Cool cop tech: 5 new technologies helping police fight crime

CSI and its imitators have introduced TV viewers to some of the advanced technologies used by crime-scene investigators. But they aren't the only law enforcement personnel benefitting from technology; police officers across the nation have an arsenal of high-tech devices to help them investigate and solve cases.

From eye-in-the-sky drones to GPS vehicle pursuit darts and even ordinary iPads, here's a look at five tech tools that are being used or tested by police to protect their communities. Some of these technologies are relatively uncontroversial, while others have raised eyebrows among privacy and civil rights advocates. The legality of one has even been called into question by the courts, highlighting a potential pitfall of using advanced tech to conduct police work.

Need to see what's happening? Toss in a robotic camera

When it's too dangerous to send a police officer into an active crime scene -- or in any situation that requires "eyes" where there's no clear line of sight -- police can rely on a throwable robotic camera. The device has an electric motor and special wheels that allow it to move, climb and explore at the whim of an officer who operates it wirelessly.

In Eden Prairie, Minn., the police department's emergency response team has been taking along one of those devices, the Recon Scout Throwbot, every time it hits the streets.

"It deploys with us like we would carry a rifle," said Sgt. Carter Staaf, a spokesperson for the team. "You never know where you are going to need it. It always comes in handy somewhere. If we have a warrant search and there are multiple levels in a home, we can throw it upstairs and get a set of eyes up there."

Developed by ReconRobotics in Edina, Minn., the Recon Scout is a "force multiplier," Staaf said, explaining that the device gives police officers a critical advantage when they can't see a suspect directly. In such cases, many police departments send in a police dog to scope out the dangers, but that can be risky for the animal.

"That's a $20,000 dog and there's an emotional attachment to it if something happens to it," Staaf said. "There's zero emotional attachment if something happens to the robotic camera. If it gets shot, picked up or smashed by an assailant, then at least you know that the bad guy is there."

The robotic cameras can be used indoors and outdoors. In Minneapolis, police use them for bomb detection by using the remote controller to drive them under vehicles to look for suspicious packages, Staaf said. "You can dream up the scenarios that you want to use them for."

The Eden Prairie Police Department spent about $9,000 for its device, the original Recon Scout model. The robot has been improved with new features in the latest XT version, according to Staaf, who has looked at the new model but hasn't purchased it. "The XT model is a little faster and quieter and has been ruggedized more," he said. "The wheels allow you to crawl over more kinds of turf. They really did a nice job with that."

In future models, Staaf said he'd like to see improved ruggedness in the controller and improved water resistance in the camera unit.

There are some special requirements when it comes to operating the device, Staaf said. First, officers have to be specially trained to run it. Second, when using the device at a dangerous crime scene, the operator must be accompanied by a fellow officer to cover and protect him, since his attention will be focused on the device.

Gunshots tell a story, if you pay attention

When a "shots fired" call comes in to a police dispatcher, the shooter has often left the scene by the time the police arrive. The officers then must painstakingly investigate and seek evidence to try to determine what happened. The toughest part can be figuring out where a shot came from.

That's where a gunshot detection system (GDS) can help.

The Nassau County Police Department, based in Mineola, N.Y., uses a system from ShotSpotter that relies on multiple carefully placed electronic sensors installed throughout a neighborhood to help pinpoint the exact source of gunfire. It's especially useful in areas where shots are fired frequently and witnesses are scarce or hesitant to talk.

"When we took a look at this, we realized that a portion of our community was disproportionally affected by random gunfire," said deputy commissioner William Flanagan, noting that in some neighborhoods bullets were often shot into the air, into the ground or into buildings, endangering residents. Police wanted to find a way to cut the incidence of random gunfire and turned to the ShotSpotter GDS.

ShotSpotter, based in Mountain View, Calif., offers its systems as subscription-based hosted services, typically charging $40,000 to $60,000 per square mile per year, according to a company representative. The data is available on the computers in patrol cars, Flanagan said, which helps officers get to the scene quickly when shots are fired.

"We looked at this product and installed it in a three-square-mile zone," Flanagan said, noting that the department sought the approval of community residents before doing so. "Once we installed it, we found rates of random gunfire that were astounding to us." Not many people were being hit, but it was clearly a dangerous situation, he said. "What was more bothersome was that we were not getting calls about it," he added. "People weren't calling because it happened so often they were desensitized."

