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Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Detective John Helmsing holds the Omnivore Field Kit, a new video tool to be used by Fort Wayne police.

City police eager to use new technology to improve video

Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
The Omnivore Field Kit contains a thumb drive and various cables to capture video, still photos and audio directly from the source.

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 Department detectives are using to fight crime.

“This’ll be fantastic,” said Detective John Helmsing in front of a group of reporters Friday while showing off the satchel and what its contents can do.

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

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

The darkness shrouding a license plate on a car making a getaway from the scene of a crime may now be dispelled.

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

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 technology and gadgets available to law enforcement.

The Fort Wayne Police Department has been embracing new technology such as cellphone forensics, license plate readers and now the Omnivore, and it is involved in a beta test of a facial recognition system.

“It’s a necessity,” Assistant Chief Karl Niblick said. “Society itself is constantly doubling in advances in technology.”

Necessary upgrades

The department Niblick joined in 1985 is a far cry technologically 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,” Niblick said of the department’s technology.

“Nearly every crime we come across, whether it’s a robbery or a homicide, technology is involved,” he said.

Many times, that technology is a cellphone.

Maybe it’s one taken off a suspect; or maybe it’s a cellphone 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.

Time savers

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 pixelation 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 though 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 modify images without those alterations being recorded, according to Helmsing. That feature is built in to prove in court the police didn’t tamper with the video.

“We’re not adding or manipulating or adding anything,” Helmsing said.

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

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

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

Pricey tool

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 beta-testing a version for possible use here, Niblick said.

A company is allowing the department to test the software free of charge, but according to Helmsing it carries a hefty price tag: about $200,000 just to buy, $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.

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.”

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

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

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