Experts fight crime with 3D technology

Picture this: A police officer finds a bullet at a crime scene in Florida. He puts it in a machine that creates a digital 3D image of the bullet. The machine then loads this image into a database that quickly identifies a matching bullet fired from the same gun in a crime in Arizona last year. A medical examiner uses the images to verify a match, the police departments coordinate, and the suspect is soon captured.

No, it isn't an episode of CSI, but it could be the future of law enforcement, according to a demonstration given here in Washington, D.C., this week by Forensic Technology, a company specializing in ballistics identification systems.

A gun leaves a unique mark on a bullet or cartridge case when it fires. Part of crime scene forensics is matching the marks on bullets with those from previous crimes. Today's 2D digital imaging systems can limit the analytical abilities of the investigator, and can make sharing information with investigators in other cities difficult.

The next level

A 3D digital-imaging ballistics identification system is designed to tackle these problems, lowering the chances of incorrect matches and easing information sharing. The system automatically creates an image of the bullet or cartridge case, uploads it into a database, and generates a list of the most similar pieces of evidence.

Forensic Technology is working on such a system, called Bullettrax-3D, which should be available next year. It scans and digitizes images and puts them on a network, but also creates a 3D representation so that examiners can study bullets in detail, as if the real thing were in front of them.

Bullettrax-3D offers "more of a dynamic view of the object," says Serge Labrecque, a manager of research and technology at Forensic Technology.

"3D technology starts to change everything," says Pete Gagliardi, Forensic Technology's vice president of marketing and strategic planning. "You're just capturing so much more information."

It is essential for law enforcement agencies across the country and around the world to share information in today's environment, says Gagliardi, who worked for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) for 24 years.

"Just as business has become global, crime has become global," Gagliardi says. "(This technology) can be particularly effective if you have a criminal or group of criminals who are mobile."

Forensic Technology has clients in 30 different countries using its ballistics identifications systems, according to its Web site. Its clients include the ATF and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, President Robert Walsh says.

Experts weigh in

One expert is giving the new system a positive review.

"(The 3D technology) does have a great deal of possibility," says Martin Ols, a firearms and toolmark examiner at the ATF, who has looked at the new system. The system helps law enforcement officials share information by putting officers involved in separate but related cases in contact with one another, he says.

But the algorithms, or calculations used to create matches between bullets, for the 3D system still need to be analyzed to ensure that the system is creating appropriate matches, he says.

This technology can be both a "boon and a bane" to the criminal justice system, says Jack King, public affairs director for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

"This technology needs to be examined," King says, "because it could help."

But King cautions that digital identification systems aren't perfect, and that they always yield a list of matches, even when the matches aren't very similar.

Forensic's Gagliardi says that the system has safeguards. Although it always provides a list of matches, it also ranks how similar the match is, he says. If an examiner gets a match with a poor similarity score, that person would know the two items are "not in the same ballpark," Gagliardi says.

King cites the use of the faulty fingerprint matches that incorrectly identified Portland, Oregon, lawyer Brandon Mayfield as a terrorist suspect in May as an example of a failed digital-imaging match. Mayfield was held for two weeks before being released.

"It took a human being to analyze the system" and find the mistake, King says.

Forensic Technology agrees that the Bullettrax-3D technology is just a tool to aid in the investigation, and that the final determination of whether a bullet matches still relies on the forensic examiner.

"We don't replace (examiners)," Walsh says. "We'll just make their job a lot easier."

Tuohey writes for the Medill News Service.

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Jason Tuohey

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