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Video forensics tools reveal hidden evidence within video surveillance footage


     It's easy to forget how often our activities are recorded — Grindstaff says the average person in the United States is caught on video approximately 30 times a day.

     "In order to properly investigate the majority of crimes, it is now necessary to be able to examine and enhance video from a variety of formats and sources," says Grindstaff. "This technology allows investigators to preserve, evaluate and enhance video evidence. Without it, evidence might be overlooked or lost."

     Improper retrieval of video evidence can limit image detail by as much as 20 percent, says Sanderson. "Repeated playing of VHS tapes, especially old ones that have been recorded-over many times, will reduce detail and create noise and dropouts with each play," he explains. "There is a tipping point beyond which the true value of the evidence is lost."

     To answer the need for video forensics, smaller agencies lacking someone trained in video forensics or the budget to create their own video forensic labs had to outsource forensic video either to a lab or to the next highest authority with video forensic capability, says Laura Teodosio, founder of Salient Stills Inc., a video forensics and image enhancement software company located in Boston, Massachusetts. In some cases departments lost control of the video and experienced processing delays. This is why even smaller agencies are starting to explore ways to process video in-house.

     The Rhode Island State Police formed a video forensics lab several years ago. Its responsibilities include processing the agency's own video as well as performing work for other departments, says Det. Lt. Dennis Pincince, who is in charge of the department's criminal investigations unit. In the beginning, department officials fielded approximately two to five requests for assistance from other agencies each day, but as more departments have added their own systems, the number of requests has dropped to two to five a week.

     The Corpus Christi (Texas) Police Department brought this function in-house a little under a year ago, says Michael Alanis, senior officer in the auto theft division. This move has resulted in greater efficiencies. "We don't have trouble viewing the video from different sources," he says. "We can make still prints and provide media outlets with more usable video to help locate suspects.

     "Prior to this, the media often wasn't able to play the video because they lacked the system to run it," Alanis continues. "Now, we can convert it to a Windows media file and e-mail it to them, and they can run on the news that night. We also can receive a video and have it ready for detectives to review the same day."

Setting up shop

     When creating a video forensics lab, agencies must define their needs and set up the lab accordingly, says Hartzell. For example, if a department is outsourcing, what kinds of projects are being outsourced? He poses other questions to examine, such as:

  • Does the department need it to build a case, or just to get something in the hands of cops looking for a suspect?
  • Does the agency want to be able to analyze the video, or just make it viewable?
  • Are officials seeing primarily VHS video or are they getting more DVR?
  • Does the department want to be able to edit or produce video for other purposes; such as training, or are plans to simply manage surveillance video?
  • Will everyone in the agency handle this task or just a few people?
  • Is there a requirement that the lab be ASCLD-accredited? "If so, there will be guidelines on setting up a lab beyond the basic setup," he explains.
  • Are there shared resources that can assist with analysis or processing?
  • Does the department have access to grant or forfeiture money? "If money is not a problem, having more than one system would be beneficial," says Hartzell. "It's like a toolbox; one system may have a better tool for a specific process than another. Or at the very least, results can be compared between systems."

     And of course, departments must consider core equipment needs, Hartzell says. This includes setting up a dedicated PC that allows frequent software installations. A Macintosh, he says, may or may not work with all software; but anything not specifically written for a Mac should open on a PC.

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