Crime tech quickening forensics analysis

In a Wednesday talk, forensic scientist Peter Massey explained how advances in portable police technologies can accelerate criminal investigations.
In a Wednesday talk, forensic scientist Peter Massey explained how advances in portable police technologies can accelerate criminal investigations. Photo by Lorenzo Ligato.

As new developments in forensic science lead to easily portable police technologies, law enforcement agencies nationwide will be able to attain lab testing results immediately and thus speed up criminal investigations, according to forensic scientist Peter Massey.

A Wednesday afternoon talk on the future of forensic science drew a crowd of roughly 25 people to the University of New Haven’s Marvin K. Peterson Library, located at 300 Boston Post Rd. in West Haven, Conn. Speaking in front of students and colleagues, Massey — a former detective in the Hamden Police Department and now a lecturer at the University of New Haven — said recent advances in forensic science have concentrated on developing devices that can be easily transported to the crime scene and yield immediate analysis results.

“The goal is to bring the laboratory out to the crime scene,” Massey said. “This is where the future of forensic science is going.”

Many of these newest instruments in forensic science can provide a solution to old problems, Massey said. For instance, a spectroscopic technique called Raman spectroscopy can be used to detect molecular vibrations in suspicious powdery substances and determine if they are potentially explosive.

“Two days ago, Gov. [Dannel] Malloy received a letter with powder,” Massey said. “Less than 10 years ago, that situation would have been handled much differently.”

Until approximately 2006, the common protocol for situations involving potentially explosive powders required law enforcement agencies to destroy the substance with bleach. However, this line of action often led to losing potential evidence such as the fingerprints left on the letter, Massey said. Today, he added, Raman spectroscopy allows investigators to identify “almost immediately” dangerous powders and explosives, without destroying potentially significant evidence.

Other technologies have been developed out of the same advances in spectroscopy. One example is the Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy, or FTIR, a technique used to identify drugs in a variety of gases, liquids and solids. For decades, this procedure could be performed only in forensic laboratories with the aid of voluminous and weighty equipment. Today, Massey said, engineers have been able to fabricate devices that collect spectral data from items found at the crime scene but are easily movable and lightweight.

Similarly, Massey added, X-Ray diffraction methods have been significant for the analysis of spectra of powders, solids, drugs, paints, pigments and explosives.

Several of the most recent crime technologies have found their application in the ongoing fight against illegal consumption and distribution of alcohol and psychoactive drugs. From handheld electronic narcotic sniffers to flashlight sensors detecting alcohol levels in the air, many devices have become new tools for police departments across the nation to combat problems like drunk and drug-impaired driving, according to Massey.

He added that another area of advancement in the past several years has been biometric technologies, or identification of humans by their facial traits and other characteristics.

Massey said that engineers have developed portable devices that can match up the position of facial characteristics, scan fingerprints and then transmit the data acquired wirelessly to governmental databases for further investigation. Widely deployed in military settings to identify terrorists in the Middle East, trait-recognition devices have been filtering down to federal and state law enforcement agencies as the technology behind them has become more affordable, he said. Some of these devices, he added, are available for roughly $2,000 dollars.

Similarly, some companies have developed tools that use near-infrared light to produce a digital image of a person’s veins, which can help identify a potential suspect during investigations.

Some of the newest technologies discussed during the talk are already in use in several federal and state law enforcement agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and many police departments in Alabama, Mississippi and Utah. Police departments in Connecticut have been slower in following suit, Massey said.

“With the exception of big incidents, our lab people don’t leave the lab to go to the crime scene,” he said. “The technology is there: It’s just a matter of whether we are going to adopt it or not.”

Wednesday’s talk on new advances in forensic science was the first lecture in a series sponsored by the University of New Haven Library this semester.

“It’s great how the crime scene is now becoming the real laboratory,” said Hanko Dobi, the university librarian at the University of New Haven. “The library is happy to give faculty members like Massey a forum to present their research and discuss their ideas.”

Massey retired from the Hamden Police Department in June 2003 to serve as the training coordinator for the National Crime Scene Training and Technology Center at the Henry C. Lee Institute of Forensic Science of the University of New Haven.

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