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Police and fire

  • 1 held on cocaine charges
    FORT WAYNE – Police searched a house northeast of downtown on Friday morning and one man was charged with multiple cocaine-related charges.
  • 2 charged in gas-station armed robbery
    A witness to an armed robbery is being credited with spotting the suspects and keeping watch on them until police arrived.
  • Bus window shattered at elementary school
    FORT WAYNE – A window on a bus was shattered while parked on Tuesday, waiting for school to be dismissed at South Wayne Elementary School, according to a report released Friday by the Fort Wayne Police Department.
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Fort Wayne police using better technology to fight crime

FORT WAYNE -- It's a thumb drive with a few accompanying cables and plug-ins that can all be zipped up snugly into a black satchel that fits into a hand.

And it's the latest technology that Fort Wayne Police detectives are using to fight crime.

"This'll be fantastic," said Det. John Helmsing in front of a group of reporters while showing off the satchel, and what its contents can do, Friday.

Dubbed Omnivore, the software contained on the thumb drive allows detectives to not only easily capture video from surveillance cameras anywhere, but it also allows them to make those videos clear.

A video showing a gas station holdup in fuzzy or heavily pixilated images can now be made unblemished.

The dark surrounding a license plate making a getaway from the scene of a crime may now be lightened.

Or light that may be blocking parts of an image may now be darkened. What is opaque can now be viewed.

All with the simple strokes of a few buttons on a keyboard.

And it represents the latest stride in a department that has been ramping up and heavily investing in the latest tech and gadgets available to law enforcement.

From cellphone forensics to license plate readers and now the Omnivore, to even a beta test of a facial recognition system, the Fort Wayne Police Department has been embracing new technology.

"It's a necessity," said Assistant Chief Karl Niblick. "Society itself is constantly doubling in advances in technology."

The department Niblick joined in 1985 is a far cry technology-wise from the one he's now serving as second-in-command.

There was no computer lab for the department in 1985, and a detective was lucky if he ever got to use a personal computer at work.

Now, the department's computer lab has high-end machinery and an ever evolving wealth of software.

Niblick and Helmsing talked to each other Friday about how much space they might need to store videos the new Omnivore software is expected to provide them.

"We're constantly upgrading," said Niblick of the department's technology.

"Nearly every crime we come across, whether it's a robbery or a homicide, technology is involved," he noted.

Many times, that technology is a cell phone.

Maybe it's one taken off a suspect; or maybe it's a cell phone found at the scene of a homicide, robbery or theft.

A box that sits smack in the middle of the police computer lab allows detectives to store such phones away from all radio waves.

This way, someone who tries to wipe information from the phone using another device – such as a computer or another phone – simply cannot.

It gives police enough time to forensically examine the phone, both Niblick and Helmsing said.

And time, as in all criminal investigations, is of the essence.

With the new Omnivore software, detectives are expected to save hours and possibly days on investigations.

In the past, detectives called to a crime where surveillance video had been taken ran into difficulties in procuring the actual video.

Different manufacturers have different proprietary software, which made finding the right player for the video a hindrance.

Then, when detectives would be able to finally get video from, say, a gas station or pharmacy depicting a robbery, the images would be grainy – at best.

There'd be too much compression or pixilation in transferring it from the original source to a storage device at police headquarters.

"A lot of times I'd see an image and say, 'Gee, someone's mother or father couldn't even identify them,'" said Fort Wayne Police Chief Rusty York, who attended the unveiling of Omnivore on Friday.

Now, the detectives can store the image on the Omnivore thumb drive, which preserves it just as it's recorded, Helmsing said.

And while they can tinker with information on the raw images – changing the brightness or clarity – a log in the software tracks everything they do.

Detectives cannot alter images without those alterations being recorded, according to Helmsing.

That's built-in to prove in a court that the police didn't tamper with the video.

"We're not adding or manipulating or adding anything," Helmsing said.

Currently, the department has about 20 such thumb drives for detectives and plans to share the technology with other law enforcement agencies in the area.

The kits came to the department through $18,000 from the Northeast Indiana Credit Union Chapter, the Fire and Police Credit Union, Kroger and a federal grant.

That is another aspect of technology the department is coping with: costs.

Some experts say that your face is like a fingerprint.

As you reach adulthood, the distance between the corners of your mouth and ears remains the same.

So, too, does the space between your eyes and the bottom of your nose to your mouth, and almost any other point you can measure.

Scientists have used this to construct facial recognition software, in which computers can identify you by measuring the pixels between such points on a photograph of your face.

Such software is used by various police departments and airports all over the country.

Fort Wayne Police are currently beta testing a version to possibly use here in the future, Niblick said.

A company is allowing the department to test the software now free of charge, but according to Helmsing it carries a hefty price tag -- roughly $200,000 just to purchase, $24,000 a year to maintain.

"We'd love to have something like that," Niblick said. "As technology improves, hopefully prices come down."

And Niblick hopes the department continues to get new officers who can – and want to – use such technology.

Right now, he said, the department is rife with detectives who are well-versed in computers and gadgets.

But many people who sign up to become an officer aren't dreaming about working inside in front of a computer, analyzing data or images.

"It's hard to entice them off the street," Niblick said. "Just as we always look for officers who are proficient in different languages, we're always looking for officers with different talents."

Currently, with squad cars fitted with laptops and cameras, and smartphones becoming the norm, many street officers are way more computer-literate than their forebears.

And according to Helmsing, the Omnivore software is very easy to use, even for detectives who may not be well versed with computers.

This is only beneficial to the police, since advances in the gadgets and tech in the digital age show no signs of abating any time soon.

jeffwiehe@jg.net

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