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Author: Mike Scott
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content,
Camera Phones, 9-1-1, & Police Evidence
Originally Published in our March 2008 issue
High-tech digital equipment doesn’t need to be used by just law enforcement officials to be an effective piece of evidence. And, truth be told, the equipment doesn’t even need to be that high-tech.
That is why camera phones have become such an important part of incident investigations nationally. From the tragic shooting at Virginia Tech University in April 2007 to a common hit-and-run accident, getting visual evidence may no longer be difficult and time-consuming with the prevalence of such phones in the pockets of many, if not most, Americans.
The Incident Linked Multimedia (ILM) solution from PowerPhone allows public safety agencies to collect text, pictures, and video from mobile callers in a seamless fashion [see the story in our August 2007 issue, p. 42]. It simplifies the role of dispatchers by intelligently prioritizing messages and linking them to incident records in all other data systems.
This collection of multimedia data remains a secured gateway, and dispatchers are not required to sort through images. One of the most valuable features is that communication centers can still use ILM with their existing IP technologies and the cell carriers’ network to provide for context-specific data.
“Mobile calls are quickly outpacing landline calls to 9-1-1 and comm centers,” said Michael D. Coleman, bureau chief, Administrative Services Bureau for the Douglas County (CO) Sheriff’s Office. “Text and multimedia messages have become common means of communication, and the expectation from the public is that such images can be easily received and handled.”
“It’s now more about the quality of the photographer than of the photo and the technology,” said Alan Reiter, president of Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing in Chevy Chase (MD). Video can be more effective because a suspect can easily be filmed leaving the scene of the crime, with more detail than a still image provides. However, the video quality may not be as high on most phones, Reiter pointed out. “With quality, you can take a phone that takes videos up to 30 frames per second, or the [lack of] quality [can make it] impossible to see what you’re filming,” Reiter said. “The best phones are qualified to run on television.” The majority of camera phones have lower-level video technologies, Reiter continued. But certain types of phones, such as the Blackberry RIMM, do now have high-end camera recording capabilities.
PowerPhone has created a virtual “priority engine” that allows PSAPs to establish predefined rules for handling both unsolicited and solicited images and text messages that are sent to agencies. The first step is to define where the image came from; the source varies from an officer in the field and a first responder to a member of the public who is using an email address, much as they would in dialing 9-1-1, said Jerry Turk, director of technological development for PowerPhone.
The system that Turk and his team created is designed to allow some images from the average camera phone to be introduced and scaled because the number of such images sent in to communications centers is only going to grow. The key is for each PSAP to develop a protocol that manages how the receiving of such images will be managed.
“If you look at how emergency medical dispatch evolved, this is a similar case, just 10 to 15 years down the line,” Turk said. “Our product is positioned as middleware, giving the call handler automated abilities to easily send a message. So whether it is a picture of a license plate or an image of potentially hazardous material, the information is handled in the same way.”
In many ways, there is little difference between how a hard copy photo dropped off at a police station and a digital image or text message are handled, Turk said. The law enforcement agency still must follow up on the information with solid processes and procedures and investigative work as necessary. “I don’t think the issue of the legality of such images is particularly valid as long as a defined process for handling such data is in place,” Turk continued. “The accessibility of these images is going to grow, and they will just be treated as any other piece of evidence.”
Showing 9-1-1 the Call
The Virginia Tech shooting and the collapse of a highway bridge in Minnesota were examples of two incidents where static photos, video images, and text messages were all taken while the situation was ongoing. “The Virginia Tech students were text messaging to their [friends and family] because the cell network was overloaded, and no one could get through in trying to place calls,” said Turk. The images could have been made available to 9-1-1 centers and responding law enforcement to aid in a coordinated response, had the ability been there.
