NIST Offers Free Software to Help Agencies Test Computer Forensics Tools

NIST Offers Free Software to Help Agencies Test Computer Forensics Tools

Such a small item, this cellphone dropped by a suspect fleeing at the scene of a failed drug deal. But potentially, this small item could yield vital evidence in preparing a case that would stop the drug deals for good. And the investigators want to be absolutely sure they’re using the right version of the right forensic tool that will produce that evidence in a manner that will hold up in court.

They turn to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Computer Forensics Tool Testing (CFTT) project to get the help they need to ensure that it will.

Created in 1999 in the early years of the Information Age, CFTT offers computer forensics assistance to law enforcement agencies in two ways: through posting tool testing reports produced by NIST researchers and through offering free Federated Testing software that allows agencies to test tools on their own.

Launched in November 2015 with a version that allows agencies to check disk imaging capabilities, Federated Testing consists of a downloadable Linux CD .iso file. Agencies can burn the file to a blank CD, then use that CD to boot a forensic workstation and test a tool or tools via a user-friendly interface.

“For 15 years we just did this ourselves, and law enforcement used our reports to help select the appropriate tools,” says Barbara Guttman, leader of the Software Quality Group. “We got to the point where there are so many tools out there, with new versions released all the time to correspond with new versions of mobile devices and new versions of apps, and how can you test all of them? The obvious answer was someone other than NIST has to do some of it or we can’t keep up.”

The Federated Testing software started with disk imaging because the first and most basic step in computer forensics investigations is to make a copy, thus leaving the original intact. NIST added the capability to test mobile forensics data extraction tools in June 2017, and write blocking capability will come online this fall. Agencies can sign up on the CFTT website ( to receive notification when a new version becomes available.

In its early months of availability, Version 1.0 of Federated Testing averaged about 35 downloads a month, and with the addition of the mobile forensics suite, that number should increase, says the Software Quality Group’s Ben Livelsberger. During 2017, NIST has provided technical assistance to a public defender’s office in Missouri and officers out of the United Kingdom, indicating agencies are already putting the downloaded software to use. And NIST encourages users to submit copies of their reports via email so that they, too, can be posted on the CFTT website and shared with other agencies.

“Law enforcement agencies and universities can use it to not only help themselves directly, they can also use it to help each other,” Guttman says. “Sharing information will reduce everybody’s workload, and if we can help each other out, isn’t that a more efficient way of doing things? The result is a big win for law enforcement, and it can also be a big win for the vendor community, because they can use the reports to help them improve their tools.”

Guttman cautions that tools that “work correctly” still aren’t perfect; for example, it’s not possible to recover every single deleted file.

“We say we want the tools to work right, and in order to do that, we first have to define what ‘right’ is. Sometimes all we’re doing is characterizing what they can and can’t do so they can be used effectively,” she says.

The Scientific Working Group on Digital Evidence is developing a soon-to-be-released report that will help support using test reports even if a different version of the tool was tested.

“What they’re really saying is it’s unlikely that major versions will have bugs that will turn out to be relevant to your workload, and if you did extremely specific testing all the time, you’d never get any actual work done,” she says.

The Office of Justice Programs’ National Institute of Justice, along with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Defense Cyber Crime Center, provided the original funding. Ongoing funding for the project comes from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

To research posted test reports or download the Federated Testing software, visit Reports produced prior to March 2013 can be located at here.

For more information, contact Rich Press in the NIST Public Affairs Office at

Article photo: Igor Stevanovic/Alamy Stock Photo

Planning Tool Helps Agencies Pool Disaster Resources

Planning Tool Helps Agencies Pool Disaster Resources

By understanding the hazards to their communities and the resources needed to respond, emergency managers can better prepare and plan for catastrophic events. An online planning tool is available that can help agencies improve preparedness and share resources across jurisdictions.

Developed through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate First Responders Group (FRG), the Mutual Aid Resource Planner (MARP) is an online collaboration emergency planning tool that helps emergency managers create shareable plans for hazard-based scenarios such as hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires.

Ron Langhelm is the FRG program manager for MARP, which became available to agencies and communities in late 2016.

“Using MARP, agencies can identify a potential disaster or scenario to plan for, work through requirements, identify resources and resource shortfalls, and work with neighboring jurisdictions to fill those voids. If an agency does not have the resources, it can work to meet those requirements by collaborating with other jurisdictions,” Langhelm says.

The National Information Sharing Consortium ( hosts the free MARP tool, which is an ArcGIS Online configurable template. ArcGIS is mapping and analytic software on a cloud-based platform. Users can create and share information such as maps and data.

Users can track the resources necessary to meet desired capability in the event of a disaster. As a geospatial-based online system, MARP can ease information sharing and collaboration. Participating communities can enter their resources into MARP.

While other mutual aid planning tools may use geospatial technology to develop a plan, the plan is frequently a paper document, Langhelm says. Not so with MARP.

“MARP uses geospatial technology and so is visual by nature. It is good for spurring additional discussion and collaboration because of the nature of the tool. It is more interactive and leads to better overall planning. At the end of the process you have better documentation, better discussions and a more solid plan,” Langhelm says.

“You consider transportation corridors, and ingress and egress for an area,” he adds. “For example, if there is an earthquake and resources are on the other side of a large river with four bridges, those resources may not be able to help out, so you look to identify resources in a different direction.”

