Criminals Caught On Tape

Video analysis is the new DNA for law enforcement," says Grant Fredericks, a national video forensics expert and lead instructor to the Law Enforcement and Emergency Services Video Association (LEVA). "It is the next generation of investigation. Every police department in the country will have to have the ability to process video, just like they have police cars and officers have guns."

To aid in the processing and analysis of video evidence, and provide a conduit to link police agencies with related video evidence, the Department of Justice and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) have developed four Regional Forensic Video Analysis Labs. Located in Cincinnati, Ohio; Fort Worth, Texas; Raynham, Massachusetts; and a fourth location yet to be determined in the northwestern United States, these regional labs will be the topic of Frederick's presentation, "Pursuing a Regional Approach to Video Analysis," at the upcoming Enforcement Expo in Cleveland, Ohio, July 11-12.

Abundant evidence
Since 9/11 the proliferation of video evidence has been tremendous. The average person in an urban setting is captured on video 20 to 100 times each day. And, Fredericks sees the United States moving in the same direction as the United Kingdom where there is one video camera for every two to three citizens. "There is a projected growth in the visual security industry of 13 percent per year, and I certainly don't see that waning at all," he says.

Surpassing DNA, fingerprints and eyewitness testimony, "there is more video available to law enforcement in a crime that occurs in a public area than any other kind of evidence," says Fredericks.

Even with this abundance of information, only approximately 1,000 of the more than 17,000 police agencies in the United States have forensic video analysis capabilities. "The regional labs would help put investigators in touch with neighboring agencies that have the skills, knowledge and interoperable tools to both process and share appropriate information," describes Fredericks.

Although designed to be information clearinghouses, the labs will be equipped with dTective, a suite of forensic video analysis tools from Ocean Systems, currently in use by 90 percent of all agencies with video analysis capabilities. Therefore, if the expertise does not exist locally, the regional labs may become involved in the processing of evidence.

Just as DNA has CODIS and fingerprints have AFIS, now forensic video evidence will have the Regional Forensic Video Analysis Labs - a national database of criminals caught on tape. "There was no mechanism in place to share the processing knowledge, skills and equipment, and certainly no mechanism to share the resultant information," says Fredericks. "But now these are just the first of what we believe will be many crime labs around the country that will link agencies together using the same technology for the same purpose."

Sound interpretation
Equally important to the sharing of video evidence is the accurate interpretation of it. There are adages that proclaim, "Video speaks for itself" and "A picture is worth a thousand words." "That is not true," says Fredericks. "Video cannot speak for itself because the vast majority of video is either misinterpreted or the full value of the video is lost when it comes down to the analysis."

This is especially a problem with digital, time-lapse video. "I've seen a lot of video evidence in which the compression and encoding process actually caused significant errors, placing people in positions they weren't," says Fredericks, who has his own private forensic video consulting firm, Forensic Video Solutions.

As an example, Fredericks consulted on a case in which a Michigan police officer was charged with second-degree murder for shooting an unarmed man as the suspect approached the officer's vehicle. Video captured by a neighboring agency's in-car video system showed the suspect taking a step back just before he was shot by the officer. According to the prosecution, the video proved the victim was complying with the officer's orders and the officer shot him anyway.

Upon Frederick's examination of the video, he discovered an encoding error. "The system didn't know where to place the suspect as he was walking forward, so it recovered an image that had occurred a few moments earlier and just represented it, making it look like he had stepped backwards," he describes.

Fredericks demonstrated that all the motion, lighting and reflection artifacts, as well as every pixel, were the same between the two frames - something that only occurs when the second frame is a reproduction of the first. "This was instrumental in proving the video was inaccurate and was not what occurred, which is why the police officer made his decision to fire," explains Fredericks. "Had the video not been properly interpreted, that officer would probably be in jail today."

Rewarding work
It is this Michigan case, and others like it, which makes Fredericks' work so rewarding. While traveling as the digital media consultant for the IACP's In-car Camera Project, Fredericks has been asked to consult on many homicides of police officers. "You'd be surprised how many police officers are murdered in the course of their duty and the amount of evidence which is captured on video," he says.

In cases in which there appeared to be no evidence initially, Fredericks has been able to identify suspects, vehicles of interest and other information which led to the identification, location and conviction of cop killers. "I've been able to help the video speak for the officer when the officer is not able to speak for himself," he says.

A former police officer, canine handler and coordinator of the Vancouver (British Columbia) Police Forensic Video Unit, Fredericks has lived law enforcement from many different angles, and this "is easily the most rewarding law enforcement job I've ever had."