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Santa Fe police want 3D crime scene scanners

December 22, 2018

Imagine sitting in a jury box, watching a homicide trial.

You might expect to look at maps and blueprints of a crime scene, or review photos as attorneys talk about key points of the case.

But what if jurors could view that crime scene much like a virtual-reality video game? If they could see a 3D rendering of the scene and examine the inside and outside of a building with a detailed virtual model of the place where a body was found or a crime committed?

The time for that is near.

Law enforcement agencies, including the New Mexico State Police, are increasingly using 3D laser scanners to digitally capture crime scenes, analyze data and later present it as evidence in court.

The Santa Fe Police Department wants in.

Police investigators say the technology will reduce human error in processing crime scenes, cut down on the time that police need to investigate and guard a scene, and permanently store a copy of what that untouched scene looked like. Lawyers are on board, too.

“This is the latest and greatest technology,” Chief Andrew Padilla said at a city Public Safety Committee meeting this week. “This is what the crime lab is wanting to see, along with the DA’s office.”

District Attorney Marco Serna said he’s a proponent of the technology, which is currently only used by New Mexico State Police.

“It’s a great visual for jurors to see while we present our evidence because it’s as close as you’re going to get within that crime scene without actually being there,” Serna said. “It’s great technology that would not only help police in their investigation but us in prosecution.”

Public Defender Jennifer Burrill said she hasn’t been involved with any cases in which the scanners were used but thinks they would be a helpful tool for seeing where evidence was discovered when considering defense strategy.

“I think if they have that, it would be very beneficial,” she said.

Officer Ray Wilson, a spokesman for New Mexico State Police, said that agency uses Leica brand 3D scanners for crime scene investigation and crash analysis.

The agency has four scanners that cost about $90,000 each, Wilson said.

Both the state police crime scene team and crash reconstruction unit’s scanners “are used often,” Wilson wrote in an email. He said the agency would like to have more of the scanners, if they weren’t so expensive.

Santa Fe police are asking City Hall to approve funds for a slightly different type of scanner made by the company FARO.

The agency asked the city Public Safety Committee this week to recommend approval of their request for two of the FARO 3D scanners at a cost of about $158,400.

The department wants to use the scanners for reconstructing major traffic crashes and to scan felony crime scenes, they said.

In a memo requesting the funds, Deputy Chief Robert Vasquez explained that the technology helps investigators move through a scene more quickly by collecting millions of data points so the scene can be virtually recreated later. The measuring capabilities also eliminate the need for clunky tape measurements at a scene and allow officers to do digital renderings of bullet trajectories or blood spatter.

City police currently have a 2D scanner that they use for crash-site mapping, Lt. Jose Gonzales told the committee, but even using that technology can require staff to investigate and guard a scene for upward of four hours.

The FARO scanners could potentially cut that time in half, Gonzales said.

“We are one of the largest agencies in Northern New Mexico. Not only are we looked upon as an example … we also lend a helping hand to our smaller surrounding agencies,” Gonzales told the Public Safety Committee. “So, this equipment doesn’t only benefit the city of Santa Fe, it benefits the residents of Santa Fe County and even our surrounding neighbors.”

Whether the department will get two scanners for its Investigations and Traffic divisions remains uncertain.

Padilla told Public Safety Committee members that the City Council’s Finance Committee had expressed concerns about allowing the department to purchase two FARO scanners.

Still, the department is asking for both.

“One is none and two is one,” Deputy Police Chief Ben Valdez told the Public Safety Committee. “People who run around without a spare live dangerously. … Having that equipment as a backup really helps out.”

The Public Safety Committee voted to recommend the full City Council approve purchase of both scanners.

Crime scene investigators at the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office are curious about the scanners, too, but department spokesman Juan Ríos said any potential budget request for the scanners is a ways off.

“I think the technology is something that the crime scene technician … is interested in as something that could improve the type of work they do in the field,” Rios said, “The question is: Is this something that is going to be prioritized, that we would set aside money for? And I don’t know.”

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