Tech success: Round up the usual suspects

Video system lets police create virtual lineup

IT solutions in action

Project: Digital police lineups

Agency: West Yorkshire Police, United Kingdom

Partners: GlassHouse Technologies Inc. and Sagitta Performance Systems Ltd.

Goal: Switch from live police lineups to a digital system that uses video clips. Officials wanted faster, more reliable lineups to assist in fighting crime.

Obstacles: Several video editors often need simultaneous access to video clips that are 25 megabits and larger. Keeping systems running while handling such large files would require significant bandwidth.

Solution: A parallel file system from IBM Corp. lets multiple editors simultaneously access the same video clip. The system also helped boost bandwidth.

Payoff: Police can stage lineups faster, more often and for less money than with the old live system. One official estimated that a complete return on investment came within a matter of weeks.

It's a police lineup in the United States, and an identification parade in the United Kingdom. But whatever it's called, both have some things in common: Organizing volunteers to stand alongside suspects for witnesses to view is time-consuming, expensive and frustrating to law enforcement officials.

To improve the situation, officials at the U.K.'s West Yorkshire Police Department set out to replace the old systems with a digital, computerized one. The resulting Video Identification Parade Electronically Recorded system, or Viper, has streamlined the lineup process and has become an important tool in reducing street crime, said Peter Burton, head of imaging at the West Yorkshire Police.

"Foremost was the need to speed up the process," Burton said. "Live identification parades took an average of two months to conduct. Also, 50 percent of live ID parades were canceled for one reason or another."

Often, volunteers would fail to show up for a lineup or would be declared ineligible for any number of reasons, such as being related to the suspect, said Andy Norman, whose former company, Sagitta Performance Systems Ltd., was the project's systems integrator. When Sagitta was acquired by GlassHouse Technologies Inc., which was the principal on the project, Norman joined the Framingham, Mass.-based GlassHouse.

"The idea was to set up this factory where video identity lineups based on a digital format could be created very quickly from a database of video clips," Norman said. "The lineups can be cut onto a DVD or sent digitally to a local police station, and then be played on a laptop or through a screen of some sort."

To prepare for a digital lineup, police at the remote station, with the cooperation of the suspect and his lawyer, use the Viper suite in digitally video recording the suspect. After shooting the video, police send the file to the central bureau of the West Yorkshire Police imaging unit.

Under the supervision of the detective conducting the lineup, the suspect and his lawyer use keyword descriptions to search the database and select about eight look-alike volunteers.

With still images of the look-alikes selected and the sequence agreed upon, the remote station police send all the information to the central bureau.

"The moving picture version of these individuals, which is held in the central bureau, and the recorded clip of the suspect are then edited into a sequence," West Yorkshire's Burton said.

The imaging unit then sends the video to the detective to let the witness view the lineup.

Recordings of suspects and volunteers are shot in a standard way to ensure consistency in image quality, color, lighting, camera position, background and duration.

The system is used 24 hours a day nationally in the United Kingdom, which proved to be a technology challenge, Norman said. As the imaging unit produces daily a large number of lineups, police needed to ensure the database could handle all the requests.

"Potentially, what you could have is multiple editors accessing the same digital clips or files at the same time," Burton said. "From a technology point of view, having an infrastructure that enables you [to do this] is quite challenging."

Between 32 and 64 editing machines can be in operation simultaneously. Each machine runs at 25 megabits per second, which results in a high bandwidth requirement when several machines are operating, Norman said. To solve this problem, the Viper solution uses a parallel file system from IBM Corp., he said.

"It enables us to distribute file data across multiple spindles, so that you can provide much higher bandwidth access to that data," Norman said. "It also allows concurrent read-write at the same time, in a controlled fashion."

The parallel file system resides on servers running Linux. Underneath those servers, the system uses standard storage arrays.

The system has proven to be invaluable to police departments all over the United Kingdom, Burton said. Before the system's introduction, some crimes couldn't be investigated thoroughly because police couldn't conduct a lineup, such as when a suspect had an unusual appearance and look-alike volunteers were not available locally. Viper has eliminated those logistical problems.

"Since the introduction of video ID into the United Kingdom, live parades have virtually disappeared," Burton said. "The savings in time and money over the old system is in the tens of millions of pounds."

In-person lineups, which once cost between $1,500 and $2,500 and often took as much as 10 weeks to set up, have been replaced by video lineups that cost as little as $270 and can be done in as little as 15 minutes, according to GlassHouse.

"Just as importantly, more offenders are being brought to justice," Burton said, "and the number of parades being held is at least twice what it used to be."

If you have an innovative solution that you recently installed in a government agency, contact Staff Writer Doug Beizer at

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Washington Technology.

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