Film To Digital Conversion For Law Enforcement: An Update

Sun, 08/15/2010 - 5:16pm
Steve Scarborough

An effective conversion from film to digital images requires more than a camera. A comprehensive digital imaging system is invaluable when storing, managing, and retrieving digital images.

From what is likely the first crime scene photo, a grainy image of Jack the Ripper victim Mary Jane Kelly, to the photos of the ax at the Borden household in Fall River, to the bloody front walk of Nicole Simpson, crime scene and evidence images have had great dramatic effect. The method for capturing them, from the early bulky box cameras, to today’s sleek digital cameras, has changed greatly. In all of photography there has been a gradual change from film to electronic image sensors.

The fild to digital conversion involves more than just new cameras.Digital technology has revolutionized photography but the transition to digital is not without its trepidations. This transition is a significant concern for law enforcement.

In fact, the decisions for law enforcement today are not so much about the transition from film, as that has already happened in many agencies, but upon the extent of digital emersion. The decision-making process is now more important than ever. Thinking ahead is crucial. It is imperative to make the correct decisions early to avoid pitfalls later on.

The transition to digital, no matter where in the process an agency currently finds itself, can be fraught with problems. As in any police operation things that might go smoothly on a small operation could spell disaster in a large one with many components. A successful police operation needs proper preparation, planning, organization, and coordination. A successful switch to digital photography requires the same elements.

Obtaining only one portion of a complete system may result in disaster or at the least, a huge misdirection of funds and resources.

Law enforcement agencies make the initial conversion from film to digital for five reasons:

  1. Save money.
  2. Save time.
  3. Increase the quality of photographs.
  4. Increase the quality of communication through easy distribution of photos.
  5. The credibility provided by digital photos and an enhanced public image resulting from promoting technology.

Agencies are increasingly recognizing the value of a full enterprise digital imaging system. A system that not only addresses the initial purposes of digital conversion, but also provides for future expansion, for image processing, analysis, and distribution of photos throughout the criminal justice system.

An enterprise imaging system is especially important for agencies already in the transition process or completing the evolution to digital imaging.

Conversion to digital has particular considerations for law enforcement agencies that include a crime laboratory and/or latent print units. Those agencies especially need to view conversion with an eye to the future and consider a full enterprise system to maximize efficiency and customer service.

A comprehensive forensic digital imaging system will obviously include a repository for controlling and storing digital images but also the components for a full enterprise system. A full enterprise system can take the system to the next level addressing acquisition of photos, secure storage of the images, and the capability of enhancing those images. It will also allow for laboratory analysis of evidence images, distribution of the images throughout the agency, provide for reporting, and connect to other computer systems such as AFIS and a Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS). Collaboration with other agencies and comprehensive digital based training would be a future benefit of this complete system.

The conversion process needs to be initiated with thorough research, followed by a comprehensive plan, including cogent justifications, paired with short and long term funding, supported by solid policy and procedures and the wise selection of software and components.

Some agencies have started—and ended—their digital conversion with a photo repository. While secure storage and secure access is a vital part of the system, it should be just a cog in the entire forensic imaging system wheel.

“An image repository is only one part of a complete forensic imaging system,” says Gary Crawford of Mideo Systems, a company that provides digital imaging packages to law enforcement. “The design of the system should be robust enough to include all phases of imaging.” The important lesson learned from unsuccessful conversion projects is that some agencies cannot expand or adapt when they have only one piece of the puzzle.

“All phases of a digital imaging system must be researched in order to be successful in a digital conversion project,” says Sabrina Cillessen, Latent Print Supervisor for the Arizona Department of Public Safety (AZDPS). “Especially if you intend to develop a lab wide system that provides all the essential digital imaging components.”

Essential to the research for a digital conversion is to have an open mind and the vision to understand where the system may be in the future. AZDPS has a progressive and comprehensive system within their crime laboratory and an understanding that conversion is a continuing process involving many components.

A good research method is to scout other agencies’ conversion schemes. The unsuccessful agencies can be polled to determine the mistakes they made and the successful agencies can be analyzed to follow their process.

More and more often law enforcement agencies have become disenchanted with the conversion process because they procured a hardware repository without the research needed to obtain the software for an efficient and all-inclusive forensic digital imaging system. Research the appropriate software. Software may be more important than hardware when considering a forensic digital imaging system. Hardware can often be procured through an agency’s IT section and is frequently interchangeable.

A common misstep for digital conversion is to submit to the appeal of so called “tier one vendor” software programs for managing forensic quality digital images. Typically these programs were designed for document coordination and storage.No matter how fully tested and proven these software programs are, they were not designed for forensics or to handle large evidence images. Additionally, these “tier one” programs often cannot handle the various types of media, such as video and car and taser cams, in use by law enforcement.As these software programs were originally designed for document storage, the large image catalogs from crime scenes and crime laboratories can bog them down and bring them to a crawl.

