration is accident scene investigation, because while other scanners can operate at short range with ambient light, the Riegl scanner technology with complex scenes and their superior signal processing is needed in those situations. The technology is not just the scanner, but operates on a multisensor platform. The built-in 36 mp camera system, photometrics, laser, built-in GPS to locate data, tilt sensors, digital compass sensors all work together to capture and geolocate information to process and get it into the hands of the police quickly.

Van Rens pointed out the great cost to the economy of complex crash scenes with fatalities during peak traffic hours. The state of Colorado researched this and found that the low end accidents cost the economy around $15,000 but a death investigation during peak hours could cost in the millions. Their technology allows an accident scene to be cleared much more quickly and that is a big selling point for their technology, which does not lose precision nor its capabilities on large outdoor scenes. He stated that camera and scanning technologies are merging and even the cameras can create multi-dimensional point clouds.

Riegl scanners are available in tripod, mobile, marine and aerial systems. Several police departments use the mobile systems on the highway to drive the accident back and forth to gain a more rapid scene acquisition than the tripod. The tripod versions can even be used on boats for marine captures, giving them the capability to investigate ports with the Port Authority and Coast Guard. Riegl operates in the touch marine environment by using mobile sensors, with the GNSS system, a combination of GPS which tells you where you are at one second intervals and inertial measurement unit (IMU), which tells you the pitch or yaw 200X per second to capture the whole scene.

Riegl checks and calibrates the systems to validate their use. The real data is seen with no changes, and the visualization is an exceptional means to convince judges and juries. Van Rens stated, “The true color point cloud blows them away,” referring to juries. Juries can see the scene in a real way, without having to be taken to the physical scene because they can see it all in court. Riegl offers training with the purchases of hardware and software and continues to offer Web-based support and training.

Kathy Marks has been a child abuse investigator for more than 30 years. She teaches classes regarding domestic terrorism and is a previous contributor to LAW and ORDER. She can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Jun 2014

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