There are billions of hours of evidence recorded every day, making video the most prolific source of evidence available to the police investigator. It is involved in 85% of all cases and seen as vital evidence by 96% of investigators. Not only that, but body worn camera technology and increased public scrutiny mean that no one is recorded more than law enforcement officers themselves.
Today, every officer should expect that all contact with a member of the public will be recorded. As a result, most senior police managers have recognized the need to develop a video examination strategy within their agencies, but many are struggling to determine whether they need a civilian video expert or an experienced investigator to take on that job.
Here at iNPUT-ACE, we know forensic video. In fact, INPUT-ACE was developed and is maintained by certified Forensic Video Analysts and Technicians with decades of combined experience.
In this article, we will explore several strategies for managing your agency’s video evidence. These are the same strategies we have used to help thousands of police agencies around the world overcome their video evidence challenges. We will then help define and demystify the often-misunderstood role of the Forensic Video Analyst.
Let’s get started.
Forensic Video Strategy: Who Should Investigate Video in Your Agency?
Video is the most prolific source of evidence available to the police investigator today. But there are important questions to consider when implementing a department-wide strategy to elicit the full potential of the visual evidence.
The fast-paced growth of video evidence and the impact video has in court means that video is a problem agencies need to solve today, not one that can be put off until the distant future. 70% of officers are interacting with video evidence already – can you be confident in their ability to handle the evidence in a forensically sound way?
The most common questions agencies ask us when building a video evidence strategy include:
- Do we need a Forensic Video Analyst? Or can our Investigators handle the work?
- Should we seek help from an external Forensic Video Analyst? Or hire a full-time civilian analyst or develop a sworn officer to become an FVA?
- If we go with a civilian video analyst, do they fully understand the key elements required to support a specific criminal charge?
- Can civilian analysts identify and articulate the important visual observations that may be critical to the case at hand?
- If we promote from within, does the police investigator have the technical skills, experience, and video knowledge to leverage the power of visual evidence appropriately and accurately?
- Can the investigator defend their interpretation and processing of the video evidence at trial?
- Will the officer be working in that capacity long enough to justify the training investment?
Whatever your strategy for approaching video examinations, understanding the role of a video analyst and appreciating the advanced computer skills of today’s new breed of investigator can help guide you to a resolution that meets your agency’s unique needs.
What strategy is best? This certainly depends on the unique needs and size of your agency. In short, investigators and Forensic Video Analysts will get the best results when they partner together on video investigations.
For mid-sized to large agencies with adequate budgets, and a need to ensure accurate interpretation of video evidence, especially in force investigations, an FVA brings depth to each investigation and instills confidence among senior managers that no stone was left unturned. When a police chief recommends dismissal or forwards a case for criminal charges based in some part on the video evidence, the decision is likely among the most difficult a chief will make.
What is the cost of confidence? On average, the cost of maintaining a qualified FVA on staff, with the tools and training required for the job, is less than the cost of keeping an officer on the street.
For agencies of all sizes, the cost associated with educating and equipping every investigator to become video-competent is generally less than it would cost to develop and maintain a full time FVA on staff. In-service training, combined with a universal digital video player, purpose-built for criminal investigations, puts the power of video review in every officer’s hand without the need to be experts.
Let’s look at their respective roles to see how they can support each other.
What Attributes Best Define a Typical Forensic Video Analyst?
The definition of Forensic Video Analysis (FVA) is the scientific examination, comparison, and/or evaluation of video in legal matters. An agency’s decision of whether to hire a civilian or to assign a sworn officer to the position is influenced by a number of factors, but that decision starts with the police commander gaining some knowledge about the actual field.
Acquiring the skills and experience to conduct FVA work and to offer scientific evidence in court requires training and time.
A professional video analyst will often evaluate the reliability of images by conducting a forensic examination of important technical issues that may impact reliability, such as macroblock effects and other artefacts of digital video compression that may require deep knowledge of the science.
The analyst might also perform specialized testing on a particular camera, Digital Video Recorder (DVR), or set of data for the purpose of estimating vehicle speeds or obtaining suspect height.
Rarely does enhancement provide value. Most experienced video analysts know that the ability to successfully enhance digital video images is primarily a Hollywood-perpetrated myth that almost never produces an accurate or reliable outcome outside of specific recording conditions.
Ultimately, the Forensic Video Analyst’s primary duty is to the court. Prior to testifying, the FVA’s job is to provide an accurate interpretation of video evidence to help move a case forward, and to guard against misuse or misrepresentation of video evidence by the untrained observer, including the case investigator or prosecutor.
Who is the Ideal Forensic Video Analyst Candidate?
If your agency is considering hiring an internal Forensic Video Analyst, it’s worth understanding who would make a great fit.
