Forensic Laboratory 2030 – Investigation Activities

Wed, 01/09/2013 - 6:34am
Adam DenmarkMichael Mount

Read part 1 in this series:

The rapid pace of technological innovation has not only improved our lives in many ways, but also fundamentally changed the way that we do business. As this change occurs, standard operating procedures continue to evolve. In the second installment of the Forensic Laboratory 2030 series, we will focus the microscope of prognostication on laboratory investigations and the activities surrounding them.

New technologies are changing the way forensic investigations are performed.

Primary Activities
As technology advances, investigation methods change and forensic science continues to garner interest from the public—due in part to the entertainment industry’s love affair with the topic—the nature of the science and the primary activities of investigators will drastically evolve. Responsibilities will increasingly involve validation of field test results to produce official conclusions. As a result, scientists will need to take a greater role in advising investigative agencies as to the proper means and methods of scene preservation, evidence procurement, and testing. Investigators will need to remain on the cutting edge of technology to satisfy the often unrealistic expectation of juries, a direct result of the CSI effect. Depending on the ultimate resolution of laboratory control (law enforcement vs. independent), facilities may increasingly utilize resources to perform work not directly involving the lab and be seen as centers for law enforcement technology. Evolving accreditation requirements will require greater amounts of documentation that will increase time in the office discerning results and decrease time in the lab producing them.

Increasing technological capacities are also leading to rising levels of automation. Ideal targets include repetitive tasks, methods involving hazards, and those requiring constant focus. Reducing human involvement not only speeds up the process, but creates an overall safer working environment for staff. Driven by a strong non-forensic market, DNA applications, such as sampling, will continue to be on the leading edge of this movement, but will not be alone. To some extent, every laboratory section will continue to see an increase in systems that allow computers to perform tasks and scientists to direct them. Automation of evidence handling systems will enable a more accurate tracking of an item’s location, responsible party, and current point in the investigative process. Additionally, we’ll see a stronger link between scientific instruments and the documentation process, creating higher throughput work environments for producing data. While this will remove a level of human error from the data creation process, it will require appropriate support by scientists on the data synthesis side to adequately manage this increased output.


Quickly evolving computer technologies are paving the way for more efficient investigations.

Computer Technologies
Laptops, tablets, and other wireless devices not only allow us to rent a movie on the go and book reservations at a favorite restaurant, but will continue to influence day-to-day laboratory operations. Already a fixture in many households, these advanced computer and application technologies will continue to weave their way into the fabric of the investigation process. Wireless infrastructure within the facility, for example, will allow for investigations to occur in a wide range of environments and enhance the ability for internal collaboration. Handwritten notes will become a bygone relic as information and records become digitally based. As covered in our first article of this series, this will reduce space required for filing physical paperwork, but increase the need for servers and other electronic storage mediums and their backup systems. The digital nature of information, and the increasing speeds at which it can be moved, will increase data transfer to a wider range of destinations.

The growing use of digital photography will speed up the ability to deliver information to the laboratory for distribution and collaboration. Advancements in 3D scene documentation will provide a greater level of detail to investigators than previously available. This technology will produce 360 degree views and enable virtual distance measurements, blood spatter trajectory analysis, and detailed presentations for use in and out of the laboratory. Once the crime scene is abandoned and digital images are combined, investigators will be able to view the scene from every possible vantage point opening the doors to otherwise difficult to discern information. Items thought to be inconsequential at the scene will be able to be easily studied at a later date and shared in detail. When coupled with immersive digital environment technologies, investigators will be able to virtually re-enter the crime scene further enhancing scene awareness. Increased remote instrumentation control will help break the chains binding investigators to the laboratory and allow for operation and data gathering from a host of different environments. As data comparisons become more efficient, throughput capacity will also increase as a result. Ultimately, investigators will be able to produce better, more consistent results with fewer staff and other resources.


Remote conferencing and other virtual communications can facilitate the investigation process, reducing the need to travel for meetings, interviews, and training.

Virtual Communication
Returning to the scene of the crime? Evolving communication methods may enable a return for some to the role of crime scene investigator as opposed to that of pure forensic scientist. On-site tracking systems will allow scientists to electronically pre-log evidence before it departs the crime scene. Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) sample tracking systems will accelerate scanning (hundreds at a time vs. one with bar codes) and pinpoint an item’s current location along the investigative chain. As opposed to other tracking systems that require direct contact or line of sight to enable communication, RFID can record data, without direct view, over a range of distances depending on the power output of the device and is able to track a number of data points regarding its host. This electronic chain-of-custody will help organize and optimize evidence processing.

Video conferencing capabilities will enhance communication between main and satellite labs resulting in faster investigative processes and streamlined peer reviews. Those auditing laboratory processes will be able to perform tasks remotely and automate certain elements. Staff will not need to leave the lab as often for presentations, meetings, conferences, or even the crime scene as these elements move increasingly into a virtual environment. Increased acceptance of video testimony will lead to reduced travel and time in the courtroom. Electronic voice recognition software will simplify and speed up note taking allowing for greater connectivity between thoughts and record.

Emerging Systems
The emergence of new forensic laboratory equipment will not only enhance the practice of forensic science, but create new means of examination. Improvements in portable ALS devices will result in better on-scene investigations. Connected lines of instrumentation will reduce wait times for evidence results and enable faster turn around and fewer backlogs. With the expanded array of available data points, DNA chip technology has the potential to accelerate investigations and provide more detailed information than in the past. Cost reductions and the expansion of applications for this technology will help solidify its role as an indispensable investigation tool. Database-centric systems will continue to find new applications for the technology and increase the ability for data mining to extract important information. These systems will enable scientists to uncover previously unconnected patterns and make better use of known investigative information.

As recently as three years ago, tablet computers were a tried and failed technology that had yet to capture the attention of consumers. Today they are an indispensible tool for social and business activities to a great number of people. It is impossible to completely predict the ways in which industry, technology, society, government, and other influences will affect the future of forensic investigation activities, but we can graph the trajectory. Advancements in equipment to support field testing will change the day-to-day responsibilities of investigators. Automation of tasks will increase safety, reliability, and capacity. The increasingly digital nature of data will change how evidence is shared and investigated. Virtual communication systems will affect both time in and out of the laboratory environment. Emerging equipment and instrumentation will not only refine investigation methods, but open doors to currently unimagined techniques. Thoughtful consideration of tomorrow’s potential realities can help facilities to make smarter decisions today that create more effective environments down the road.

Read part 3 of this series:

Adam Denmark, AIA, LEED AP, has 15 years of targeted experience in all project phases of laboratory design and construction. He serves as a laboratory planning and design architect at SmithGroupJJR, where he specializes in forensic science and medicine, and BSL-3 facility design.

Michael Mount, AIA, LEED AP, has spent the last 22 years devoted exclusively to forensics, both forensic laboratories and coroner/medical examiner facilities. As the leader of SmithGroupJJR’s team of forensic design specialists, Mount has been involved in the design and planning of more than 50 forensics facilities in the U.S. and abroad.




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