During the pilot phase of the project, emergency planners in Michigan and Ontario, Canada, used MARP to develop mutual aid resource sharing plans in a cross-border environment. In New Orleans, the program was tested as part of the DHS Flood Apex program.

To access MARP, see For more information, contact John Verrico of DHS Science and Technology Directorate Office of Media Relations at john.verrico@HQ.DHS.GOV.

Article photo: Background Image Shutterstock/Website Screenshot MARP

Firearms Training and Prevention of Hearing Loss

Firearms Training and Prevention of Hearing Loss

Ryan Lee Scott, Deputy Sheriff with the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office in Gainesville, Fla., and adjunct faculty at the Santa Fe College police academy, noticed several years ago that a number of the longtime firearms instructors had significant hearing loss and were wearing hearing aids. His concern for his colleagues hearing health led him on a journey to quantify the problem and package sound mitigation strategies officers could immediately implement.

Law enforcement officers undergo qualification training during the year in the use of firearms. In general, Scott says firearms training probably occurs about four times a year for a typical law enforcement patrol officer, monthly or more frequently for SWAT and special operations members, and a firearms instructor could be on the firearms range up to 20 times a month.

Concerned about adequate protection against potential hearing loss for himself and others, Scott contacted audiology experts at the University of Florida a few years ago to learn about the high-level impulse sounds produced by firearms and ways to minimize risk. In one subsequent study, researchers evaluated the sound pressure level effects of suppression, ammunition and barrel length on AR-15 rifles. Suppressors (silencers) were found to be helpful in mitigating noise, but Scott says it is still necessary to use hearing protection devices such as earmuffs and earplugs during training as well. No one device provides an adequate amount of protection, but by using all three categories of hearing protection devices together, a sufficient hearing protection strategy can result.

To bridge the information gap between science and law enforcement and help agencies and officers understand the issues, Scott developed an educational workshop, Firearms Training and Hearing Loss, a 90-minute presentation he has been providing free to law enforcement agencies around the state of Florida, traveling to about 30 agencies thus far, along with organizations such as the Fraternal Order of Police and Police Benevolent Association.

The workshop covers audiology research studies and the potential for unprotected exposure to firearms sounds to damage hearing, and the importance of use and proper fit of hearing protection devices such as earplugs and earmuffs, along with firearms suppressors, to reduce sound levels during training.

“It is largely a training issue to properly fit the devices, and use the devices in the proper combinations, not a problem with the devices themselves,” Scott says. “Most of the hearing loss is occurring in a training context. It is very preventable and relatively inexpensive to address. Agencies need to be aware of and have a good hearing conservation program to get the information out to officers on how to protect their hearing.”

Scott says most agencies are using either earplugs or earmuffs, rather than both, and not providing training on fitting.

“Agencies should use both earplugs and earmuffs at the same time and properly fit them. Most agencies I have seen are using earmuffs, which is a good start, but they need to use earplugs too. You have to spend 20 to 30 minutes to train officers to fit them so they get the proper level of attenuation for the device, and agencies need to create a hearing conservation plan to address these issues.


“In a training context using all three — suppression, earmuffs and earplugs — is the best strategy. In Alachua, the SWAT team uses suppressors in the field, which reduces noise while these firearms are deployed in real-world events. In training they use suppressors in combination with their typical earmuffs/earplugs.”

Scott provides the workshop in a classroom setting, but if an agency has the time he will go out to a firearms range and use the protection devices with the type of firearms the officers are using. By integrating the agency’s equipment with the various types of hearing protection devices, he says a balanced approach can result in adequate protection, reasonable price and a practical training environment.

Scott’s efforts led to his receipt earlier this year of a Safe-in-Sound 2017 Excellence in Hearing Loss Prevention award: Innovation in Hearing Loss Prevention in the Public Safety Sector. The Safe-in-Sound awards were created by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in partnership with the National Hearing Conservation Association.

Future activities include Scott’s plans to write hearing protection sections for the law enforcement recruit textbook in Florida. He also hopes to expand his hearing protection training outreach program to every state.

For more information, contact Deputy Sheriff Ryan Lee Scott at or For information on NIOSH research regarding firing ranges, click here.

scientist taking the leadership class online

Leadership Series Addresses Challenges in the Forensics Field

Leadership Series Addresses Challenges in the Forensics Field

Some people say that there are leaders, and there are followers. But according to the Forensic Technology Center of Excellence (FTCoE) Leadership Series, everyone’s a leader.

Visit here, which provides an overview of and access to the 12-module series, and in addition to learning that “every forensic scientist is a leader,” you’ll be able to watch a promotional video, read about the philosophy behind the series, and gain access to the modules themselves, instructor bios and additional resources.

Developed to complement the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD) Leadership Academy, the FTCoE Leadership Series introduces leadership concepts to the forensic scientist. John Morgan, FTCoE director, explains forensic scientists often receive promotions due to their excellent technical skills, but seldom receive management training. The result is placement in supervisory positions where they face operational challenges for which they have not been trained. The self-paced, stand-alone modules provide introductory-level information on a variety of topics, specifically from the viewpoint of a forensic scientist.

computer and microscope

“A lot of leadership training is very broad. You could take it and then go to work anywhere from a restaurant to a government agency,” Morgan says. “We felt it was important to develop something that spoke to forensic scientists and the specific challenges they face.”