Using digital camera phone images can be an overwhelming task, and providing a process that allows dispatchers to ask the right questions to generate such evidence is critical, noted Coleman. Part of the reason Douglas County has contracted PowerPhone to provide a camera phone software program is that the public expects their local law enforcement agencies to be able to handle such images and information. National and local media reports and cases of camera phone–generated digital images that helped to “break a case” have made it a necessity for larger agencies to work out such a solution.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Department does not currently have the ability to handle incoming cellular phone picture images, but anticipates that that will change with the help of PowerPhone, said Coleman. “The PowerPhone system is designed to have the ability to receive multimedia from a wireless device via email,” Coleman explained. “If the phone does not have the email set up or if the user doesn’t know how to use it, [that] can be a problem.”
Ideally a dispatcher will have the ability to walk callers through the process of sending such data as most of today’s cellular phones don’t allow simultaneous messaging and audio speaking capabilities, Coleman said. The key to the whole process is what Coleman refers to as “the right information, in the right amount, to the right person, at the right time. If you inundate dispatchers with media that only create emotional responses with no value to them, you have defeated the process,” he added. “If you can send information in and have it stored electronically to be accessed if needed or sent to those that need it (hospital, detective, medic unit), you’re better off as a communications center.”
Dispatchers don’t need to view the incoming images in real time, Coleman said, but they need to be able to trust that the images are being transported and will get to the right place within an agency. “The big issue is how does the public know and send a 9-1-1 text message to a dispatch center without knowing the address or where to send it? I was told that in emergencies some people have tried to SMS 9-1-1, and, of course, it can’t go anywhere,” Coleman explained.
One way to improve the quality of digital images received by a PSAP is to develop some type of training course or guidelines for residents on how to send images to their local law enforcement agency, Reiter said.
At least one police department, Redlands PD in Southern California, has set up an email address for 9-1-1 callers to use; the system alerts dispatchers whenever an email is received so that they are instantly checked. This is already setting a precedent, and provides a place where callers can immediately send images from their cellphones.
On the PSAP side, communication center managers need to ensure they have staff properly trained and available to process such data, Reiter said. In addition, it is important to note that the system for handling such digital images also needs to be tested regularly, he asserted.
“Consumers need to know how to use the system. It is unlikely that a cellular operator will have the time to walk a caller through the process over the phone,” Reiter said. “It’s unfair to put more responsibilities on the dispatchers, so another method of education should be developed.”
One recommended strategy is to put clear instructions on an agency’s Website and publicize that location through public service announcements (PSAs) and other methods of exposure. Common navigational elements and strategies pertaining to most cellular phones should be included when possible. The average citizen isn’t “tech savvy,” and the idea is that the public is trained on how to send it the images before a call is placed.
Funds can be budgeted by local law enforcement agencies for community education besides PSAs, Reiter said. A Website or phone number can be used to direct community residents to a voice recording system that provides implicit directions. There also could be a system set up where an automatic text message with directions on the uploading of camera phone images is sent to a prospective caller, he added.
“There might even be an opportunity to give a hands-on demonstration or tour of the 9-1-1 center for the purpose of spreading one or more messages that [the PSAP] wants to communicate to local residents,” Reiter said. You don’t want to rely on someone sending a photo or video in a desperate situation.
“Just like with a regular 9-1-1 call, you have to be prepared to guide [a caller] through a process of submitting information when they might be very flustered,” Reiter said. “And you also might have to inform some callers that uploading these images to [the agency] is even possible, which could be a challenge.”
Once the data arrives, law enforcement officials must understand how to best use this evidence and the guidelines under which it can be introduced in court. So, how the digital data are handled is a critical element to the process.
Photos and Evidence
Before video cameras and camera phones with video were common, witness testimony was a challenging process, said Dick Warrington, a research and development and crime scene consultant and training instructor for the Lynn Peavey Company in Lenexa (KS). “We used Polaroid pictures to get instant shots. At one of my first crime scenes, we used a reel-to-reel black-and-white video unit that weighed about 40 pounds,” Warrington said. “A few years later, we switched to camcorders, which were much lighter and recorded in color, but quite large.