One interesting aspect of research is to investigate the underlying database software for the forensic digital image management program. The database should be based upon a universal or commonly used program, accessible by trained IT personnel, like Oracle.

It would also not be prudent to assume that typical off-the-shelf software or “free” alternatives can suffice to manage a department’s images. While it is important to consider a database program, widely available database programs are not designed for forensics and often are more complicated to learn and use. Using the existing OS (operating system), or a similar file management program, as an image management solution will not provide an agency with all the advantages of a database. The software chosen should not only manage the images but provide the search capabilities and the capacity for analysis and collaboration that a database affords.

The research phase is a good place to begin developing Policies and Procedures (SOPs) for digital imaging and digital image management. A sharing program of SOPs with other agencies should be a step in the research process.

After the essential research phase, a fully developed plan is the next step. Planning the digital conversion is extremely important, especially for an agency with many different units involved in the project. Digital technology, just like computers, will change and improve, this calls for an installation in phases with continuing upgrades.

Planning for digital conversion should include analysis of the infrastructure necessary to support all areas of digital imaging. The computer network should be analyzed to determine if it can support digital conversion. This is especially important for agencies that have several outlying substations and many physical locations throughout their jurisdiction. The network might need to be upgraded. The infrastructure necessary to support digital imaging may also include input stations, storage and image management servers, backup servers, forensic evidence cameras, and analysis workstation computers.

An effort should be made to include all involved units early on in the planning process. The photo unit, crime scene unit, forensic laboratory, traffic, detectives, and special details, even the in-house photo PR unit could be involved in early strategic planning sessions.

Planning should also include the needs of these various units within an agency. These needs include software for viewing images and software necessary for analysis, documentation, and reporting results.

“The different units of a crime lab, latent prints, DNA, trace, firearms, controlled substances, questioned documents, and toxicology, vary in their requirements of a digital imaging system,” says supervisor Cillessen. “Each unit’s workflow and key requirements should be identified in the research and planning phase. As each unit comes online, system changes will invariably need to be made. It works best to use small groups of users from each unit as a test group, to test the system’s configurations prior to it being implemented for the entire unit.” AZDPS has taken great strides toward an advanced automated workflow for a crime laboratory, especially in the area of automated documentation.

A workflow analysis should be conducted keeping in mind all the various units that will be involved in the conversion process. The workflow could include a thread for each of the units and how they will integrate with the entire system. The thread will include the workflow from the download stations and lab cameras, and an EPU (evidence processing unit), file handling and file naming procedures, case folder construction, and archive procedures to determine which units and users will ultimately have access to those photos and control their access.

The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD) realized that conversion should be done gradually and carefully, and that it will be a great advancement for the agency. Digital technology, implemented correctly, can enhance the integrity and public image of an agency.

“We want the LASD forensic laboratory to be the flagship for progressive technology in law enforcement,” says LASD’s Wesley Grose. LASD is progressing through the digital conversion process with the innovative concept of a paperless digital environment. “We intend to be a leader in forensic technology and digital imaging,” adds Grose. LASD’s conversion should become a model for other agencies making the transition.

Another major justification for film to digital conversion is the definite cost savings for the agency. Time and money is gained with digital processing over film processing and money is also saved using memory cards instead of film.

An interesting side note about going digital is that photographers will take more photos. Since, unlike film, it costs no more, photographers will increase the average photos taken on property crimes from 4 up to 12 and images will increase on a typical homicide from an average 100 up to several hundred.

During the analysis phase, especially in latent print analysis, digital image analysis requires a different mindset, that of color. Typical latent print comparisons are done in grey scale or B&W, digital images are in color and can provide more detail.

Further justifications for the expenditures necessary for a complete enterprise system are the “green” benefits of a paperless system created by electronic case notes and reports, and eliminating the need to print every image by conducting on-screen comparisons.

There are also ergonomic benefits. The physical well being of analysts is improved with on-screen comparisons by reducing the stress on the body that occurs when bent over peering into a loupe. With appropriate lighting, today’s larger high-resolution monitors, and antiglare screens a good level of ergonomic comfort can be achieved in a forensic workstation.

Most agencies have already begun digital conversion in some form, whether it is digital cameras in special units, digital photos from crime scene units, or digital documentation and analysis in the crime laboratory. Many of these agencies have digital files scattered throughout the departments, on CDs, network drives, and on workstation computers. All of these are a recipe for disaster. Preventing that disaster would, in itself, be justification for a comprehensive digital conversion program.

Even when funding opportunities are limited, the conversion to digital is still a priority. A secure, comprehensive digital conversion project can bring many rewards, and the return on investment can be great.

