My job is to deliver the undeniable facts. Interview with Brazilian Federal Crime Expert.

Brazil Federal Police uses 3D reality capture in high-profile criminal investigations. Insights from a Federal Crime Expert of the Instituto Nacional de Criminalística.

My job is to deliver undeniable facts. Interview with Brazilian Federal Police

From mountains high to valleys low, a veteran Brazilian federal crime investigator uses 3D laser scanning in extreme conditions to efficiently deliver solid case evidence that boosts public confidence in high-profile investigations. 

If you want to understand where the world is heading, you need to follow what is happening in the BRIC nations. That is why it is so interesting to learn about how the Brazilian Federal Police is using 3D laser scanning to provide robust evidence in high-profile police investigations. We talked to Bruno Costa Pitanga Maia, Federal Crime Expert of the Instituto Nacional de Criminalística (INC), who joined the call from the top of Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Sugarloaf Mountain.

Sugarloaf Mountain, reachable via a 110-year-old cableway, has been a World Heritage Site since 2012. Rising 396 metres above Guanabara Bay, it is renowned globally for its striking form and breathtaking panoramic vistas of Rio with its famed beaches, mountains and iconic Christ the Redeemer statue. 

“I hope you do not mind if I scan while we talk,” Pitanga apologised while hitting the scan button on his Leica RTC360 laser scanner. The sound of the scanner continued quietly in the background for much of the call while Bruno explained why he was up there. 

Interview with Bruno Pitanga. Scanning Sugarloaf Mountain.
The view towards the Sugarloaf Mountain while scanning the area with the Leica RTC360 laser scanner.

Parque Bondinho, the company that operates the cable car system, is installing four zip lines that will send individuals 755 meters over the forest to the nearby peak of Urca Hill at speeds of 100 kilometres an hour. “Conservationists accused the contractors of causing environmental damage to the mountain and the fragile surrounding area. According to them, Parque Bondinho removed more rock and soil than their permit allowed. That is why I am here scanning and modelling the mountaintop to calculate the precise volume of the rock removed. It is quite a challenge because of the steep terrain. The post-processing is also quite complex. However, being up here is amazing. Look at this,” says Pitanga enthusiastically.

Astonishing View from the Sugarloaf Mountain. Leica expert insight article.
Panoramic view from the Sugarloaf Mountain.

Using screen share, he plays some drone footage of the Sugarloaf. The view, with Rio de Janeiro far below, is stunning, and Pitanga is keen to point out that this is rare footage. “The public is not allowed to fly drones up here”, he explains. Pitanga’s excitement for his work is palpable, so we wanted to know how he became a detective and criminal expert and if every crime scene is this glamorous. 

A passion for complicated problems and cutting-edge tech.

“I joined the police force 24 years ago as a forensic expert. I have always been attracted to topics that people think are complicated. Computer Science is one of the subfields of forensics within the Federal Police. Therefore, my admission test was for the forensics field with a specialization in computer science. I spent my first 6 years as a police officer doing crime scene investigations. Of course, most crime scenes are not pretty places, but the work is very varied, and Brazil is a very diverse country.” The diversity of Brazilian police work can be climatic or dramatic: it snows in the South while the rain forest in the North can be unbearably hot and humid. A perpetrator could be a fisherman sent to murder an activist or a former Congressman resisting arrest by shooting at police forces. 

“I spent about 10 years working in the area of explosives and finally moved to the Federal Crime Scene Lab because I found out that they had a lot more interesting high-tech equipment,” he explains unapologetically. “I like the fact that we have a variety of 3D laser scanners and 3D printers. So, for example, in the Amazonas case (below), I 3D scanned the victims’ skull with the shotgun wound and then printed a scaled replica for the investigation. It is a new approach that can help a judge or jury to ‘grasp’ the facts of the case. But which cases warrant such meticulous tech-empowered investigation? 

"In addition to cases under federal jurisdiction, we also operate in some cases under state jurisdiction when ordered by the Minister of Justice. This typically occurs in cases of significant notoriety or high social impact." Once we get involved, we will always use whatever tools are best for the job. Now, 3D laser scanning is simply the best tool if you want to save time and get more accurate information. That is why I always take a scanner: The question is just, which one? In the rainforest, on a boat or up a mountain, I go for the lightest and most versatile devices like the BLK360 or the BLK2GO”. 

Scanners provide irrefutable evidence. 

Having established that Bruno Pitanga loves working with the latest and best technology, we wanted to hear about some of the cases where he has used 3D scanning recently. 

First, he talks about Roberto Jefferson, a former Brazilian Congressman (1982 – 2005) who was accused of corruption and various other serious offences, including threatening Supreme Court judges. On August 13th, 2021, the Supreme Court Justice ordered house arrest in a pretrial. After publicly offending a judge, the home arrest was revoked.

Former congressman Roberto Jefferson under investigation
Former Brazilian congressman Robert Jefferson on social media.

