Brookhaven Crime Scene Investigations Supervisor Jeff Hightower twisted the black U-shaped device into place atop the tripod, inserted a battery and then pressed a red button on a screen to turn the machine on.
A soft whirring sound radiated from the machine as the tiny mirror in the center of the device started spinning rapidly. Invisible to the naked eye, an infrared laser was busy scanning every inch of the room where police officers were working at their desks.
The machine is called the FARO 3D laser scanner, purchased earlier this year by the city for $62,000 using asset forfeiture funds. Asset forfeiture funds can be criminal or civil and are items, including cash, that can legally be confiscated by law enforcement if believed to be involved in a crime.
Hightower and the police department’s other CSI investigator, Shelby Little, say the new device puts the Brookhaven Police Department at the forefront of crime scene investigations by using the latest technology.
“It’s a really slick system,” Hightower said.
The portable scanner system works by scanning a scene up to 70 meters. By using specialized software that layers all the images scanned, the FARO creates a 3D image and virtual reality scene onto a computer screen not unlike a futuristic video game.
With a few clicks of a mouse using the special software, the viewer can then essentially embed into a crime scene as if they were standing there. The images and animations are also available to be studied long after the crime scene has been cleared, Hightower said.
The FARO machine can be used in daylight or complete darkness to record every detail of a scene as well as measurements from one area to another.
It also takes still photographs as part of gathering evidence.
That is not quite like the crime shows you might see on television where investigators quickly solve a crime with fictional technology, but “this is getting closer to that,” Hightower said.
“Today’s science fiction is tomorrow’s history,” he added.
The U-shaped device, or scanner head, records everything it sees as data points, Hightower explained. Those data points can then be digitally manipulated to create measurements, diagrams, recreate and animate scenes for a virtual reality look at a crime or accident scene.
The FARO allows users to recreate a “walk-through” of a scene that can be used in the courtroom to give jurors a close look, Hightower said.
One recent scene scanned by Hightower was in a parking lot on Buford Highway, where a victim was beaten by unknown suspects. He scanned the scene with FARO in less than two hours.
The images offer an aerial view of the scene that Hightower can then click on a keyboard and mouse to zoom in and move through the area as if he were there.
The FARO can be used at accident scenes when officers are intent on collecting all information available, but also clearing the road to allow traffic to move again.
“What sometimes took us four or five ours to record, now can take as little as 45 minutes with the FARO,” he said. “This is tons easier than the older method.”
That older method included using rulers and measuring tape and taking sometimes hundreds of pictures.
So far, none of FARO’s recorded scans have been used in court, but the District Attorney’s office is trained on how to use the equipment to lead jurors through a scene using the computer 3D imagery, he said.
Another benefit of the FARO is the ability to scan the layouts of buildings, such as schools, churches or government facilities, Hightower said.
Should an incident like an active shooter or other crime take place in one of these facilities, police officers would be able to pull up a 3D image of the building on a computer and see exactly where all the turns, corners and doors are located before sending in SWAT or other officers, he explained.
“It’s better than a blueprint,” he said.
So far, Brookhaven has not yet completed that exercise, but plans are to do so, he added.
“This machine is really user-friendly. Anyone with basic computer skills can use it,” he said.