In order to decide what those specific topics would be, the FTCoE worked directly with leaders in the forensic lab community, five of whom serve as instructors for the series. The topics selected for the series were the consensus choice from these experts, and the FTCoE adapted the materials from relevant content originally developed for law enforcement use.

“The Leadership Series addresses emotional intelligence, communications and other topics not addressed in depth by the ASCLD academy, which focuses more on operational aspects related to forensic science. The two can work together to give someone a solid grounding,” Morgan says. “In fact, many of the topics are of relevance to the bench scientist as well as managers and supervisors.”

The 12 topics in which participants get a solid grounding are as follow:

  • Generations: Addresses the differences among various age cohorts in the workplace and how they relate to work expectations, attitudes toward authority, loyalty and more.
  • Cultural Diversity: Looks at how different cultures, traditions and races have widely varying ways of looking at the world, and this diversity can be used to challenge assumptions and promote professional growth.
  • Personal Leadership: Gives perspective on what kind of leader to strive to be and provides examples of strong leadership traits.
  • Moral Compass: To be worthy of the trust placed in them by the community, forensic scientists must strive to serve their communities through the equitable administration of justice. Provides a comprehensive summary of the book “Moral Compass for Law Enforcement Professionals.”
  • Leadership and Ethics: Covers how to approach ethical problems in the forensic laboratory, including historical and hypothetical examples.
  • Leadership and Change: Forensic laboratories resist change for many reasons, including a reluctance to bring new ideas or techniques into practice that might lead to mistakes. Gives perspective on how change can benefit organizations and also cautions against making changes just for the sake of change.
  • Leadership Principles and Concepts: Covers the foundation of what leadership means, what is expected of a leader, types of leaders and how a leader influences others.
  • Leadership and Power: Explains power may derive from a position held or from knowledge and skills. Be aware of the sources of power in a situation so that you can use them wisely to promote a positive work environment.
  • Leadership Theories and DiSC: Gives a clear distinction between leading and managing, as well as introducing the DiSC Profile Behavior Pattern Assessment.
  • First Line & Mid Level Supervisor: Looks at the transitional challenges often faced by first-line supervisors in the forensic laboratory as they take on their new roles and responsibilities.
  • Founding Fathers: Examines the challenges that the American founding fathers faced as they began the process of establishing a new government and the teamwork they displayed in order to accomplish their goals in very trying times.
  • Emotional Intelligence: The forensic laboratory is a human organization with relationships and emotions and the joys and frustrations of managing people. Explains how emotional intelligence helps with navigating those relationships and emotions.

“The modules are not just one big webinar broken down into parts. Each module stands on its own and should take 45 minutes to an hour to complete,” Morgan says. “We issue a certificate of completion of any module an individual completes, which they may be able to use to meet their organization’s training requirements. We encourage people to take all 12 modules, but if some are of more interest than others, that’s okay too.”

In addition, the FTCoE produced a special season of its “Just Science” podcast series to complement the materials, “Just So You Know: Leadership Series”:

  • Special Release Season: Just Guidance Leadership
  • Special Release Season: Just Motivational Leadership
  • Special Release Season: Just Strategic Leadership
  • Special Release Season: Just Servant Leadership

And that statement on the website that every forensic scientist is a leader?

“Every scientist is a leader who makes very important decisions related to criminal justice. It’s important for all forensic scientists to recognize that they are in a unique position of trust,” Morgan says. “Forensic science is the one place in the criminal justice system where professionals are trusted to make objective assessments based on the evidence at hand, all the time. That’s a critical part of the leadership series and an important concept to impress on every forensic scientist.”

For more information on the programs of the FTCoE, contact Dr. John Morgan at For more information on forensics programs of the National Institute of Justice, contact Gerald LaPorte, Director, Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences, at

Article photo: Kite_rin/

Synthetic Drugs

FTCoE Online Workshop Series Focuses on Synthetic Drug Epidemic

FTCoE Online Workshop Series Focuses on Synthetic Drug Epidemic

In the first six months of 2016, paramedics in the city of Akron, Ohio, responded to 320 drug overdose calls. In the first 26 days of July, they responded to 236. The synthetic opioid carfentanil, it appeared, had come to town. [1]

The impact of that spike is just one of many aspects of the synthetic drug epidemic affecting the U.S. discussed in “Best Practices Guidance for Advancing Research Initiatives and Combatting the Synthetic Drug Epidemic,” a three-part online workshop series produced by the National Institute of Justice’s Forensic Technology Center of Excellence (FTCoE).


Working in partnership with the Center for Forensic Science Research and Education (CSFRE) — a 501(3)c nonprofit organization that provides forensic education at the high school, college and professional level — the FTCoE convened a number of leading experts in the area of novel psychoactive substances (NPS) for 10.5 hours of presentations and discussions spread out over three days in July 2018. Those who could not attend the online webinar series when it was presented live, or who want to review it, can access the archival content here.

“After we produced a very successful 13-part webinar series in 2017, we began working with CFSRE and its executive director, Dr. Barry Logan, to prepare a more in-depth crime scene and analytical series,” says Jeri Ropero-Miller, FTCoE chief scientist. “This series helped practitioners to better understand and prepare themselves for what we are facing with this synthetic drug epidemic, and creating this series helped address this national and critical need.” (See TechBeat November 2017).

