Fighting crime with forensics

A new wave of forensic asset marking and crime deterrent systems are now available to law enforcement agencies in the United States. Property officers can say goodbye to overcrowded property rooms. Suspects can be connected to crimes and crime scenes. Burglary victims can be reunited with their property.

While the delivery systems of the following companies’ products are somewhat similar in that they’re primarily water-based solutions, the forensic codes they contain are vastly different.

Connecting the dots

Microdot technology has been around since the time between World Wars I and II. During WWII, it was used as a tool for delivering classified messages. Special cameras reduced printed messages to microscopic size, enabling the messages’ inconspicuous transport.

Modern microdot technology has been used overseas for about 15 years, as a tool to identify property, deter theft and convict thieves.

Tiny aluminum or polymer substrate discs (depending upon which company’s microdots you’re using), about a millimeter or less in size, are inscribed with a unique serial number or PIN code, which is registered to the property owner on a secure database. The discs are suspended in a water-based adhesive solution, which is then brushed, sprayed, or drawn with a special pen, onto the property. The adhesive is only visible under ultraviolet light, and the dots are so small, they’re virtually invisible to the naked eye.

Law enforcement officials can take a swab of the fluorescent solution, send it to the company’s forensic lab which will identify the owner, and the property can be returned to its rightful place.

CopDots president, Shawn Andreas, says the first company to successfully transform the technology for commercial use was DataDot Technology, Ltd., an Australian company with which CopDots has a relationship. Andreas explains that more than 15 years ago, when DataDot Technology launched, Australia’s vehicle theft rate was unusually high. In 2002, the government adopted legislation which mandated that all motor vehicles be sprayed with microdots. Because of the nature of microdots, all parts of a vehicle can be sprayed, and the removal of all dots by a thief from any particular part of a vehicle would be time-consuming and impractical. According to Andreas, since that time, Australia has seen a 70 percent reduction in auto theft.

CopDots, marketed as “DNA for your property,” was launched in the United States in April 2013. The Palm Bay, Florida Police Department was the first agency to adopt CopDots. To date, the technology is being used by approximately 1,000 law enforcement agencies in 9 states, with agencies in 5 more states to have been added by the end of February 2014.

The standard household kit costs about $30, is available online at the company’s website and at Lowe’s Home Improvement stores nationwide. There is no cost to the consumer for registration of their unique identification number on the CopDots database.

There is no cost to law enforcement agencies to participate, and a blacklight/scanner is provided to the agency for free.

The Hemet, Calif. Police Department is one of the more recent agencies to adopt the CopDots system, and the first agency in the state.

Captain Robert Webb of the Hemet PD says, “With personnel cuts, agencies are looking for any tool they can use to help deter and solve crime.” He indicates the residents of Hemet have been receptive. “Hemet has a large senior citizen population, and we’ve been making our presentations primarily in senior citizen neighborhoods. They’re actually selling CopDots in their clubhouses and community centers now.”

Webb says the presentations focus on the deterrent effect of the product, citing the signs and stickers that come with the CopDots kits. The program is still too new, he acknowledges, to know yet if it’s having any effect on crime.

Andreas says the technology is still new, and success stories are limited.

Other microdot property marking companies, such as MicroDot US and MicroTrax have similar systems and databases, and are available to consumers and law enforcement agencies in the United States. Representatives from those companies did not reply to requests for interviews; however, further information is available on their websites.

It’s in the DNA

SelectaDNA, a subsidiary of the British property marking/asset identification company, Selectamark, markets a broad range of anti-theft products, including a microdot product. According to the company’s website, the SelectaDNA line was launched in 2004.

The DNA in the name refers to the range of products which actually contain non-human, “synthetic” DNA. The DNA is suspended in a water-based solution, brushed or sprayed onto property, and fluoresces under ultra-violet light. As with microdots, the customer’s unique DNA code is registered in the company’s database, and because it’s DNA, the unique combinations are limitless. Law enforcement can take a miniscule sample, send it to the SelectaDNA lab, and analysis will identify the owner of the property from which the sample came.

The solution also comes in a canister which can be mounted at the entry points of buildings or vehicles and triggered by a motion sensor or by a panic button to spray intruders. This helps police to positively connect a suspect with a crime location. The solution is purported to stay on clothing and skin for weeks.

SelectaDNA is available in many European countries. According to Angela Singleton, the company’s press officer, they are in the process of setting up partnerships in the United States, but until that time is unable to service any American clients.

Testing the waters

Another new weapon in American LEOs’ crime-fighting arsenal is SmartWater CSI. However, you will not find Jennifer Aniston drinking it.

Just over a year old, this US-based company with roots in the UK uses technology developed over a period of three years by retired British police officer Phil Cleary and his brother, Mike Cleary, a member of the British Royal Society of Chemists. The brothers developed the product specifically to deter crime, with significant results in the company’s 17 years.

SmartWater is a forensic marking solution, which utilizes unique combinations of rare earth materials suspended in a water-based solution. The solution can be used for marking property and assets, its unique forensic code remaining robust—even outside in hot sun or inclement weather—for more than five years.

It, too, can be installed at points of entry in buildings and vehicles, and release a fine mist onto suspects when triggered by a motion sensor or a panic button.

According to Logan Pierson, the company’s president, the use of SmartWater has led to 1,200 convictions in the UK, and 95 percent of police stations there now scan suspects for SmartWater as part of the booking process. The solution can remain on clothing for years. In fact, Pierson says, there’s been an instance in which a criminal was linked to a crime after six years, because of the SmartWater still on his shoes.

Pierson emphasizes the fact that SmartWater CSI is more than just the physical product. “It’s a heavy-duty vehicle for crime deterrence; a systemic strategy.”

The first US police agency to adopt SmartWater CSI was the Fort Lauderdale Police Department. According to Pierson, FLPD targeted the South Middle River neighborhood and began distributing residential property marking kits, with signage warning burglars that SmartWater was in use in the neighborhood, in February of 2013. Since then, there’s been a 23 percent reduction in home burglaries in the area.

“We’re helping to change the neighborhood,” Pierson says. People aren’t fearful any more that their house will be broken into while they’re at work.”

SmartWater CSI is available to consumers on the company’s website, retailing for about $99 for a kit, which will mark 300 to 400 items. The consumer pays to maintain a subscription to the database, and to retain the right to display the SmartWater CSI signage, an essential component of the SmartWater Strategy.

At this time, the agencies using SmartWater CSI are all in the tri-county area of South Florida. With the Broward County Sheriff’s Department, and the Fort Lauderdale Police Department leading the way, the plan is to make an impact in a concentrated area, with 100 percent customer satisfaction and the arrests and convictions to prove it. “No one else has convictions,” Pierson says.

Soon, SmartWater CSI will expand across the USA. The product provides law enforcement agencies the equipment with which to scan for SmartWater, and remains in close contact to assist agencies in maintaining the deterrent component of the SmartWater Strategy.

Common bonds

The one thing all these systems have in common is that each has a proprietary database. There is some merit to the concern that, because property does also change hands legally, database information will deteriorate over time, causing more work than it saves.

Says Captain Webb of Hemet PD, “Any system [like this] is only as good as the information in the database. With that, we make sure to educate people in our presentations, to notify the company when they sell their marked property. At least the database gives us a starting point.”

Melina Moraga is a freelance writer and blogger whose law enforcement experience includes service as a correctional officer, a 911 dispatcher, and a campus police security supervisor. She invites your comments at: www.atozwordsmith.com/blog-code-7, or at www.facebook.com/atozwordsmith.

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