Taking a Bite Out of Crime With Radio Frequency Identification (Rfid)

Introduction: The CSI Effect

The debate rages on about old versus new media, with many media commentators claiming that network television is itself dead. These critics are certainly right in one regard, as curiosity is indeed rising among the viewing public in the dead. This is evidenced by the fact that the most popular scripted series shows in American television this decade belong to what is commonly referred to as the CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) franchise. What began as one show in 2000 (CSI) has now expanded into three separate weekly series, all on the CBS Television Network: the original CSI, set in Las Vegas, CSI: Miami, and CSI: New York.

CSI and the field of criminal science has become a cultural and legal phenomenon in the United States. The CSI franchise itself has morphed into video games, comic books, serialized novels, and even kids toys, including a juvenile DNA Lab and forensics kit. There has also been increased interest in forensic science careers and education, prompting new training programs at both the college and even high school levels focused on criminal investigations. Today, there is even a recognized phenomenon in legal and law enforcement circles commonly referred to as the CSI Effect.

With the popularity of not just the CSI shows, but other crime-related television series, including Crossing Jordan, Silent Witness, and the NCIS and Law & Order franchise (which both now include three series each), there is growing awareness and sophistication amongst the American public about criminal investigations and forensic science.

As a consequence, in real courtrooms, juries are now expecting to see real, forensic evidence not just testimony and circumstantial evidence - to prove guilt in serious criminal cases. This means the bar has been effectively raised to prove a defendants guilt by television shows that show crimes where there are typically a relative abundance of blood, hair, and various body fluids, as well as bullet fragments and shell casings, left at every crime scene. Further, as we have seen a number of high profile cases reversed after having DNA evidence to prove a convicted persons innocence, there is a growing sense that forensic evidence is truly the key factor underpinning todays criminal justice system. However, the CSI effect is not without its critics in both academic and legal circles. This is due to what they perceive as the disconnect between the idealized world of television crime scene investigations and what occurs in the real world. And what happens in the real world is often far, far less organized than what is expected and needed in todays world of CSI-enhanced world of criminal justice.

Evidence Handling 101

There is no setting in the private or public sectors where a verifiable chain of custody is more essential or more lacking than the handling of evidence in criminal cases. In the United States, the legal system is dependent on the proper handling of all forms of physical evidence from bodily fluids to cigarette butts to guns, knives and weapons of all sorts. Such evidence must be managed from its retrieval from the actual crime scene through storage (with handling by police investigators and both criminal prosecutors and defense attorneys) until the items of evidence are presented in court if and when cases actually go to trial often times several years after the crime has occurred. Thus, all law enforcement agencies from local police and county sheriffs to and state and federal agencies - must be concerned with the chain of custody as they collect, register, store, ship and track the evidence in their possession for criminal cases. Ensuring that this very unusual sup ply chain from origin in the field to use in the courtroom is secure and verifiable has been categorized as one of the fundamental responsibilities of law enforcement agencies one that underpins the effectiveness and accuracy of the criminal justice system.

However, most U.S. law enforcement agencies today have evidence handling systems that remain largely unchanged from the 1950s. Most police departments simply have an evidence room (and for agencies in larger cities, this room may be a whole warehouse). There, evidence is stored for possible use in investigating and prosecuting criminal cases often needing to be retained for years and handled by numerous hands in that time period. These critical items are managed most often using paper-based systems, often without computerized inventorying and logging of evidence being checked in and out of the area.

Not only are such manual evidence tracking systems time and labor intensive for police officers, they are prone both to inaccuracy and errors and to intentional misuse and abuse. Criminal cases have had to be dismissed before going to trial or lost in the courtroom due to critical items of evidence simply being lost in the evidence room. Likewise, all across the country, cases have been brought against police officers for internal theft of valuable items such as narcotics, guns, jewelry, electronics, and cash stolen from evidence storage facilities. Also, when police agencies do conduct manual inventories of their evidence rooms, they are often surprised at the items that are not found and confounded by some of those that are some dating back to cases that are decades old items that should have long ago been returned to their rightful owner, or else, sold at auction, donated to charity, or simply disposed of after the case they were being held for had been adjudicated. And surprisingly, there has been very little use of new technology in this area, with many agencies just now moving to hybrid systems (with computerized databases fed by manual record keeping) and very few bar code based evidence tracking systems on the market today.