Logan served for 19 years as state toxicologist, overseeing Washington State’s forensic alcohol and drug testing programs, and in addition to private work, serves as executive director of CFSRE.

“Any time we have Dr. Logan as a presenter, he’s a big draw,” says the FTCoE’s Josh Vickers, who produced the series. “His knowledge and expertise always bring participants in.”

Logan started off Session 1: The Synthetic Drug Crisis – Identifying NPS in Forensic Casework, with an overview of the synthetic drug crisis as a whole and how it affects everyone who deals with these drugs, from law enforcement to lab professionals to coroners and medical examiners. It focuses on the importance of sharing information among stakeholders in developing ways of combatting the epidemic. A presentation by Eric Lavins of the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) Regional Forensic Science Laboratory and Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office, the location hit by the introduction of carfentanil referenced above, wrapped up Session 2: Analysis of NPS – Practical Considerations and Analytical Approaches.

“Law enforcement professionals will likely get the most overall benefit from Day 3 (Interpretative Toxicology for NPS in Forensic Casework),” says Vickers. “The presenters focused on synthetic drugs as a public health crisis and concern. There was good information on fentanyl and the crime scene, and how law enforcement has to handle crime scenes involving “white powder” differently than in the past.”

Other presentation topics from Session 3 included:

  • Recommendations for drug-impaired driving cases and motor vehicle fatalities.
  • Crime scene and autopsy findings in medicolegal death investigations.
  • Fentanyl and its analogs as a major public health concern, and the misconception that these drugs are heroin vs. fentanyl analogs.
  • Synthetic cannabinoids and how compounds associated with these drugs can have extremely adverse effects on the community.

Because the FTCoE interface gives users complete on-demand control of the webinar archives, individuals can access only the presentations that interest them, listen to the entire content in one lengthy session and anything in between. A total of 593 unique individuals registered in advance of the series, with 378 attending some portion of the live presentations. Others have already signed on to review the archives, and the original registrants retain their access as well. As with all FTCoE online offerings, participants received a certificate of completion that they can use for documentation of professional continuing education.


“The advantage of doing everything online is we can touch a worldwide audience and for the participant, it’s all free. When an individual comes to a conference to hear a presentation, by the time you add up transportation, car rental, hotel and other expenses, the total can be cost-prohibitive,” Vickers says. “Every bit of information the FTCoE puts out through its NIJ grant is free to anyone in the world. In addition to lab professionals, we have law enforcement officers, professors and students who join our webinars. We have a lot of people from different professions and different backgrounds.”

Although individuals who view the archival presentations don’t have the advantage of participating in the live question-and-answer sessions if their schedules kept them from attending the live sessions, they still can access every word of the original content.

“We know it’s especially hard for people to stop in the middle of their workday and watch, and this gives them the opportunity to go in as their schedule permits. They can even pull it up on their tablets or smartphones if they want,” he adds.

For more information on this and other FTCoE programs and projects, click here. For more information on forensics programs of the National Institute of Justice, contact Gerald LaPorte, Director, Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences, at

[1] Nick Glunt, “Overdoses continue spiking in Akron, surpass 200 in less than a month,” Akron Beacon-Journal, 7/26/2016.


Participants Give Thumbs Up to Webinar Series

Participant comments on the webinar series include:

“Beneficial especially because everyone cannot attend annual conferences. Newer scientists get exposure to experts in the field. Also up-to-date information is presented that would not be available in a timely fashion.”

“Invaluable information!!! Presented by outstanding presenters!”

“The biggest benefit was additional exposure to types of drugs being seen in other labs and other parts of the country.”


Article photos: molekuul_be/, Monkey Business Images/ 

Image of Altered Crime Scene

Cost/Benefit Analysis Tools Helps Agencies Decide “2D” or “3D”

Cost/Benefit Analysis Tools Helps Agencies Decide “2D” or “3D”

As the investigator studied the details of the latest case to cross her desk, something about it seemed familiar, similar to a case from several months ago. Calling up that file, she slipped on the virtual reality goggles and took another look at the 3D scan of the earlier crime scene, searching for that “something” that had triggered her flashback.

Sound like the latest “no resemblance to real police work” drama on Wednesday night television? Maybe. But 3D crime scene scanning and virtual reality review tools are available, and for agencies wondering whether the technology investment would benefit them or be an expensive drain on too-limited funds, there’s a tool that can help.

Technician with 3D Glasses

The 3D Scanning for Crime Scene Investigation Cost/Benefit Analysis Tool, was developed out of “Analyzing the Impact of Virtual Reality and 3D Capture Technology on Crime Scene Investigation,” a project funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) under Grant No. 2016-IJ-CX-0017.

A partnership between the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery Virtual Environments Group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Dane County Sheriff’s Office (DCSO), the project set out to compare several potential methods of capturing 3D crime scene data and provide a cost-benefit analysis report. However, the research team realized the difficulty of producing an analysis that had relevance to all of the 20,000-plus law enforcement agencies in this country, and came up with the online tool as the answer.

Principal Investigator Kevin Ponto says that as the team talked to members of the law enforcement community, they realized how difficult it was for criminal justice professionals to see how the overall analysis provided them with meaningful information.

