New Roanoke police technology could make or break court cases

‘I can bring a judge or a jury who are sitting in a courtroom, basically back into a scene’

ROANOKE, Va. – New equipment used by the Roanoke City Police Department is bringing Hollywood-like technology seen on shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation to life locally. For the first time this year, the evidence capture by that technology can be used in court.

Roanoke Police use a FARO Focus 3D Laser Scanner to collect evidence at crime scenes. It uses a laser and a spinning mirror to capture millions of pictures. Then, computer software puts those pictures together to create a 3D image of a crime scene.

Each scan can take just a few minutes or up to two hours. In order to get a complete 3D image, officers have to move the FARO, which sits on a tripod, around the crime scene to capture all vantage points. That could mean they have to perform four to more than 50 separate scans.

Capturing the FARO images and creating the complete digital image can take hours to complete each task. Forensic Investigator Chris Levering said it can be time-consuming upfront, but saves time for officers later on.

“Obviously, the longer the scans, the better the quality, but then the longer you’re there doing scans,” Levering said.

Roanoke Police bought the FARO in February 2019 and have used it at more than a dozen crime scenes since. Due to the time-consuming nature of the equipment, Roanoke Police only use the FARO at murders or possible homicides and deadly or near-deadly traffic accidents.

Any movement or reflective surfaces in the background can also mess up the images the FARO captures. If that happens, the final product can appear pixelated or grainy.

That’s why police still take photographs and measurements at crime scenes by hand.

“I can bring a judge or a jury who are sitting in a courtroom, basically back into a scene," Levering said. “It’s a matter of getting to trial to testify to be able to show it."

Roanoke City’s Commonwealth’s Attorney Don Caldwell said starting this spring, those FARO images will be admissible as evidence in court.

“It’s just like watching TV,” Caldwell said.

Juries and judges will now be able to see the same evidence at the same time, leaving less room for confusion or interpretation.

“I’ve been asked several times, you know, ‘Will this make or break a case?’ I’m not going to say it won’t sometime make or break a case,” said Caldwell. "But generally, the crime scene and just having people understand what’s there and what’s not--as a group, simultaneously, so they’re all looking at it from the same point of view -- has been harder to do. And I think this is where this evolving technology really helps a trial.”

The FARO cost Roanoke Police just under $57,000 for all the equipment, training and software. However, it was purchased using asset forfeiture funds, so it didn’t cost city taxpayers. It is also significantly less expensive than similar models used by Virginia State Police, which cost around $250,000.

Caldwell said the price tag could prevent other police departments from getting the technology and many courtrooms are old, and would have to adapt to be able to show the FARO images in court. Though he added that this is the direction criminal justice is moving, and just like technology, the system is changing with the times.

“I would point out: it helps both ways. It helps the prosecution. It helps the defense," Caldwell said. “Roanoke City Police Department, I think, is on the cutting edge and made a good decision to go with this."

Levering said he would eventually like to use the FARO to capture images of area schools to create a detailed incident response plan based on the building layouts.

The FARO has WIFI capabilities to use cellphones as a remote control, so officers don’t have to get in the way of it capturing images. It can also be linked with GPS, bodycam or dashcam footage.

The Henry County Sheriff’s Office also uses FARO technology.

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