The ideal FVA candidate might be the university grad who focused on scientific studies at school, the computer engineering student, or the broadcasting graduate who has an aptitude and interest in the legal applications of digital video.
Alternatively, some agencies develop FVA candidates from within their own department. These agencies start by identifying civilian employees who have excelled in previous assignments. The ideal applicant is one who embraces technology, can write well, and will remain employed for the long haul.
The Forensic Video Unit is not a place to dump an injured officer or an officer simply counting down to a quickly approaching retirement. Investing in talent is the key to identifying the right person who will help guide your agency’s video services in the right direction.
Having a video expert on staff requires commitment and support from the very top levels of the department. A Forensic Video Analyst or Technician cannot learn in a vacuum. Training, peer review, certification, and re-certification are hallmarks that help to build success, purpose, and longevity for your video expert and the ultimate success of your video unit.
Rigorous programs are available for agencies wanting to invest for success. The Law Enforcement & Emergency Services Video Association (LEVA) offers a variety of courses that are designed to build video competency on the road to certification.
LEVA’s basic Certified Forensic Video Technician (CFVT) program requires 80-hours of supervised course work, testing, and at least one year of practical experience.
LEVA’s Certified Forensic Video Analyst (CFVA) candidate has a much more comprehensive set of tasks and goals. Candidates are required to complete approximately 312 classroom hours of instruction, 160 hours coming from the program’s four primary courses of study. The CFVA candidate must also have at least four years of experience in the field and must successfully complete a demanding mentoring and peer-run boarding examination. The CFVA program is designed for the future expert who will provide years of service to an agency.
As you can see, there is a large internal investment to have a full-time FVA in your agency. If you are not prepared for this investment, then there are several certified Forensic Video Analysts around the world who do contract work for agencies. If you hire a contract professional, make sure they are certified by an external body like LEVA.
If you’re looking for a training course that provides an excellent introduction to video evidence, we highly recommend the Video Examinations for the Police Investigator Course. It provides 8-hours of hands-on learning and introduces officers to the fundamentals of effective video investigation.
What is the Role of Internal Investigators in Forensic Video Analysis?
Do not sell your investigators short.
Today’s new officers are savvy computer users who can quickly pick up new skills. Combined with their investigation experience, many officers are fully equipped to leverage fast and effective computer technology designed for policing in a surveillance society. Detectives who know their cases better than anyone should have the tools to conduct their own video reviews, without needing support from an expert or from IT.
The good news is that video examination technology is available to serve both types of video examiners. Agencies weighing whether to commit to a civilian approach (Forensic Video Analyst) or to have officers conduct video examinations, can now have it both ways.
Video analysts who have been working in the field for any length of time will agree that there is far too much video work for them to handle. Investigators need video literacy to accurately triage seized video to ensure that evidence isn’t lost or ignored. Every investigator should be required to know how to examine video effectively.
According to the 2021 Video Evidence Trends Report, 96% of investigators say video plays a critical role in their casework. Tools designed to support investigator-initiated video interrogation and triage, with advanced upgrades for video experts, empower agencies with the benefits of having every employee equipped to conduct video examinations.
This interoperable approach dramatically improves productivity and communication, creating an intuitive pipeline for video evidence from acquisition to court.
Forensic Video Analysis Software: What is the Right Tool?
With the right tools on hand, every investigator can conduct video examinations. iNPUT-ACE is the industry-leading forensic video solution that delivers video review and examination capabilities to every investigator.
INPUT-ACE was developed and is maintained by Certified Forensic Video Analysts and Technicians. “Our team has decades of combined experience as police officers and analysts conducting video casework, testifying in court, and training fellow investigators and analysts how to uncover hidden details in video images”, says Brandon Wahl, a Certified Forensic Video Technician and Manager of Support at iNPUT-ACE.
iNPUT-ACE is designed specifically to expedite the investigation workflow for front line officers and Major Crime investigators who need speed, accuracy, and ease of use, and who may not have attended advanced training in video examinations.
iNPUT-ACE is also the primary go-to processing tool for the most experienced Forensic Video Analysts. Director of Sales, Retired Chief of Police Mike Burridge, says “We have best-of-breed solutions ideal for first responders, investigators, analysts and legal professionals who must review video evidence in their daily work.”
The unique design of iNPUT-ACE guides investigators through the initial discovery of their video evidence, and then allows them to leverage its full power by passing their saved case projects to an analyst or technician for more detailed examination, processing, and demonstrative creation.
INPUT-ACE projects can be passed through to the prosecutor so that relevant video evidence can be instantly played during trial without the need for special software. For this and many other reasons, it is the preferred forensic video analysis software for many investigators and analysts.
What does a Forensic Video Analyst do?