“It was ‘I’m from a little tiny town Wisconsin, how do your results impact me? I’m from Chicago, how would this benefit me?’ So instead of continuing with only an all-encompassing approach, we also developed a tool that allows each agency to produce tailored results,” Ponto says.

To use the tool, agencies enter costs for personnel and equipment, and data on local homicide and traffic accident incidents, and come up with upfront costs, annual costs, specific savings, annual benefits, and comparisons between the costs and the benefits. The research team used data on homicides and traffic accidents because of specific benefits: homicides, because detailed reconstruction and the opportunity to “revisit the scene” months later could provide the information needed to solve a case, and accident reconstruction, because a 3D scan eliminates the need for time-consuming measurements and allows traffic flow to return to normal much more quickly.

Working in partnership with the DCSO, the laboratory team scanned one actual homicide scene and did other research at a crime scene house located at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville Criminal Justice Department. Researchers compared use of LIDAR technology and a handheld infrared scanner with traditional evidence-gathering techniques involving taking photographs and measurements by hand. The resulting cost-benefit analysis showed that LIDAR provided more positive cost benefits than the handheld scanner, and both provided positive benefits when compared to traditional methods. Those benefits include preserving the scene at the point in time the incident occurred, the potential to further measure and evaluate evidence at a later point in time, nonintrusive evidence-gathering methods and a substantial savings in labor hours, freeing officers for other duties.

A specific need to realize some of those benefits at a particular crime scene led Ponto and his fellow team members, Ross Tredinnick and Simon Smith, into using their knowledge of 3D scanning technology in a law enforcement setting. The lab was developed to research use of 3D scanning technology in the home health care setting, but during the investigation of a homicide west of the campus, the team received a call from the FBI asking if the methodology could be implemented at the crime scene. Tredinnick’s scan impressed the FBI agents and DCSO, but agents and officers thought the upfront cost would make everyday use of the technology impractical.

“People often are willing to invest in a technology if they understand its benefits, and those benefits were not clear to the individuals making the purchasing decisions,” Ponto says. “This technology is really transformative in its ability to allow you to do additional investigation when you’re no longer at the scene. If you re-open a case years later, you still have really rich information. If there’s bad weather coming in, you can capture outdoor evidence that otherwise could be lost. And with the recent revolution in home use of virtual reality, the costs might not be as high as purchasing departments believe.”

3D Camera

To get a better understanding of the potential applications and benefits of 3D technology to the law enforcement community, the research team set out to convene a series of focus groups to help them learn how crime scene investigators would use 3D images; their needs related to technology features, accuracy and display; and potential barriers.

“One really interesting hurdle the focus groups came up with is ‘How can you tell if someone has digitally altered a 3D recording?’ ” Ponto says. “Defense attorneys referred to ‘computer voodoo technology’ that you couldn’t be sure was real and accurate. Also, courtrooms generally don’t have cutting-edge technology when it comes to potentially displaying results for a jury.”

Focus groups from the law enforcement and legal communities have been completed, with a group involving individuals with jury experience yet to be convened. Additional field research and completion of a final report also remain to be done. And it was when the research team began to present those initial results to the law enforcement community that they realized the law enforcement community need was for neither a preliminary nor a final research report — it was for the Cost/Benefit Analysis Tool to help them determine benefits specific to their own agency.

“As we started talking to stakeholders, we realized it was unclear how the generalized data fit their needs. We realized it really wouldn’t be more work to make a tool that fit individual agencies and it would be much more useful,” Ponto says.

Access the Cost/Benefit Analysis Tool here. For more information on “Analyzing the Impact of Virtual Reality and 3D Capture Technology on Crime Scene Investigation,” including links to the grant report, focus group reports and cost-benefit analysis report, click here. For more information on NIJ’s digital forensics portfolio, contact Martin Novak, senior computer scientist, at

Article photos: Wisconsin Institute for Discovery Virtual Environments Group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Lab technician holding a vial

FTCoE Success Stories Promote New Products and Developments

FTCoE Success Stories Promote New Products and Developments

Question: What do a new way to determine the time of a person’s death, detection canines and a new database that could make it easier to identify missing persons have in common?

Answer: All three have been profiled in the Forensic Technology Center of Excellence (FTCoE) Success Story series during 2018.

Success Stories use a simple, two-page format to highlight National Institute of Justice-funded research that has impacted the forensics and law enforcement community, framing the problem the research addressed, key findings, impact and future directions. Spanning topics as varied as the three listed above and more, the Success Stories page on the FTCoE website represents a good starting point if you’re looking for information on almost any type of recent forensic development.

Dog sniffing suitcase

“NIJ funds research and development grants across a wide variety of disciplines, with a goal of supporting development of technologies that improve forensic capabilities,” says the FTCoE’s Rebecca Shute. “Success Stories highlight technology that isn’t just a concept or a prototype, but rather has been implemented or provided impact to stakeholders such as law enforcement or forensic labs. This could include a technology or technique used in actual casework, or dissemination of tools or information such as open-source software.”

The publications serve the dual purposes of allowing NIJ to communicate the success of its research and development program and helping the grantees obtain visibility for their results. In addition to their availability on the FTCoE website, new success stories are pushed out to the nearly 30,000 subscribers on the Center’s listserv, giving law enforcement agencies and forensic service providers two ways to learn about new products and developments.

