Use your Photoshop Skills to Solve Murders

Photography by Ryan Gessner

It’s a scene found in every cop show. The detective takes a photo of the crime scene to the police department’s technician. The technician blows it up using a piece of super-slick software, spots a blurry anomaly in an area the size of a pixel, tells the cop where he can find the murder weapon and solves the crime — leaving the detective to take the credit, the girl and a starring role in the sequel.

In real life, it doesn’t seem to be all that different.

Jim Hoerricks, for example, is a forensic analyst with the Los Angeles Police Department. Asked to help with a homicide case in northern California, he was given several camera angles from a video showing a man and a woman leaving a casino together. The man said that they then separated and that he drove away alone; she was never seen again.

“The problem was that as they moved away from the building, they were obscured by shadow so you really couldn’t see enough to refute his testimony,” Jim recalled. “But I was able to remove most of the shadow, revealing incredible detail.”

The image showed that the pair didn’t split up, and Jim’s analysis provided the link between the man and the biological evidence found in his car. Although the woman’s body was never recovered, the man was convicted of her murder.

Adobe Reveals What’s Hidden in the Shadows
The software that Jim used to clarify the MPEG2 video in this case was Adobe’s Premier Pro which is based on Photoshop, and most of his work is conducted using the sort of Adobe software found on just about every photographer’s computer. It was a recognition of the power of Photoshop that led him to change the approach usually taken by forensic image analysts when he was invited to set up the LAPD’s Forensic Video/Image Analysis lab in 2001.

“I took a look at what others were doing with image/video analysis – and they all seemed to focus on the video editor as the place to work,” Jim told us. “With my background in design and photography, I looked at it from a different perspective. I figured that regardless of the source file, a still image or a still frame of video would end up in Photoshop, so that’s where I made my focus.”

The result is what Jim calls Forensic Photoshop, a workflow that allows forensic analysts to process images and testify about what was done, how and why — as well, of course, as describing what the analysis revealed.

Most of Jim’s work involves looking at stills of digital video taken at crime scenes, but National Geographic has also asked him to examine SS officer Karl Höcker’s Auschwitz photos for a show to be broadcast later this month. He begins by correcting for focus, then addresses any color and lighting issues, first globally then locally. He may then do some creative sharpening before removing noise. What happens after that depends on the needs of the detectives or attorneys. Different images require work in different areas so each case is unique, Jim told us.

It’s the sort of job that requires a good understanding of color and light, and a knowledge of lensing and optics is helpful too.

“Photographers and designers are well suited,” Jim says. “[But]many in this line of work have no experience whatsoever. They come to it because they are chosen by their command to take the lead on this new piece of equipment.”

As a staff member of the LAPD, Jim receives a salary based on the department’s pay grades but he also provides private services for which he charges $350 per hour, rising to $450 per hour for court time, plus expenses.

It’s not Hollywood…
That might make forensic image analysis a tempting line of work, but the images themselves — shot at murder scenes and intended to provide evidence — can often be very disturbing.

“It’s not a Rambo movie – it’s a real dead person,” Jim warns. “Over time, these images can really end up hurting you… Ignoring it can lead to some serious consequences such as PTSD and depression… The worse thing that could happen is that you stop seeing people as people; you stop feeling for the people in your own life.”

A good support structure can help to protect your creativity as well as your sanity, Jim recommends, and he notes that he himself has a daily routine intended to combat compassion fatigue.

Anyone not put off by the thought of using their Photoshop skills to spend their days looking images of murder scenes will also need to understand the relevant laws and the Federal Rules of Evidence.

“Understand things like chain of custody and how your county’s Superior Court works. Get on the county’s list of ‘experts.’ Join associations. Network like crazy,” Jim suggests. “Finally, don’t expect government agencies to pay quickly.”

Take a look at Jim Hoerricks blog here and tell us what you think.

[tags] photoshop forensics, forensic photoshop [/tags]

One comment for this post.

  1. Jim Hoerricks Said:

    Thanks for the plug. Should anyone want more details about getting involved in this career, please feel free to contact me.

    Jim Hoerricks
    Author of Forensic Photoshop - a comprehensive imaging workflow for forensic professionals and the Forensic Photoshop blog.

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