Policy and Procedures
A set of policies and procedures should be in place during the planning phase of a digital image conversion project. However, it should be understood that they will become a living document throughout the installation and first few months, if not years, of the project. The initial document should be written in general terms as procedures will change as workflows are ironed out and policy for access to the photos is established.

One important aspect to remember is that digital imaging is merely the newest progressive advancement in photography and this should be kept in mind when developing SOPs. Procedures for digital images should follow those applied to film. The issue in digital imaging is not chain-of-custody but image integrity. The SOPs should provide guidelines for proper procedures and workflow to maintain image integrity.1

Policies and procedures should include an acquisition and storage plan and an image integrity (security) plan. SOPs should also deal with the major challenges of digital photography:

  • Who has access to the images?
  • How will the images be stored and distributed?
  • How will the images be printed?
  • What will be the process of acquisition? (An EPU?)
  • After the original images are stored, who can access, enhance, and print the images?
  • What is the process for on-screen analysis?
  • How will the image analysis process be documented?
  • What audit trail for the images will be used?
  • What method will be used for case notes and reports?
  • Will the system be used for training?

The best system will automate many of these SOP issues.

The Scientific Working Group on Imaging Technologies (SWGIT), sponsored by the FBI, is a good source for recommendations and suggestions on policy and SOPs. These recommendations can be found online. SWGIT lists the reasons for developing comprehensive SOPs as: to ensure consistency, quality, integrity, and repeatability of the digital imaging process.

It is important to have a training plan in place for digital conversion. Training should be a gradual process. Agencies have found that broad training on the system is best at about the three month marker Experience has shown that any sooner and the training will not be fully absorbed by the users.More extensive training should then be conducted around the six to eight month marker.

Training should then continue on a periodic basis. One of the most frequent complaints about Photoshop is that users are trained in the software and then, because it is so complex, they cannot remember all the steps to accomplish their task, consequently the user avoids using the software. Additionally, employees rotating in and out of specialized units require frequent training. Recurring upgrades to the system may also require more frequent training.

Training may be the single most effective method of converting reluctant or less computer literate individuals. Properly planned and conducted, training can help individuals become more comfortable with the digital process and help the mental conversion of photographers reluctant to embrace the switch from film to digital.

Training in all areas of the digital conversion needs to be continuous, possibly presenting another funding issue. However, this is another area where proper direction of funds will pay off in the long run. Just as a complete enterprise system will serve an agency, so will continuous training. Training for DAs and prosecutors should also be considered just as testimony on court acceptance of digital photography in the courtroom should be included in the training program for all employees using the system.

Installation Process
It may be prudent to convert specific units first before rolling out the program to the entire agency. Units with a high use capacity, such as crime scene and latent prints could be used as test bed sites. The results can be analyzed to test infrastructure and policy and procedures to determine the most efficient methods. It would be wise, however, to procure funding for hardware and software site licenses for the projected usage to avoid falling short in the future. A full site conversion can also be effective depending upon the assessment and funding of the agency.

Some employees from the computer generation, the millenniums, are more amenable to digital cameras, digital image processing, and on-screen analysis and comparison, whereas some employees strongly prefer the status quo. The rest of the group’s sentiments will lie somewhere in the middle.

An installation plan including a familiarization period and a careful mix of individuals involved in the planning and training is recommended. This process can help bring along those individuals who may be reluctant to embrace the technology and highlight those who will contribute to the system with innovations and improvements.

If there are some lessons to be learned from this project it is that planning is the most important factor. Small details first. An extensive infrastructure should be in place first, including a sound computer network.

“Coordination with IT is imperative,” says Robert Miller, Latent Print Supervisor at the Phoenix Police Department. “Phoenix PD’s Crime Lab has an extremely knowledgeable and fully dedicated IT person who understands and supports the enterprise system” thus making the Phoenix PD Crime Laboratory a successful digital conversion site. The best installations will have an onsite IT representative.

A good digital image management software package will automate the input, storage, and retrieval of digital images/photos assuring system integrity and providing the capability for advanced imaging processes. Those processes may include image enhancement, case documentation, report generation, and the capacity for intra-unit and interagency collaboration making for a multi-dimensional or a full enterprise system installation.

Digital is not only an eventuality; it is clean, efficient, easy, and cost effective. The key is controlling the extent of digital immersion and following a comprehensive plan.




Steve Scarborough retired after 29 years as a LPE with LVMPD and is now a Forensic Consultant currently contracting with Mideo Systems. While with LVMPD he designed an Innovative AFIS System and brought in digital imaging.He has given numerous training courses in fingerprints and digital imaging and made presentations at IAI, SCAFO, and AAFS. Steve was also recognized by INTERPOL in Review Papers at the 14th International Forensic Science Symposium in Lyon, France, for the contribution to Digital Imaging.


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