The department uses the gunshot data in conjunction with its own mapping and analytics tools to find out who lives in the areas where the gunfire occurs to see if there are connections. The analytics tools will, for example, indicate if parolees and people on probation are living in a particular neighborhood. "Really what we're doing is looking inside this area and seeing who is doing the shooting. We've gotten to the point today where we can actually do predictive policing," Flanagan said.

Police have made arrests of suspects by getting officers to the scene quickly after shots were recorded by ShotSpotter. The system even helped the police stop a burgeoning gang war before it really took off, Flanagan said. The department reacted to a rise in gunshots in a neighborhood by deploying special teams of officers whose tactics for keeping the peace included using license plate readers to identify suspects.

"As we learned what was happening, things began to drop off," Flanagan said. In 2010, the system recorded 337 gunshot incidents. In 2011, the number of incidents had fallen to 77, an almost 80% decrease.

One reason for the sudden drop-off, said Flanagan, is that the perpetrators realized that the ShotSpotter system was there. Another is that the police acted on the data they were collecting by deploying special patrols, engaging in anti-violence activities and adopting improved intelligence-gathering methods, he added. "[The GDS technology] told us when and where we had problems," he said. "Technology has assisted us in doing that. It's not a panacea. It's a tool in a toolbox."

There have been some rough edges to work out with the technology, Flanagan said. The biggest issue in the past has been getting the system to better differentiate between actual gunshots and other sharp, loud noises, such as vehicle backfire. ShotSpotter has been "very responsive about anything we've asked them to improve," he said. "We needed some more help with background noise, and they took care of that."

So far, the system has been a helpful ally, according to Flanagan. "At a time of diminishing police resources," he noted, "anything that can be used in the fight against gun violence is a positive step."

Tablets aren't just for writing speeding tickets anymore

The utility and agility provided by iPads and other tablets hasn't been lost on police departments around the nation, and the devices are becoming an ever-more-essential part of police work.

"Officers can [use iPads to] take notes and tape statements from witnesses and suspects," said William Clark, chief of police in Jefferson City, Tenn. "Officers are always looking for new ways to use them in their work. One detective asked if we could find an app to diagram crime scenes. It's almost unlimited in what you can do with these things."

The Jefferson City Police Department bought 20 iPads for its 19 officers in late 2010, choosing Apple's tablet over much heavier ruggedized laptops that would have been permanently mounted inside patrol cars, according to Clark. The flexibility of the smaller, more nimble iPads was a key feature the officers noticed in testing. "They can carry them wherever they go," said Clark. "They can tuck it under their arms and walk into a crime scene."

The iPads allow officers to do just about anything they could do while sitting at their desks, from filing accident and incident reports wirelessly to looking up photos of suspects and accessing information in a state crime database.

"The iPads allow them to be on the streets more and do their computer work there instead of having to come back to the office," Clark said. "Even if they're not patrolling, they are more visible."

In Lincoln, Neb., some of the city's 321 police officers are testing 15 iPads and 15 Motorola Xoom tablets that were deployed last year, said Thomas K. Casady, public safety director of Lincoln's police, fire and 911 departments and former chief of police.

"We were originally planning a study of handheld phones, but the iPads certainly changed the complexion of the project" because they can do so much more, Casady said.

"It's great for situational awareness, for simple access to Google maps and aerial maps," he said. "Our entire records management system is available via our intranet, using a Web browser. Officers can get the info they need wherever they are."

The iPads and Xooms continue to be evaluated in the field for toughness and overall performance, he said, but their value is already proven within the police force. "With a tablet, you just pick it up and it works with instant on -- none of that three-to-four-minute boot time," said Casady. "You can't hold a laptop and talk and stand and type. You can with a tablet, and that's how police officers work."

"I have a feeling that tablet computers will be the form factor of the future for police departments," he continued. "Mind you, though, I don't think it will be these exact devices because they don't have the needed toughness at this point. I think the ruggedized tablet is where the future of police mobile computing will be. That said, we haven't had any of our 30 Xooms or iPads damaged -- yet."

It's a bird ... it's a plane ... no, it's a flying police drone!

Perhaps no police technology is more controversial today than flying robotic drones equipped with cameras that officers can use to get a bird's-eye view of a crime scene in an emergency. Critics say the use of drones raises major privacy concerns.