In this article, we have discussed the different strategies and roles in an agency that surround video examinations. While every investigator should be equipped with training and tools to review video evidence, there are times when an FVA can add significant value to an investigation.
Next, we will take a look at some of the situations for which you might enlist a Certified Forensic Video Analyst.
Forensic Video Enhancement: Hollywood vs Reality
Few investigators fully understand the duties and capabilities of an FVA. It is not surprising, then, that the most common request from a sworn officer to a civilian FVA is “can you enhance this image”?
The answer is most likely “no,” but an FVA can still provide significant value in this area
Digital video is a finite resolution medium. In other words, unless one fabricates data, it is impossible to produce more visual information than what was originally recorded. Yet, despite the simple truth that processing digital video with an enhancement filter rarely results in the desired outcome, Hollywood has perpetuated the myth that high-resolution detail in a face or license plate can be recovered from a low-resolution image with the simple push of a button.
Although you can find examples of the image-magic that we see on TV, it is important to remember that those examples rarely use real-world video surveillance sources in their examples.
When considering enhancements, usually less is more. An experienced FVA will rarely attempt to enhance digital video due to the unlikely benefit. The sworn police officer, who may not have received the training of an FVA, should not attempt enhancements in order to avoid error and the inevitable rigorous cross examination at trial that will likely follow. The certified FVA will bring far more value to the investigation table than simply enhancing an image.
In many cases, simply playing the video through a professional grade forensic video analysis software like iNPUT-ACE will provide more accurate information than a proprietary video file that has been converted or played through a proprietary player.
For instance, a hospital reached out and asked for help enhancing some video from a slip and fall case. Watch what happened:
Forensic Video Analysts Look for Additional Clues
While the FVA does not typically solve the crime, they often find relevant clues hidden within the video images or metadata that may help move a case forward.
They are more likely to find those clues when they have a better understanding of what the specific case is about. This presents a good argument for investigators to at least begin the process of conducting their own video examinations, since they know their cases better than anyone.
Collaboration between the investigator and analyst creates a bridge between good police work and good science. To strengthen the partnership, investigators who encounter video in their casework should be exposed to a certain level of in-service video training.
Likewise, analysts who understand the law and the elements of a crime will bring new depth to an agency’s Criminal Investigation Division. Hybrid skills, shared between investigators and FVA staff, increase speed and productivity in casework, ultimately advancing an agency’s goal of improved public safety.
With their new-found appreciation of the limitations of digital video enhancement, an investigator who otherwise would have asked for a license plate enhancement, may get more value from the FVA who can assist with the calibration of accurate clothing color, measurement of a weapon, and edge pattern interpretation, all contributing to the identification of a target.
If a suspect vehicle is located during an investigation, Photographic Video Comparison (elements of FVA training) could lead to a scientific confirmation that the investigator has the right vehicle. With the proper tools and training, the FVA may also be able to calculate the speed of the vehicle from video evidence.
Jim Kennedy, Director of Forensic Video/Multimedia Services at the New York State Police Crime Lab in Albany, NY, explained this concept during the 2021 Video Evidence Symposium:
“We always like to try to have people look at the bigger picture; don’t just focus on the traditional license plate and facial IDs. They are difficult to do. We have had some success with the license plates and with facial IDs, but the bigger picture is we’ve had a lot more success with more clarifications of the general scene that all these video items submitted to us present.”
FVAs Understand the Metadata
The ability to take a deeper dive into the metadata of a video file and the accurate interpretation of the DVR encoding process equips the FVA with additional knowledge about the subject evidence.
This level of analysis may be outside of the experience and capabilities of an untrained investigator, but it could bring critical information to an active case.
In a recent Officer Involved Shooting investigation, Certified Forensic Video Analyst and former police officer, Grant Fredericks, interrogated a video copy of the OIS event that was produced prior to trial by a plaintiff’s attorney.
Fredericks discovered that the timing of the shots was intentionally altered in an effort to support the plaintiff’s false argument of unreasonable force. His analysis of the metadata in the file revealed that the plaintiff had edited the video clip.
The metadata, which was contained in the hexadecimal code of the file and exposed by iNPUT-ACE, identified the editing program, the data of the edits, and even the name of the person who performed the fabrication. The plaintiff’s case was unraveled by when the metadata was exposed by iNPUT-ACE and the court action was dismissed before trial.
FVAs Help Validate Video Evidence
The migration from analog video security systems to digital video started in earnest following the 9/11 attacks. Twenty years ago, video found its way into criminal investigations most commonly during bank robberies and gas station robbery/homicide cases. At that time, there was a single technical standard for the video evidence: VHS tape.
Today, with the ubiquitous visual surveillance of public and private areas, there are thousands of different types of DVRs. Each model of DVR encodes video slightly differently from the others, and most require a very specific codec to ensure proper playback.