“Now we use digital cameras and digital camcorders that are lightweight and easy to use, and provide high-quality images. Using cell phones and PCs, these images can then be transferred immediately back to the office so that other officers can begin their investigation.”
Today, the evidence room is computerized, making it easy to track things for court, Warrington continued. Officers save time by completing their crime scene reports and forms on their PCs. They can also quickly and easily transfer crime scene digital images and videos from camera phones to their PCs and then create sophisticated PowerPoint presentations. “We also have things like 3-D imaging programs that make it easy to create crime scene diagrams,” Warrington said.
From a legal perspective, the prevalence of such phones can also place more challenges in the laps of law enforcement officials, stated attorney Steven Gerber, partner-in-charge of Adorno & Yoss law firm in New York and New Jersey. Gerber believes there is little question that camera phone technology is affecting how lawsuits are brought to court. Phone photo proof can be extremely damaging to the defense in many cases as jurors can physically see the “damages” or proof for themselves.
Cross-examination based on an assumption of opportunity for such evidence will and has developed. Questions such as, “Was the witness carrying a camera phone?” are now becoming the norm, Gerber said, as a way to make juries feel as if such evidence is necessary to the success of any prosecution. If a camera phone was available but not used, the defense will try to raise questions about testimony, explained Gerber, who also is a member of the board of directors for the Defense Research Institute (DRI). These cross-examinations will also question validity and image doctoring. In such cases, the liabilities of large concerns will cause demand for authenticity experts.
Essentially, camera phone evidence spans the breadth of what the eye can see. People may sue based on pictures of inappropriate materials displayed at work. Phone photos could empower employment and workplace injury cases, protecting the interests of either side.
And the effect on juries can also be significant. Juries are strongly influenced by phone images; they’ll begin to wonder if they don’t see them in court. “Juries are going to expect people to have pictures of events as they happen. The more technological our society becomes, the more juries expect that we as trial advocates be facilitators of presenting information in the way that they are used to seeing it,” Gerber said.
But juries will want to protect privacy. If claimants cross ethical boundaries in collecting camera phone evidence, “there is a risk that jurors could begin to protect the rights of those whose pictures were surreptitiously taken,” Gerber said. This is why time stamping when such images were taken by an individual and when they were received by the PSAP is critical, Reiter observed.
Some phones have GPS location information, but people don’t always remember exactly what truly happened,” Reiter said. “If you have time-stamped visual evidence, law enforcement agencies won’t have to rely on [testimony] to determine what the person was wearing, how big or small he or she was, and more.”
A Photographic Public
One benefit of law enforcement agencies using camera phones to fight crime is that the public can use the phones to assist police with incidents, which is why agencies are willing to consider spending tens of thousands of dollars to provide the capability for handling camera phone images. A passerby in Livermore (CA) in August 2007 used a cell phone camera to shoot a kidnapper and her license plate number, according to Lieutenant Scott Trudeau of the Livermore police. After seeing the video, police broadcast the license plate number to other agencies; several hours later, a suspect was arrested in Milpitas in connection with the kidnapping.
That example is just one of many that departments around the country are experiencing as there are many potential “detectives” available to help police with their camera phones on any number of crimes. Some law enforcement agencies around the country have realized this and have started programs that make it easier for the public to submit videos as well as post videos online to catch suspects.
Others believe that submitted videos raise credibility concerns. “Like any digital media, you have to look into the credibility, and what the motive is of a witness,” Trudeau said. “It’s like investigating any other lead provided by a [layperson].”
Now with camera phones offering video capabilities, at issue is whether the sound is clear and whether a party’s voice is recognizable so that a voice sample can be introduced into court. But like all technology, improvements are constantly being made that require PSAPs to consider the many benefits of camera phone images.
“We were there with CAD systems, then wireless calls, and VoIP,” Coleman said. “This is the next step toward [law enforcement agencies] adapting to and using the available technology to serve the public need.”
Mike Scott is a freelance writer for several national and local magazines and newspapers. He lives in White Lake (MI).