Looking for ways to save money, Baltimore Police crime lab technicians have turned an inexpensive program designed for remodelers into a tool that illustrates homicide, rape and other crime scenes.
"It's a homeowners' program used for creating better homes or gardens that we've adapted," said crime lab supervisor John French.
French stumbled on Floor Plan Plus in 1997 while looking for software to help technicians create courtroom-presentable crime scene renderings. Until then, the illustrations were drawn by hand. Now, the crime lab takes sketches and photographs from the scene and re-creates them on a computer screen.
French said he originally considered a specialty program called Crime Zone, which featured symbols for bodies, weapons and other items commonly found at crime scenes. But at $400 per copy, it was too expensive. Floor Plan Plus retails for $29.99.
The publishers of Floor Plan Plus were surprised by the unusual use of their software when they learned about it through a December episode of "Inside Story" on the Arts and Entertainment Channel that focused on the Baltimore Police Department.
Christa Federico, spokeswoman for International Microcomputer Software Inc. (IMSI) said a co-worker watched the program and told others at the company.
"I think it is very exciting to see software being used in a different venue than it was designed for," she said.
Federico, in turn, called French with an offer: In return for free software, the crime lab supervisor would advise the California-based publisher on features that would make Floor Plan Plus more useful to other police departments.
Meanwhile, crime lab specialists say they're impressed with the program.
Technician Ayesha Muhammad, 28, said the time it takes to build a crime scene on the computer depends upon its complexity. "I could do a simple street scene, about a block in length and without too much evidence, in about a half an hour," he said. Others can take as long as eight hours, particularly complex indoor scenes with furniture.
The program helps with yard plants and furniture renderings, but no bodies or weapons are included - which forced the technicians to improvise.
While Muhammad and French use rectangles to represent bodies, others have begun drawing stick figures. French said he adapted some features for his own needs - substituting an end table for a street light, for example.
But the program's original intent has not been lost on the crime lab. Some technicians have used the program to rearrange their floor plans, French said, and "We even had one person design where to put a phone line in his house."