Many law enforcement agencies and communities this week are commemorating National Police Week, which takes place during the week of May 15, Peace Officers Memorial Day. During this week, we’re thinking about how photographs play more of a role than ever in helping law enforcement officials gather evidence. To learn more, we met with Adobe Sr. Solutions Architect John Penn II, who dedicates his work to helping law enforcement solve cases with digital imaging technology.
How did you get started in your current role as Senior Solutions Architect?
John: Fifteen years ago this week I started at Adobe as a senior computer scientist on Photoshop and that was my primary job for a decade. About 10 years ago, a colleague on the Adobe Philanthropy Council asked if I’d be interested in attending a law enforcement conference and attending a session on Photoshop. That conference turned out to be the Silicon Valley Internet Crimes Against Children conference. One of the sessions at that conference by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) was on identifying the victims of child exploitation. At the time, this was relatively new to law enforcement. I was both horrified by the nature of the crimes, but also intrigued by how images could be used to rescue the young victims of those crimes. I was confident that Photoshop could play a role in these investigations, and that spawned a personal interest that became the focus of my career. After years of working to help law enforcement in these cases in my personal time, with some persistence and support from others at Adobe, the work became my full time job and Senior Solutions Architect for Law Enforcement Technologies became my title.
In what ways does Photoshop technology help law enforcement?
John: Cameras have become an integrated part of our society. They are carried in our pockets and mounted to walls. As a result, crimes are more and more frequently captured in images and video. In daily life it’s no longer uncommon to see images or video of a crime in progress played on the news. Law enforcement would like to leverage that evidence to solve crimes. But sometimes, the critical clues are locked away behind sensor noise, poor lighting, blurry images or are in minute and hard to see details. Photoshop is a powerful tool in the hands of trained law enforcement, which can assist them in getting crucial information from digital media.
Of course, beyond working with image evidence, there are many other tools in Photoshop that are useful to law enforcement. Photoshop is used in a wide variety of forensic sciences including document forensics, working with fingerprints and processing other kinds of evidence.
What types of crimes do you help solve or prevent with digital imaging?
John: Digital imaging is important to a wide variety of law enforcement work. It’s used in the analysis of photos that law enforcement takes when investigating a crime scene. It’s used in different ways when separating a fingerprint from a complex background in a digital image in a forensic lab. In investigating crimes against children it’s used in different ways. Each type of crime and each investigator will have different techniques at their disposal to investigate the crime at hand.
For example, in cases when law enforcement is conducting surveillance on a suspect vehicle, it may not be possible to secure a photo of the car from an angle that won’t give away the investigation. While it’s always best to capture an image in a way that won’t need post-processing, there are techniques in Photoshop that can help clarify the contents of images. In the example below, a vehicle is photographed with a DSLR from a rather severe angle making it difficult to read the plates on the font of the vehicle. After some processing in Photoshop we’re able to clearly make out the plate number and registered state on the vehicle.
Techniques like this have varied results, so it’s critical to understand how to apply the techniques as well as how other factors including resolution, lighting, camera noise and blur will effect the results. Which is why we offer training and materials to law enforcement doing this type of processing. Just as important is listening to law enforcement and having an open communication channel with the investigators in the field doing this kind of work. That helps us develop better algorithms and techniques that take into consideration real-world factors we may not anticipate in development of features.
Can you tell a story or provide a specific example of a time that the technology in Photoshop helped solve a crime and/or save a life?
John: Because of the nature of the work, as well as legal and privacy concerns, I can’t give a specific example. But I can generally say that there are many examples of Photoshop and other Adobe tools like Premiere, Audition and Acrobat used to help solve crimes and save lives. I’m incredibly proud of the tools we develop and the innovation and care that’s put into them. I’ve seen Photoshop put to incredible use, and along with great police work, rescue the most innocent victims from some of the worst crimes imaginable.
Can you share any insight into new technology you’re developing to benefit law enforcement?
John: I can share insight into the thought process behind the new tools we’re developing. For me understanding the investigative challenges and the role technology plays in the commission or solving of the crime, is critical to the development of useful tools. For example, understanding what happens to a photo in the various stages of its lifecycle, from camera to evidence, can make all the difference between a tool that works well in the lab, and one that works well in the field.
How do you see the relationship between Photoshop and law enforcement advancing as technology improves?
John: I see the work with law enforcement as an ongoing partnership. I think it’s critical that we understand the challenges law enforcement faces, especially in investigating crimes against children. I expect that as we come to better understand those challenges we will continue to develop tools that will help them be successful in their mission.
I feel like I have the best job at Adobe, because I get to sit right in the middle of that relationship. At Adobe I live and work with the amazingly talented and creative folks on the Photoshop team and other teams at the company. But I also have the opportunity to work with the incredibly dedicated folks in law enforcement and other organizations like NCMEC, who are constantly working to keep our communities and children safe.