Without the exact digital video decoder file, it may still be possible to play back a video, but frequently images are skipped, image shape is not properly reproduced, color is altered, and the speed of the events is misrepresented.
The untrained investigator may not be aware of the loss of evidence since the video may appear to be playing back pictures. For these reasons, and as outlined in IACP’s Police Chief Magazine article on Video Evidence, 9/11 to Today, developing video literacy for every investigator is essential for effective policing, whether or not you have an FVA on staff.
Even playing back video files in the original DVR is no guarantee that all of the video evidence will be displayed accurately. In a recently resolved in-custody death case, a police officer was charged with 2nd degree murder simply because of an undiscovered error in the DVR playback during the initial investigation.
In this case, the prosecutor, a pathologist, the courts, and the media relied on a video file that experienced dropped frames during playback on the original DVR, increasing the perception of force. How did this happen? An untrained Internal Affairs investigator screen captured the video from the proprietary player. Screen capturing the playback from a DVR should be a last resort, and not a first step, specifically because most DVRs do not display their own encoded video accurately.
Fortunately, the officer’s attorney brought in a Certified Forensic Video Analyst who immediately recognized the dropped frame issue and requested a copy of the original video data.
The analyst used iNPUT-ACE to decode the video correctly, recovering the dropped frames. INPUT-ACE was to demonstrate the actual speed of events, allowing the judge to see that the flawed perception of force at the time of the arrest was created by an error in the initial video evidence. The officer was acquitted of all charges.
Experienced Forensic Video Analysts are equipped to recognize when files have been altered. They can determine the effects of variable speed frame rates, they can help to identify unique objects, they can explain how compression may influence what is being seen, and they can help articulate when the video is not fit for the purpose requested by the investigator or prosecutor.
Forensic Video Analysts Provide Expert Testimony
Testifying as a video expert requires knowledge, training, skills, experience, and the right tools. Investigators who testify about their video evidence without basic video training are taking a risk that their evidence could be excluded, potentially jeopardizing an important case. According to the 2021 Video Evidence Trends Report, 47% of Major Crime Investigators who work with video daily have less than 10 hours of video evidence training, yet many are taking the stand and offering their own interpretation of the depicted events.
The biggest misconceptions about video evidence are:
- “Video is the Silent Witness that speaks for itself”
- “An image is worth a thousand words”
- “The camera never blinks”
These arguments are often offered in court by a defense attorney or plaintiff’s attorney who want to keep an FVA off the stand, in order to withhold the accurate interpretation of the video and expert opinion evidence from the trier of fact.
An experienced FVA will prepare a prosecutor for these arguments to help ensure the court that the scientific process, which is outside of the purview of a lay person, played a significant role in the analysis and production of the video evidence.
The FVA will articulate in a forensic report each of the technical issues that were considered during the analysis. The overused defense argument that the FVA has no better eyes than the judge or jury, and therefore should not be allowed to offer opinion evidence, is eliminated when the FVA provides a scientific basis for opinions.
Among the most common demonstratives that assist the court are multi-camera synchronizations, where the FVA or investigator accurately aligns events from more than one camera perspective. Image timing is often validated through a review of the metadata in a file or through testing, a skill far outside of the purview of a lay person and likely an issue requiring opinion evidence from an expert.
Additional areas of Forensic Video Analysis that may require expert testimony include, but are not limited to:
- Speed Analysis
- Height Analysis
- Compression Interpretation
- Color calibration
- Audio timing
- Photographic Video Comparison
- Target Tracking
Over six billion hours of video are recorded daily throughout the world, and that number is projected to keep growing. Sworn officers and civilian video analysts will continue to experience an exponential growth of video evidence in the course of their work.
Law enforcement agencies of all sizes will continue to add new video technologies to their arsenals, as body worn, in-car, and social media video are common driving forces in most criminal investigations.
Building video literacy among all investigators is an important step to meeting the technical demands of today’s criminal casework. In addition, for mid-sized to larger agencies, adding a Certified Forensic Video Analyst to an investigation division brings extra depth to policing in a surveillance society.
If you’re looking to take the next step, we recommend you start with training. Gaining a better understanding of what you need to know, and what you don’t know, will equip you to make informed decisions in regards to staffing, tools, and more.
INPUT-ACE offers the most comprehensive set of forensic video training options to bring video literacy to every investigator in your agency. “We understand limitations for travel and the stresses on training budgets”, explains Brandon Wahl. “To meet your need to ensure everyone on your staff can efficiently and effectively review video evidence, we have partnered with Forensic Video Analysts to develop an interactive on-line video examination class that is taught by a live instructor.”
Register your team or learn more and about this unique and accessible learning experience today: Video Examinations for the Police Investigator