How Technology Is Changing Law Enforcement

February 16, 2016

8:00 pm

When I started my career in law enforcement nearly 35 years ago, the only “technology” we needed was the police radio and the location of the nearest pay phone. Today that police radio scans thirty channels, officers typically have an in-car video camera, traffic monitoring radar unit(s), in-car computer data terminals with internet access, new body cameras, a department-issued cell phone and, of course, a personal cell phone. With all this technology in the cruisers it’s a wonder we don’t have more officer-involved crashes than we do.

Advances in technology have been a mixed blessing for contemporary law enforcement agencies. Take the explosive spread of Internet access over the last several decades, for example. Everyday technologies like social media and other applications have made it possible for gangs and even terrorist organizations to coordinate like never before, creating an entirely new, digital space that needs policing.

Social media is far from the only technology that’s drawn concern from police. Many in the law enforcement community have particularly cited Waze, a traffic-tracking app that displays the current location of police officers, as potentially allowing those with criminal intent to avoid (or seek out and harm) law enforcement.

While this certainly complicates the work of keeping the public safe, criminals using the Internet – whatever they use it for – often leave a trail behind. With the proper knowledge and tools on their side, law enforcement can use this expansive channel of communication against potential or suspected criminal offenders. The Internet has become a broad web of shared personal information that remains permissible as evidence when attained legally, creating an organic database of recorded behaviors that can provide unique insight into each case. When analyzed, this data can even be useful in identifying criminal patterns and anticipating threats.

Police are being tasked with an increasingly complicated challenge as the state of technology evolves, but today’s most effective agencies aren’t exactly lacking in technical muscle. The same rapid expansion of technology forcing quick adaptation on the part of police has set the stage for exciting, innovative tech that helps officers serve their communities.

Law enforcement agencies around the country have recognized the value of these tools, using them to meet the shifting demands of police work. Some are still relatively untested, others are controversial, but each new armament in the fight against crime has the potential to radically alter the way law enforcement operates.

New Challenges, New Techniques

3D Crime Scene Imaging

The methods that analysts use to dissect every facet of a crime scene have fascinated the public in recent years, which is understandable with how far the field has come. 3D scanning technology, like some of the solutions offered by Faro, certainly seems like something straight out of science fiction. These devices take a three-dimensional scan of an entire crime scene, functioning in largely the same way as a large-scale 3D printer. What used to require sketches, photographs, and endless evidence files only needs the time it takes to create a scan of the entire scene. This can be analyzed at any time, meaning that police only have to maintain the scene’s integrity while the scan is taking place, which is often a much shorter window than required for evidence gathering, previously. The process may not be sophisticated enough to entirely replace manual CSI (yet), but it’s an excellent complement that officers are using with great effect.

Non-lethal Weaponry

In recent months, the use of deadly force has caused massive rifts between the police and their communities in cities around the country, resulting in public outrage that gains strength with each new report. In Ferguson, Missouri, a city desperately trying to repair community relations in the wake of teenager Michael Brown’s death, police have been testing an alternative technology that temporarily renders their weapon almost entirely nonlethal. The tool attaches to the gun’s barrel, placing a projectile roughly the size of a ping pong ball in front of the bullet. When the bullet strikes the projectile, it’s encased in a hard material that will cause definite injury, but has a very small chance of breaking the skin or killing the target. In situations that allow an officer to recognize danger ahead of time, this technology would allow them to prevent the death of the suspect while still incapacitating them. Non-lethal alternatives like this are going to play a very important part in policing as precincts around the country look to re-evaluate their use of lethal weapons.

Personal Radar

The emergence of new radar technology that uses radio waves to detect movement through walls caused quite a stir when it was brought to public attention several months ago. The controversy is understandable, as concern over privacy rights continues to rise, and the technology does pose some difficult questions relative to the 4th amendment. However, this technology isn’t actually new, and has been used by nearly 50 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. to mitigate the dangers of taking buildings that house criminal activity. Using the radar, which is sensitive enough to measure even the slightest movement, police and federal officers can gain a complete picture of what threats they’ll face, which is critical information to the success and safety of a breach.

Right now, the public is rightly concerned about maintaining the right to privacy, which makes it difficult to say whether or not tools like these will ever see wide use. Either way, radar technology has advanced to the point that it could be an incredibly valuable asset to officers, provided they use it only in situations that could be dangerous, and never without a warrant to search.

Officer Cameras

The national call for officers of the law to wear cameras and maintain working dash cams on their cruisers has been heard loud and clear by many police agencies. Recently, the city of Detroit announced that all police officers would soon be outfitted with body cameras, and several others have done the same. These cameras, which are now small enough to be mounted on an officer’s uniform do far more than just promote public trust and accountability in the age of a viral videos and demands for transparency. Though some members of the law enforcement community have raised concerns over the use of the cameras, they can actually provide a helpful resource to police departments and protect officers from an increasing abundance of false claims of inappropriate behavior or abuse.

Every second of video that an officer’s camera records can be taken into evidence, providing a first-hand account of what took place during any interaction with the community. The cameras provide the officer’s perspective on the incident unfettered by testimony and witness reports. Beyond that, departments can use the footage to train and practice crisis scenarios, reviewing successful arrests and discovering areas for improvement. Community members and law enforcement officers alike can benefit from police cameras seeing more frequent use.

Conversely, police officers who engage in inappropriate behaviors will be discouraged, and rightly so.  These cameras drastically increase risk for those officers who engage in more “pro-active” or aggressive enforcement practices. One can speculate that this increased risk will hinder officer activity in areas where it is actually most needed.

Crime Analytics

Criminal elements may have gained a powerful tool in the internet, but so have law enforcement agencies, with more data available than ever before. Using software dedicated to providing insight into criminal patterns and all legally warranted personal information, analysts are able to recognize connections between various activities and cases, even potentially predict where the next threat will emerge. These systems draw from a number of databases simultaneously, which helps law enforcement analyze information coming from mobile telephone service providers, banks, credit card companies, and many other public forms of data.  Once all of the relevant information is gathered, new tools like these allow agencies and precincts to share their findings with others around the nation. As a result, law enforcement can fight fire with fire when it comes to coordinating resources and protecting the public.

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Dr. Solar has been a police officer for nearly 30 years serving as a street officer, Detective, Sergeant, Lieutenant, and Chief of Police. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.

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