The FTCoE uses an ongoing process to identify grants with tangible, real-world impact, then works with the principal investigator of the project to develop the publication: “Choosing these success stories is just one step in our disciplined portfolio management process, which captures all of the R&D grants and supports grantees throughout the stages of their work. While the FTCoE writes these pieces, we work closely with the PIs to help them tell their story,” Shute says.

As of June 2018, the FTCoE website includes 17 success stories, with more on the way. Here’s a closer look at the three mentioned above:

  • NIJ and Multi-Institute Academic Team: Establishing a “Microbial Clock” to Improve Time of Death Prediction.
    Determining the postmortem interval (PMI), or the time elapsed since a person’s death, may help investigators recreate a timeline and the victim’s movements, support or disprove a suspect’s alibi or corroborate evidence collected from autopsies. There are several well-known ways to do this immediately following a death, but accurately determining PMI when an individual died days or weeks previously can be challenging. The technology described in this publication uses microbial communities to accurately determine PMI up to 48 days since death, with an average error of about three days. It relates “universal” microbial markers for determining PMI, despite the environment; identifies environmental conditions, such as temperature, location and season that can affect microbial communities’ composition; and demonstrates the potential for microbial signatures to identify clandestine gravesites.
  • NIJ and the American Registry of Pathology: Maximizing the Use of Mitochondrial DNA in Identifying Remains and Aiding Missing Persons Casework.
    Mitochondrial DNA is valuable in situations where scientists cannot use traditional nuclear DNA testing, such as when testing aged bones, fingernails or hair when nuclear DNA has become degraded. This makes it a valuable tool in missing persons casework. Research outlined in this success story focused on how complete sequencing of the mitochondrial genome provides for a more effective way of using mitochondrial DNA. The team developed a robust no-cost reference population database that improved the understanding of genetic mtDNA rarity between individuals, enabled continuous improvement of the data and ensured incorporation of high-quality population data through quality control of submitted data.
  • NIJ and Florida International University: NIST’s Dogs and Sensor Subcommittee Builds on Achievements by SWGDOG.
    Dog “detector teams” support law enforcement and first responders in a variety of applications ranging from drug and contraband interdiction to locating human remains. A lack of peer-reviewed research combined with recent media coverage of dog detection failures raised concerns about the effectiveness of dog-based detection and its admissibility in court. Also, the widespread application of dog detector teams makes the standardization of protocols difficult; many national canine organizations have developed standards but only for their respective programs. The Scientific Working Group for Dog and Orthogonal Detector Guidelines (SWGDOG), a group of 55 experts from academia, law enforcement, military and canine organizations, developed 39 consensus-based best practice guidelines for dog detector teams. SWGDOG served as the foundation for the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Dogs and Sensor Subcommittee, which is currently developing SWGDOG’s best practices into scientifically validated standards.

“The FTCoE really sees the value in communicating success stories like these and the others on the website to the forensic community, and writing more of them will remain a priority,” Shute says.

For more information on the programs of the FTCoE, contact Dr. John Morgan, Director, at For more information on forensics programs of the National Institute of Justice, contact Gerald LaPorte, Director, Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences, at

Article photo: Monika Wisniewska/

Police cars at night

Using Shotguns as Less-Lethal Weapons

Using Shotguns as Less-Lethal Weapons

Shotguns, long a staple of law enforcement departments, can be used to fire less-lethal rounds. When the Corvallis Police Department moved away from everyday use of shotguns in favor of patrol rifles, it decided to repurpose shotguns for use solely as less-lethal weapons.

In 2017, the department repurposed its 12-guage pump action shotguns for use as less-lethal weapons by fitting them with orange stocks labeled “less-lethal,” and orange fore-ends, according to Lt. Dan Duncan, public information officer for the department.

Officer holding shotgun and shell

The department uses a less-lethal shotgun round made of a polymer material that is designed to “pancake,” or flatten on impact. The shells of the ammunition are transparent with an orange band and label for high visibility.

The shotguns are still able to fire standard lethal ammunition. To guard against accidental use of live rounds, the department was careful to remove all standard live shotgun ammunition from the police department building and vehicles.

“We had to go through our department and basically scour every desk and locker and nook and cranny to ensure we did not have any live shotgun ammunition anywhere,” Duncan says. “The shotgun loads and functions the same with less-lethal rounds, which is why we had to be diligent on gathering up the lethal rounds and ensure there was no access to them in the building or patrol cars.

“The less-lethal rounds have a transparent casing and the internal part is orange so they are blatantly marked that they are a less-lethal round, very distinct, which is another safety measure we wanted.”

Located in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Corvallis encompasses about 14 square miles. The department has 60 sworn police officers that serve a population of about 57,000.

In patrol vehicles, Corvallis officers carry patrol rifles and their assigned handguns, as well as the less-lethal shotguns. Other less-lethal options used by the department include Tasers and pepper spray.

“The conversion took away a long-standing lethal option that we were not deploying or using and gave us one more less-lethal option when we come into a situation,” Duncan says. “The more tools we can provide of a less-lethal nature to our staff, the better off we are going to be. A Taser or pepper spray may not be an effective tool given a particular scenario. The shotgun with the less-lethal rounds we use can reach up to about 25 yards.”

