From sketch renderings to video surveillance, law enforcement uses many techniques to piece together clues for crime-solving. Details and memory often fail us, but there's one medium that never forgets - photography.
A Brief History
Forensic photography is undoubtedly the most widely practiced and arguably useful visual medium in solving serious crimes. We are all familiar with its importance.
Crime scene imaging has been around since the inception of the photographic medium. The grandfather of the genre, Alphonse Bertillon, developed the first process for this type of work. Using a large format camera, he would capture unique angles like bird's-eye views of the body, then later paste the print over a grid for court uses. The result was often a surreal image from a vantage point not normally seen at that time. Bertillon also was the first photographer to capture mugshots and create the standards for profile (head on, side profile, etc).
Other photographers further developed his techniques by including important details and evidence: nearby buildings, blood formations, fingerprints, and so on. Throughout the 19th century, forensic photography of crime scenes and criminal portraits became commonplace. Policemen and amateur and professional photographers all participated.
The medium of photography was trusted to be accurate, so much that one photographer names William Mumler in the 1860s exploited this not-yet-well-known medium by offering "ghost portraits" with deceased relatives. These photos were in fact double-exposed prints made to look like a translucent figure had stood with the family in the image (Think placing a hazy image of a man who vaguely resembled the deceased into Photoshop and putting it at 20 percent opacity over the subject).
One photographer who captured grisly scenes merits honorable mention: His name is Arthur Fellig, also known as "Weegee."
Through gaining favor of both the local police as well as mobsters, this darkroom expert who mid-life switched his photographic focus to murder had a leg up on crime information. Between inside tips from gangster friends and his own police scanner radio on hand, he often arrived at a crime scene before law enforcement.
Today you needn't chase down sirens or be a professional investigator to capture important crime images. Now more and more amateurs are photographing images that wind up crucial to investigations and trials.
Let's visit the world of "guerilla crime photography" populated by these non-professionals. You'll find the occasional Good Samaritan as well as websites that allow citizens to utilize photo and video as a medium for catching bad guys.
With the help of professional and non-professional photography, citizen crime-solvers can take matters into their own hands. You might be surprised that Everyday Joes whose main hobby - obsession, perhaps - is to try cracking cold case murders on their own. You might be even more surprised to learn that sometimes they succeed.
There are also Reddit communities (often referred to as subreddits) whose sole purpose is to solve crimes by pooling together data, photos, and sometimes video evidence.
One large subreddit named the r/rbi (Reddit Bureau of Investigation) boasts 77,200 members who attempt to solve anything from stolen laptops to murders. Much of RBI's investigation of petty crime being solved relies on photographs or video surveillance.
One concerned redditor posted a photo of a computer chip-looking device he found inside his extension cord. With the help of r/RBI and r/whatisthisthing, he discovered it was a surveillance bug complete with microphone and sim card that could be used for eavesdropping.
In another case, a hit-and-run was solved on r/RBI with the help of a photo posted of a headlight from the crime scene after other users had pooled their resources and knowledge. While it's easy to criticize amateur detectives for their tendency to botch a serious investigation (more on that later), something can be said for the power of large group of people gathering their resources on the largest information-sharing network in the world.
The Doe Network and Web Sleuths are both popular online communities for people who want to utilize their free time for the common good. However, you can guess that even people with the best intentions but not formally trained in investigating make serious mistakes. Following the Boston Marathon Bombing incident, redditors in the r/RBI group singled out a man with a backpack seen on surveillance who turned out to be innocent, deceased in fact from an unrelated event. Several other innocent-but-accused people have dealt with death threats and harassment from the Internet as mistaken identity witch hunts march on.
But despite the "amateur detectives" who seem to sometimes make things worse for investigations, there is one man who seems to posses the patience and wits to gather the appropriate data.
A lone citizen sleuth named Billy Jensen who describes himself on his web site as an "American true crime investigative journalist" has devoted his life to solving cold case murders. His method of helping catch killers is to gather important data on a case, is using targeted Facebook ads.
In one of the multiple cases on which Jensen made critical contributions, he compared the widow-peaked hairline from surveillance footage of a murder outside a Chicago liquor store to thousands of mugshots from an online database. Jensen identified the suspect, Marcus Moore, and began watching his every move on social media. In the meantime, he provided his leads to the authorities. Jensen later hit the jackpot when Moore posted a photo of himself which revealed a Minnesota car in the background. The suspect was eventually arrested and charged with murder. The victim's cousin afterward was quoted as saying “Billy was a big, big part of Marcus being in jail. Without his information, I don’t think we would be where we are now.”
Amateur Cell Phone Photography
For photographers, it's easy to become frustrated by everyone having a camera in their pocket. One has to consider the potential safety and justice our current situation can provide, however. For example, a web site named EvidenceUpload.org was built for the sole purpose of gathering photography and video from witnesses to a past terror attack. It was launched by a team of entrepreneurs from Boston to tackle a couple of issues with media uploads to authorities: it can difficult to send large media files to authorities, plus important information like GPS coordinates and other metadata can get removed in the upload process.
How do you feel about the idea of the public gathering information to solve crimes? Do you think photos and videos submitted anonymously by amateurs should be used as evidence, or are tampering and accuracy too much of a concern? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.
Lead image by stevepb via Pixabay.