When the federal police arrived to take him from house arrest to prison, Jefferson threw grenades off his balcony and opened fire on the police – wounding two. Later, he claimed that the police were shooting at one another. The siege lasted the whole day before Jefferson gave up and was arrested. The Rio de Janeiro forensic team and the Instituto Nacional de Criminalística from Basilia investigated this incident using the RTC360 3D laser scanner to analyse the bullet trajectories and show that all the shots fired came from the same point – Jefferson’s balcony.

The forensic digital twin of the scene of the shooting shows that all the bullets that hit the two vehicles must have been fired from the same area – the front corner of Jefferson’s balcony. 

Full case story coming soon.

Tracing the bullet path with Map360 in the Jefferson's shooting case (Brazil)
Tracking the bullet path trajectories with Leica Map360 forensic reconstruction software.

Jeffersons' shooting - police car hit by bullets - RTC360
Police car hit by Jefferson's bullets investigated with the Leica RTC360 laser scanner.


Safely documenting hazardous locations. 

The second case that Pitanga described was the Brazilian Federal Police investigation of the collapsed Curuçá river bridge on the BR-319 highway leading to Manaus, the Capital of Amazonas state. On the day of the incident, according to witnesses, the bridge was closed, but the public was not informed why, and an angry crowd of people trying to pass stormed onto the bridge. It collapsed, taking 4 lives and injuring 14. 

Brazil Federal Police investigates collapsed bridge on the Curuçá river
Brazil Federal Police investigates collapsed bridge on the Curuçá river

Using the Leica RTC360 laser scanner, Bruno Pitanga was able to create a virtual model that explains the disaster. One of the culverts that was designed to provide flood relief had subsided. By showing the extent to which this critical support structure was damaged by river erosion, the agency responsible for road maintenance cannot simply blame the crowd and say they overloaded the bridge. They can be held accountable on a firm factual basis.
Full case story coming soon.

Initial confessions are often withdrawn. Forensic digital twin delivers critical evidence.

“A firm factual basis is critical in court, even when the truth seems to be obvious. Initial confessions are often withdrawn.” In the remote Javari Valley, near the border with Peru and Colombia, for example. No other area in the world has so many indigenous tribes who have no contact with modern civilisation. But when conservationist Bruno Araújo Pereira and the UK journalist Dom Philips (Guardian, Washington Post) went missing in the Amazon rainforest, and the Brazilian authorities found Pereira's and Philips’ remains hidden in the forest, the intense international media interest in the case meant that a modern high-tech investigation was necessary. 

Victims Bruno Araújo Pereira and Dom Philips went missing on June 5th 2022. Brazil Federal Police investigated.

“A local eyewitness had already led the police to the three alleged murderers, who were poachers and illegal fishermen. One had confessed. Our investigation unit had to corroborate the initial testimony to guard against a retraction. We scanned everything from the boats involved in the incident to the locations where they tried to burn and bury the bodies. We built a forensic digital twin which allowed us to superimpose evidence from different days and meticulously reconstruct the whole crime.” 

Brazil Federal Police CSI unit simulates the shooting incident on the water
The investigation unit simulated the shooting on the water and carefully documented the sites where the bodies were taken.

“The Itaquai River also makes the terrain very soggy, making travel very difficult. Add high temperatures and humidity, and you are grateful for robust equipment.“ Full case story coming soon.

“All these cases are still in court. But there is no time to wait to hear the final outcome. Our job at the INC is to deliver the facts, and once we have done that, we move on to the next case,” states the criminal expert.

Brazil wants to be on the cutting edge.

“Federal Police has units established in all 27 Brazilian states. As of today (September 2023), only four of them have scanners.“ Among them, they have one RTC360 laser scanner – the Leica flagship, seven of the world’s smallest and lightest imaging laser scanner BLK360, and two handheld BLK2GOs. Judging by the many calls for his unit’s support he receives, the interviewed criminal expert Pitanga believes there is a growing need for laser scanning. Law enforcement professionals are always looking for ways to streamline their work and improve efficiency, and scanning certainly does that. 

“Scanning is the easiest part. You just press the button. The post-processing learning curve is steeper, and there are some tricks that you need to learn in the Brazilian context. For example, in the rainforest, everything looks the same. So to help the software understand how different scans fit together in 3D space, a process called registration, you need some kind of distinct marker that appears in each scan – for example, I can leave my backpack and other manmade objects in the scene when scanning, so we have clear references for later registration,” explains the crime investigator. 

Clearly, Bruno Pitanga is a technology enthusiast. “Actually, at the INC, we are in the acquisition process for another RTC360 laser scanner – as a backup, and I would like the new generation of the  BLK360, as it is even smaller, faster and more mobile. The “robot dog” (editor’s note: Leica BLK ARC, autonomous laser scanning module mounted on a four-legged robot) is also on our list because we want to be on the cutting edge.” Ultimately, talking to Pitanga, we hear that it is not about the technology – it is about strengthening public confidence in the Federal Police and the judicial process, and Brazil is very serious about doing just that. 

Perito criminal Brazil Federal Police_Bruno Pitanga 

Federal Crime Expert: Bruno Costa Pitanga Maia
Brazil Federal Police

Writer: David M. Taylor

Editor: Malgorzata Krol
Director Marketing Communications - Global Public Safety & Forensics
Hexagon Geosystems

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