Hidden gems

Video forensics tools reveal hidden evidence within video surveillance footage


     If only life would imitate art — or at least a big-budget movie. Because if it did, pulling information off surveillance and security video would be a whole lot easier. Instead, law enforcement personnel routinely contend with bad camera angles; poor-quality video that is too dark, too shaky or runs too fast; obscured subject matter; lens distortion; glare; noise and other image-compromising issues.

     Then there's the problem of digital video evidence, says Paul Hartzell, digital evidence specialist for the Hennepin County Attorney's Office, located in Minneapolis, Minnesota. "The system recording the video is most likely proprietary, meaning users need specific player software in order to view it," he explains.

     Doug Perkins, director of sales for Ocean Systems, a Burtonsville, Maryland, manufacturer of video forensic systems, says that at last count there were more than 900 different digital proprietary file formats and zero universal players that allow folks to view the video, regardless of the surveillance system that created it.

     The ability to retrieve accurate information from surveillance and security video is essential to understanding the crime scene, apprehending suspects, and seeing that justice is served. Fortunately, when viewing problems do occur, law enforcement agencies can get a big assist from a variety of video forensic tools.

Video forensics at work

     Countless examples of the utility of video forensics tools can be found in law enforcement. Robert Sanderson, president of Audio Video Labs, a New York-based company that provides video forensic services to law enforcement agencies, lawyers, insurance companies and private parties, recalls a case involving a gang shooting in a crowded warehouse-turned-nightclub.

     "The camera was concealed by some type of wire mesh, [which] made it difficult to see the shooting," he explains. "However, once enhanced, the video rendered detail that was (previously) unseen and showed more than one shooter."

     Or, take the rape case where Sanderson was hired by the defendant.

     "Since this allegedly occurred in the rear of a convenience store, the cameras, which were facing toward the front, didn't catch the action," he says. "I enhanced the reflection in the front window and also revealed the plaintiff handing the defendant her phone number at the edge of the screen after the event."

     A video forensic system developed by Cognitech Inc. was used in the Reginald Denny beating case, says Lenny Rudin, CEO and founder of the Pasadena, California, company. Their hardware and software enabled investigators to enhance a video footage shot from a helicopter to identify a rose tattoo that, in the original footage, was very blurry and quite tiny, thus leading to the successful prosecution of the accused.

     Perhaps one of the most famous cases solved by video forensics was that of the Olympic Park bomber. Intergraph Corporation, based in Huntsville, Alabama, worked for months in conjunction with NASA to develop technology that would later identify the perpetrator of that crime, says Gene Grindstaff, executive manager and chief scientist of video tools. He vividly recalls the surveillance footage they had to work with.

     "All the lights had been cut off. But an NBC camera was still recording when the bomb went off," he recalls. "It was very dark, very grainy footage, and people were knocking into the camera. We took the analogue tape, and exactly registered multiple frames — there were about 120 frames. We could pull out the backpack and the logo on it, and we were able to see that it was one commonly used by mountaineers or hikers in North Carolina.

     "We were able to track this backpack to the region where it was sold," he continues. "We were also able to pull out a shoe, and see that it was a Size 9. All this and other evidence resulted in the suspect's eventual capture."

A growing need
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