Catch Me If You Can: The Evolution of Technology in the Context of Criminal Investigation

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By: Treja Jones

Americans are fascinated by the mystique of criminal investigations. Books, movies, tv shows, and even board games about “whodunit” murder mysteries, have popularized the challenge and intrigue of catching criminals. Though the American audience enjoys the drama of crime fiction, the technological challenges of improving criminal investigations have been all too real. Over the years, advancements in technology have aided law enforcement in the ease of identifying, apprehending, and convicting guilty criminals. This article briefly explores the historical evolution of technology’s role in criminal investigation.

Twentieth-Century Criminal Investigation Methods

Criminal investigation in the early to mid 20th century was complicated by a lack of technological resources that lead to difficulties in tracking and arresting criminals. As author Penny Bailey states in her article “Before DNA – 20th Century Forensics”, “[w]e tend to think that before Alec Jeffries’ eureka moment in 1984, when he realized that genetic variations in DNA could identify individuals, crime investigations were really just guesswork.” The first recorded private detective agency in the United States, the “Pinkertons”, which formed in 1846, relied primarily upon photographs of crime scenes to piece together criminal puzzles and determine who was suspect of committing crimes. The method of using photographs to identify suspects continued into the late 19th and early 20th century. Criminal detectives recognized criminals on the street after studying photographs of known offenders. In 1924 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was established, and in 1932 formed its first crime laboratory. In the early years of the FBI, detectives began experimenting with other methods of criminal investigation and suspect identification, such as “comparison of handwriting samples, comparison of typewritings, the taking of fingerprints, the classification of fingerprints, moulage ballistics, and similar technical criminological [methods].” At that time, “[while] it was possible to determine if [a blood] stain was human blood and what the type of blood was, the state of the art in blood science at that time could not prove whether a specific suspect had left the stain.” The study of criminalistics during 1925-1935 was further complicated by limited resources, such as the scarcity of crime labs and forensic equipment, and by budgetary restrictions that were the result of the Great Depression.

In the absence of a nationwide crime database, identifying criminals presented law enforcement with complex challenges. It was near impossible for states to work together to identify or catch a criminal committing crimes across multiple states because police departments in various locations had no way of knowing who was suspected or convicted of committing crimes in any other state.  Before current surveillance methods, such as the use of security cameras, apprehending criminals and tracing their whereabouts was far more difficult than it would be today, and without forensic evidence to tie suspected criminals to their crimes, cases were far more difficult to prove.

In the second half of the 20th century, advancements in technology and science resolved many of the aforementioned complications. In 1967, the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), the first nation-wide crime database, was launched. The NCIC works by allowing law enforcement agencies nationwide access to records entered into the NCIC by criminal justice agencies. “For example, a law enforcement officer can search NCIC during a traffic stop to determine if the vehicle in question is stolen or if the driver is wanted by law enforcement. The system responds instantly.” The use of NCIC simplified the process of identifying criminals by giving law enforcement agencies easier access to criminal records.

In 1948, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), an organization of forensic scientists in America, was established and the application of forensics became widely applied. The use of forensics in criminal investigation included methods such as, pathology and the use of autopsy reports to identify causes of death, toxicology, the study of the effects of chemicals on living organisms, and criminalistics, the study of physical crime scene evidence. “By the mid 1960s, forensic developments led to the identification of firearm residues left on skin and clothing, Breathalyzer tests to determine sobriety and determinations of post-mortem cooling had been perfected.” Perhaps the most significant form of forensic science used to simplify criminal investigation was the use of DNA evidence, first developed in 1985. The first nationwide DNA database was created in 1998, and allowed law enforcement agencies across the country to match DNA profiles of suspects to existing DNA profiles in the system in order to demonstrate a suspects connection to a crime scene.

Security Cameras were first used in the 1940’s and 1950’s, and as technology improved, their use and effectiveness increased. Security cameras both deter crime and help law enforcement solve crimes by providing video footage of crimes being committed. Captured security camera footage has helped law enforcement create timelines of criminal events, and identify suspects, victims and witnesses.

Criminal Investigation Today

Technology has advanced significantly, allowing law enforcement the current-day ability to more easily track, catch, and prove criminals committing crimes. Technologies such as cell-phones, GPS tracking, computers, and facial recognition all aid in the process of modern-day criminal investigation. Today some of the newest technologies involved in criminal investigation processes include the use of drones by law enforcement to get a bird’s-eye-view of crime scenes, gunshot detection systems which are “systems of electronic sensors installed in high-crime areas [that] help police quickly detect where any gunshots come from”, automatic license plate recognition systems which utilize “cameras inside of police cars that can automatically run every single license plate the camera sees”, and GPS tracking darts, “a new device [which] allows police to shoot a small sticky dart containing a micro GPS tracker from the grill of their patrol car onto a suspect’s vehicle.”

Today technology impacts the criminal justice system in very significant ways. “Applications of machine learning and other types of prediction algorithms”, such as “software that identifies someone with an outstanding warrant when they’re seen by an officer’s body-worn camera”, help to reduce error resulting from human biases, and can aid in the determination of sentencing. Additionally, “improved methods of electronic monitoring can substitute for incarceration.” Developments in home monitoring and surveillance may allow wider use of probation as a means of criminal retribution as opposed to jail time, for low-level offenders. As another example, body cameras worn by police are being used to keep law enforcement accountable, deterring crime by law enforcement agents, and are also providing footage of arrests, deterring crimes against arresting officers, and providing evidence for cases that go to trial. Technology in the realm of criminal investigation has come a long way in recent years. With the continued and improved use of nationwide criminal databases, surveillance systems, and forensics, the early challenges of criminal investigation have long been overcome.

But with the development of new investigative technologies, new problems have arisen. Facial recognition systems create privacy concerns because they allow government and criminal agencies to identify individuals and keep tabs on where those individuals are. Algorithmic discrimination is another serious concern. Computer programs driven by human-made algorithms reproduce social preferences which can result in discrimination. For example, “[r]esearch from Harvard University found that ads for arrest records were significantly more likely to show up on searches for distinctively black names or a historically black fraternity.” Though the earlier deficits of technological criminal investigation seem to be a thing of the past, as new technologies continue to be developed, new concerns will continue to emerge. Despite such concerns, each new technological advancement in the investigative field brings us one step closer to a safer society.

 

 

 

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