Because your neurosurgeon shouldn’t also be your dentist, meet CrimePad — an app for working crime scenes

Remember a couple of years back, when Frontline went to task on the forensic science community? (Here’s the full clip.) It was more about doctor and medical examiner offices, but it revealed a deeply-flawed system — and that’s kind of a gigantic mess, considering this system sends people to prison for life in many cases. Those who work crime scenes face a number of issues, from onlookers to potential scene contamination to straight-up time-consuming tasks like labeling every piece of evidence. Now, like restaurants and other societal segments are doing, a tablet app is being trial-tested for the CSI world. It’s called, simply, CrimePad. Consider this sequence as why the world needs this app:

A woman is attacked and stabbed while out running. A Crime Scene Investigator works through the night to collect and catalog all the evidence–just hand-writing the evidence labels for a complex scene can consume several hours. Exhausted, the CSI goes home at 6 a.m. to grab a few hours sleep before writing up the report he uses to brief the criminal investigators assigned to the case.

Almost 24 hours have already passed since the stabbing occurred. That in itself is a problem; the first 48 hours after a crime has been committed are considered critical since the ability to track an offender, and often the value of the evidence itself, diminishes over time. Every hour that passes reduces the likelihood that the perpetrators will be caught.

Still, crime scene investigation is currently a tedious, manual, and largely paper-based process of documenting the conditions at a crime scene and collecting physical evidence. Smaller law enforcement agencies often only have one or two police officers trained as CSIs and they cannot be experts in all types of evidence. Then there’s the often a lengthy time lag between the collection of evidence and the point at which it becomes useful in the criminal investigation because of the manual process of collection, documentation, and lab work.

As you might guess, the app comes from people with FBI backgrounds via a company called Visionations, and is now being used in 250 agencies around the country (predominantly in CA, VA, and TN). The app has a couple of different functionalities that make it super important: for example, because you’re entering all the data once (at the time with the highest fidelity, i.e. the actual crime scene), the app can take the data and look for patterns among things — fingerprint placements, location of blood, location of weapons, etc. The other tangible advantage is that often, a case won’t go to trial for 2-3 years, and the main forensic tech almost always has to testify at these types of trials — to essentially re-create the scene for the jury. Notes can get lost or re-contextualized over time, but with CrimePad, the initial notes should be detailed and true, with strong photos and the like, even 36 months later. Here’s another strong argument, via the head of DC’s Forensic Science unit:

“They traffic in information and that’s why we are thinking of using CrimePad. It helps get them away from essentially being accountants at the scene and having to worry about where’s my form, where’s my clipboard, is my pen out of ink, do we call this number one or number two? Are we calling this the front room or the living room? All those little decisions, you want to push those to rote activity with accuracy so they can be there and think. A product like CrimePad has the potential to help the scientists to use their brain. That’s their number one tool.”

CrimePad is also adding a feature where, if you’re not an expert in a specific type of evidence, you can call on an expert remotely in real-time (almost akin to the Amazon pop-up feature that they’re advertising now). It’s like calling customer service on blood splatter, in a way.

Out of the entire profile of CrimePad, this section probably made the most sense / sounded the coolest to me:

Crime Scene investigation and forensic science are increasingly complex and high-tech affairs. That comes with its own problems. “The O.J. Simpson case pointed out deficiencies in how police work crime scenes,” says Homeyer “and largely the case collapsed because they didn’t handle the evidence correctly. They didn’t take advantage of everything because they are asked to wear 10 different hats, and now because of the advances in science that gap is even greater.”

“Policing is a complicated, technical, and demanding profession,” adds Houck. “So is science. And asking one person to do both is like saying my neurosurgeon should also be my dentist.”

Ultimately, the point of technology is to make life easier, or functionally more effective. It seems only logical that app technology would apply to crime scenes at some point, and while there are concerns — would the app relate things too easily, or things that don’t deserve causation, if the coding is off? — it’s probably one of the better uses for a tablet that I’ve seen in the bucket of “weird new things people are doing with tablets.” I’d much rather the right guy gets sent to prison for a crime than someone is able to order cool shit at Chili’s, you know what I mean?

Here’s a little bit more about CrimePad and the broader FBI training process for crime scene techs, which is pretty interesting.

Ted Bauer