The department trains officers regularly on use of standard and less-lethal weapons.

For more information, contact Lt. Dan Duncan at

Article photo: Corvallis Police Department

Drone flying over fire

JTIC Launches Expanded Resources on Unmanned Aircraft Systems

JTIC Launches Expanded Resources on Unmanned Aircraft Systems

Locating a lost child. Dropping contraband on correctional facility grounds. Soaring over a wildfire to provide key information to ground personnel. Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) have become a permanent part of the landscape, and for law enforcement, they are at times a useful tool, at times another problem to face.

Agencies looking for information on law enforcement use of UAS have a new resource: the Justice Technology Information Center (JTIC) has added an expanded subsite specific to UAS to JUSTNET, the website of the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center (NLECTC) System.

Drone flying over barbed wire

“Law enforcement interest in using small UAS for accident reconstruction, search and rescue, and other emergencies continues to increase, and that made us realize that JUSTNET needed to offer a more complete set of well-organized pages to respond to that need,” says Ron Pierce, JTIC deputy director.

During 2017 and 2018, approximately one-third of all requests for information fielded by JTIC through its mailbox and (800) 248-2742 telephone number were related to UAS. JTIC processed 335 requests for information for the law-enforcement sensitive document, A Template for Standard Operating Policy (SOP) Guidance for Law Enforcement Use of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS), from its release in October 2017 through June 2018.

Development of the UAS home page follows body armor and school safety, two other important topics in the NLECTC portfolio. JTIC staff designed the UAS home page to showcase video content and provide direct links to a new page of agency success stories, frequently asked questions about public safety and UAS, and information on how an agency can start a UAS program. The new subsite also features an updated collection of resource materials and publications, including the National Institute of Justice report, Considerations and Recommendations for Implementing an Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Program and JTIC’s white paper Law Enforcement Guidance Concerning Suspected Unauthorized UAS Operations . The new design ensures that the subsite’s functionality is retained when viewed on mobile devices.

“We’ve updated the navigation menu to help you find what you’re looking for more quickly and easily, including adding a topic-based search in the reference section,” Pierce says. “Before we created the UAS subsite, you had to scroll through a lot of information on JUSTNET to find the information you needed on UAS. Now you can see what’s there at a glance and go straight to the information you need.”

That information includes success stories, which feature programs that have gained recognition for their use of UAS. National Institute of Justice funding, through JTIC, has provided several agencies with small UAS for testing for use during indoor tactical operations, and plans call for the production of a publication featuring lessons learned from that testing in the future.

The UAS home page will soon have links to more videos, accessed through a link to the JUSTNET YouTube channel. These new products, including one featuring guidance from the Federal Aviation Administration on how agencies can cope with unauthorized use of UAS by members of the general public, will join Eyes in the Sky: How Law Enforcement Uses Unmanned Aircraft Systems, which consistently ranks as the most-watched video on the NLECTC YouTube channel. The subsite may be just as popular, registering more than 100 page visits in the first five days after the June 4, 2018 soft launch.

“We’ve added many features that are attractive graphically and also serve as functional improvements,” Pierce says. “Unmanned aircraft systems have the potential to be a useful public safety tool, and law enforcement agencies thinking about standing up a program have a lot to consider. Our new subsite is here to help them find the information they need to make informed decisions.”

For more information on JTIC’s UAS informational resources, contact

Article photo: Kletr/

NIJ 50th anniversary panel

NIJ Marks 50 Years of Helping the Criminal Justice Community

NIJ Marks 50 Years of Helping the Criminal Justice Community

In 1968, police officers faced gunfire without wearing any kind of protective equipment; DNA might have been a vague, distant memory from high school biology; and the U.S. Department of Justice’s new National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice (NILECJ) awarded its first grants to the criminal justice community.

Fifty years later, officers commonly wear ballistic-resistant body armor certified by the renamed National Institute of Justice (NIJ), armor that has saved thousands of lives; DNA has become part of our everyday vocabulary; and NIJ awards result in rigorous research that helps inform and shape criminal justice policies and practices.

NIJ 50th Anniversary Logo

On July 10, members of the research and criminal justice communities, along with NIJ staff and contractors, gathered in person and online to hear two former NIJ directors and two practitioners participate in a panel discussion on “NIJ’s 50th Anniversary — Looking Back, Looking Forward,” part of the agency’s “Research for the Real World” series of webinars.

The current NIJ director, Dr. David Muhlhausen, gave opening remarks and moderated a brief question-and-answer session at the end of the discussion. In his opening presentation, Dr. Muhlhausen pointed out that 50 years ago, 9-1-1 didn’t exist, no one had heard of license plate readers and no one was conducting rigorous research to help law enforcement. That began to change in 1967, when the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice released a report calling for increased support to state and local police departments. In 1968, out of this effort came the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), an agency within DOJ that administered federal funding to state and local law enforcement agencies and funded educational programs and research. NILECJ, which became NIJ, was part of LEAA; the name changed in December 1979.