RFID is on the Case

This sounds like a job for RFID (radio frequency identification), and today, there are several American firms that are looking to automatic identification technology as a way to reinvent the evidence management and tracking process. With RFID-based systems, they can offer law enforcement agencies for really the first time the prospect of having an electronic, verifiable chain of custody for evidentiary items in criminal cases vital for conducting criminal investigations and prosecutions in the CSI-influenced world of American justice. Such systems also hold forward the prospect of not just more effective evidence management internally within a single agency, but new possibilities for bringing visibility and connections to what have been heretofore the ultimate information silos with each separate police department having its own, often non-computerized and accuracy-challenged evidence tracking system in place.

The leading players in this market to date include:

Each markets variations on the same idea RFID-based tracking of evidence from the point of collection in the field to the evidence storage facility and tracking all movements of such articles throughout their life span as items involved in active criminal cases. Passive labels or tags are can be applied at the crime scene, with location and date/time data being recorded through the use of either RFID readers or PDAs equipped with GPS. When the items are brought in from the field, they are held in a secure space with fixed RFID readers monitoring the doorways of the evidence storage room or warehouse or even subspaces within them. Hand-held readers can then be used to locate items within the evidence facility. The systems work with either proprietary inventory management systems and/or standard database software to provide constant inventory reporting capabilities, along with the ability to create an electronic chain of custody report for individual pieces of evidence to kn ow where and when items were viewed or moved in a criminal investigation. As smart cards and electronic IDs are integrated into police agencies, the who actually handled the item can be automatically recorded without any human intervention as well.

All three firms systems while relatively very new are gaining traction in the law enforcement marketplace, with each having multiple agencies using their respective tracking systems, and each having its own unique features. For instance, the handheld reader used in the QuickTrac system not only tags the evidence on-site, but captures a digital photo of the item in the field. Intelligentzs Clues system includes the option of using active tags to track higher value whether monetary or case-critical in nature in the evidence storage facility. As such, the system can send alerts to supervisors if such high-security evidence is moved without authorization even within the room or warehouse.


What does RFID evidence tracking mean for the future of law enforcement and criminal justice and the RFID industry? Certainly, the timing of the convergence between the technological leap forward that RFID represents and the rising expectations in criminal justice due to the CSI effect will propel many if not most law enforcement agencies to have to seriously examine their evidence tracking processes. This should bode well for these early entrant RFID integrators that are pioneering auto-ID technology in the law enforcement area. However, it will likely mean that we could see bigger RFID players also enter the law enforcement vertical as a new growth market for their own hardware, software and services or through market consolidation.

If there is movement toward standardizing RFIDbased evidence management protocols and further sharing of information between law enforcement agencies databases, this could usher in nothing less than a new era in policing. Michael Lucas, the founder and CEO of Intelligentz, recently described his vision for how such standardization and interlinking of law enforcement evidence management systems might work: Having multiple agencies using a unified chain-of-custody application would create an unprecedented level of crime scene visibility. Lucas emphasized his point by illustrating that: A size 5 glove found at a crime scene in one city might match the same type of glove found in another state. Without using such a system, theres no easy way to link those pieces of evidence. So, over the next decade, RFID will likely play an increasingly vital role in helping to piece the puzzle together to help solve crimes by improving evidence collection, management, and tracking capabilities creating new opportunities for the RFID industry in the process and not just in the U.S, but around the world as the power of the CSI effect goes global.



David C. Wyld () is the Robert Maurin Professor of Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, and executive educator. His blog, Wyld About Business, can be viewed at /. He also serves as the Director of the Reverse Auction Research Center (/), a hub of research and news in the expanding world of competitive bidding. Dr. Wyld also maintains compilations of works he has helped his students to turn into editorially-reviewed publications at the following sites:

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