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3-D camera keeps crime scenes intact

Western New York law enforcement officials have purchased a new high tech tool that they say will have a significant impact on turning evidence and arrests into convictions.


Just like a regular still camera, the Leica Scan Station sits on a tripod. But instead of taking one picture, it records more than a million points of visual information and forges it all together into a 3-D image.

“This machine can catalog and measure entire rooms, buildings, or outdoor crime scenes to preserve that information forever,” says Chris Collins, Erie County Executive. “Law enforcement officials can then go back and see a 3-D bird’s eye view of the crime scene if need be years later.”

It essentially does for crime scenes what Google Earth did for neighborhoods and streets.

The $175,000 device (paid for with Homeland Security funds) won’t be used for every crime scene, but will instead getting dusted off for homicides, fatal accidents, some fires and disasters.

Mostly the camera will be used corroborate information given by witnesses, which often pop up days or weeks after a crime scene has been cleaned up.

“We could actually take the witness [who says] they were standing at a certain point. We can put them in that video, make that point on that video and see exactly what they would see,” says John Simic, Public Safety Lab Director of Erie County.

This kind of access to the past could come in handy in establishing a witness’s credibility - evidence gathered with the machines has withstood court challenges in other parts of the country.

And local investigators have been waiting for a tool like this.

“Obviously, the most important thing is to go back after a crime scene has been cleaned, and if there’s a piece of evidence or a measurement that you need, this scan station will be able to do that, literally within seconds,” says Peter Vito, Central Police Services Commissioner.

Police will also use the gadget to preemptively scan Buffalo's downtown HSBC Arena and the suburban Ralph Wilson Stadium. Past threats of violence at the sports complexes have led police to want intact visual information for those locations.

The new tool will not replace any existing part of the county’s approach to investigations, but instead adds another level of certainty to evidence collected at a crime scene.

“Right now at a crime scene they take still photos, digital photos. And I believe all agencies also do a video, a walk-through video tape, which is usually a little jumpy. This will not replace that,” Vito says.

Any police department in the county can request the machine at any time, but only a handful of officials have been trained on it so far. 

WBFO/Western New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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