The Panelists

  • James “CHIPS” Stewart, presently Director of Public Safety and Senior Fellow for Law Enforcement with CNA Analysis & Solutions, served as NIJ director from 1982 to 1990, the longest-serving NIJ director. Mr. Stewart also served as Commander of the Oakland Police Department’s Criminal Investigations Division and as a White House Fellow and Special Assistant to the United States Attorney General.
  • Chief Hank Stawinski, Prince George’s County (Md.) Police, became chief in 2016 after serving 23 years with the department. His father was also a Prince George’s police officer. He is a member of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).
  • John H. Laub, presently Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Maryland, College Park, served as NIJ director from July 22, 2010 to Jan. 4, 2013.
  • Chief Scott Thomson of Camden County, N.J., is a native of Camden who emphasizes community policing. He has been chief since 2013, and previously was chief of the former Camden Police Department beginning in 2008. Chief Thomson began his law enforcement career in 1992. He serves as President of PERF.

NIJ Past

Both former directors discussed NIJ’s accomplishments during their tenures while putting those retrospectives in context with today’s work.

Mr. Stewart said that in 1982, policymakers had a poor view of social science. He saw that NIJ had great promise, but needed to demonstrate that rigorous research could help police and corrections agencies: “We were doing detailed surveys that no one in the field ever read unless they heard there were going to be questions on an exam about it.”

One of the earliest projects that the agency took on during his tenure involved working with the police departments in Newark, N.J., and Houston on increasing people’s perception of safety. Reducing Fear of Crime in Houston and Newark: A Summary Report indicated that if officers spend more time talking with people, they can reduce the fear of crime and possibly, crime itself. This research, Mr. Stewart said, was a first step in shifting the focus from policy analysis to helping the real world. He also noted that during his tenure, NIJ did work to make corrections facilities less formidable and more impenetrable, as well as advancing use of DNA as physical evidence and research on conducted energy weapons, what we term today as Conducted Energy Devices (CEDs).

Dr. Laub, who took over as head of the agency 20 years after Mr. Stewart’s departure, characterized NIJ’s mission as unique, and added: “Research must be rigorous, but it also must be really valued by practitioners. Given this, NIJ faces a two-fold challenge — generating rigorous knowledge, and disseminating relevant and usable knowledge to those practitioners.”

NIJ generates rigorous scientific research and disseminates relevant information, which helps translate research into policy and practice, Dr. Laub said, but it’s a two-way street, with the scientist developing new tools based on practitioner feedback about needs. During his tenure, Dr. Laub said that mass incarceration and crime rates declined, and NIJ funded new programs to combat human trafficking and continued partnering with the National Institute of Standards and Technology to further DNA research.

NIJ Present

The two law enforcement practitioners discussed their experiences working with NIJ, and how that collaboration helped their departments make sound policy decisions based on research results.

Chief Stawinski said that for too long, law enforcement agencies made decisions based on anecdotal evidence as opposed to applying sound research and scientific principles. In Prince George’s County, the department has achieved drastic reductions in crime rates by tossing out preconceived ideas about when and where crime was spiking, and using data to determine the actual times and places where the department needed to focus.

“Policing is not [only] about catching the criminal — it’s also about applying social science to fundamentally understand causation of crime,” Chief Stawinski said. “Safe people lead better lives. They lead a safer world into existence. I thank NIJ for their support in helping us work toward this future.”

Chief Stawinski said he makes it a goal to try to get more practitioners involved in working with research efforts. Chief Thomson, in a similar vein, described himself as a professional reformer, saying that society is changing and policing needs to change with it. When he started taking help from others and actively enlisting help, good things began to happen. He also realized that change could not come unilaterally from the police department; it had to come from the community as a whole.

“A lot of the work with NIJ got us to a point where we understood the block and we actually started reducing crime. We knocked on doors and talked with people,” Chief Thomson said. “I heard a woman say that her child used to be afraid of the police; now he wanted to be one. This change did not happen by accident. We applied what we learned from evidence-based studies and abandoned tradition.”

NIJ Future

Following the presentations, Dr. Muhlhausen and members of the audience asked the panelists questions. (Note: Another obligation caused Chief Stawinski to leave before the Q&A.) Highlighting that exchange were comments from participants about what NIJ has been doing right and what needs to change in the future:

  • Mr. Stewart: I encourage you to be more responsive. It’s hard to wait 18 to 24 to 36 months for a report on what happened. Do more Research in Brief or other quick turnaround documents. The biggest challenge is to be more relevant. (Dr. Muhlhausen pointed out the new “Notes from the Field” series that focuses not on research, but on the experiences of a particular chief (
  • Dr. Laub: In order to supply the research, we need to know what the field needs to know. Also, NIJ has not done a good job of telling its story. Use this 50th anniversary as a springboard.
  • Chief Thomson: A lot of times practitioners have a hard time articulating what they need. The researchers need to get out in the field, the way Dr. Muhlhausen did with coming to Camden and riding along in a squad car.

At the end of the day, a quote from Mr. Stewart early in the event perhaps summed it up best: “This ‘Research for the Real World’ event is not only an important title, but an important motto. This is 50 years of improving justice and saving lives — the research done here has real impacts in saving people’s lives.”

To further mark the 50th anniversary, NIJ also plans to release several “Director’s Corner” articles on its website,, where Dr. Muhlhausen will discuss NIJ’s past and future. Articles will appear periodically throughout the remainder of the year. There will also be a special issue of the NIJ Journal later in 2018.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the first grants given out by the National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice averaged $100. That information has been removed from the article.

Article photo:National Institute of Justice