But drones offer some promise for law enforcement, according to Sgt. Andrew Cohen of the Miami-Dade Police Department in Florida. The department is testing a T-Hawk Micro Air Vehicle (MAV), an aerial camera drone from Honeywell International, but it hasn't used the aircraft in a real-world emergency situation yet. Before it could use the device, the department had to obtain licensing approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, and it did that last July.

What the MAV brings to police work is the ability to get a close look dangerous situations as they unfold. About 24 inches in diameter and 24 inches tall, the 19-lb. MAV is a flyable video camera that bears more of a resemblance to a helicopter than it does to, say, a jet. It can hover and fly in any direction and is operated by a pilot using a laptop computer and a small control unit that directs its movements in the air.

Usually flown between 25 and 300 feet above the ground, the MAV runs on gasoline and has a built-in horizontal fan that moves it around like a hovercraft. "It's gyro-stabilized, so it almost flies itself," Cohen said. "You just tell it where to go."

A MAV system retails for $250,000, according to Honeywell. Because of its specialized nature, only licensed pilots in the department's aviation unit are permitted to operate it, Cohen said.

The department began testing the MAV while looking at ways to provide aerial support for its special tactical team. "We would use it for reacting to a barricaded suspect or a hostage situation," he said. "We don't want to bring our officers in during such a risk. We can bring this in to provide real-time information to commanders on the ground and give them video so they can make a decision."

The MAV is working well for the test pilots, Cohen said. "The software is very intuitive. We're looking forward to using it. We've put so much time and effort into it, so we're looking forward to it bearing some fruit."

The MAV does have some limitations, he said. Because of its small size and light weight, it can't be used in strong winds. It can only be operated during daylight hours, according to FAA rules, and it must be flown within an FAA-approved restricted operating zone that ensures it's kept at a safe distance from full-size aircraft. The MAV is also labor-intensive, requiring at least four pilots to operate it -- one at the controls and three others to maintain visual contact, monitor for safety and handle communications.

Not everyone is a fan of these flying cameras, according to a recent story in The Wall Street Journal. Critics including the American Civil Liberties Union argue that the devices could allow police to improperly spy on citizens and conduct illegal surveillance operations while shredding personal privacy. The ACLU recently issued a 16-page report (download PDF) outlining its concerns.

Cohen defended his department's desire to use the drones, arguing that they can't be used for spying because they're very loud. "It's not sneaking up on you," he said. "It's very loud and noisy -- it sounds like a flying lawnmower. We're not going to be taking this thing up arbitrarily to see what we can see."

GPS vehicle pursuit darts: A cautionary tale

High-speed chases can be dangerous both for police officers and the general public. To minimize that danger, a company called StarChase has developed a system that shoots a special GPS-equipped dart that adheres to a fleeing vehicle and allows authorities to track the vehicle's movements from a safe distance, without a frantic pursuit.

The StarChase Pursuit Management System has been tested and evaluated by police departments around the country, including the Arizona Department of Public Safety and the Volusia County Sheriff's Office in Florida, according Karen Jaffe, CEO of the Virginia Beach-based company.

The darts, which are made from semi-rigid foam and other materials, are aimed using a laser and then fired with an air-compressor-powered mechanism from the grille of a police car, Jaffe said. The dart attaches to the suspect's vehicle using magnets and a proprietary glue. "It's designed to be fired so it doesn't distract the officer" during the initial chase, which officers can discontinue once the dart is attached, she said.

About 50 of the StarChase systems have been built, with about 40 available for testing by law enforcement agencies. The cost for the system is about $5,000 for one vehicle, plus monthly fees for GPS monitoring.

Law enforcement experts are divided about the usefulness of the GPS dart systems. "It still needs to be seen if it will work effectively," said Andrew J. Scott III, a former police chief and president of AJS Consulting, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based law enforcement consultancy. Still, he said, he likes the idea. "It could reduce the number of lawsuits related to police pursuits, and the number of pursuits," he noted. "If it does those things, then why wouldn't you use it? All it takes is one bad chase and someone is killed or injured."

But Dennis Jay Kenney, a professor in the department of criminal justice at John Jay College in New York, called the technology "just goofy."

"The accuracy of the things is going to be very limited," he said. "And the pursuing car is going to have to be very close. Then the question is: Will the dart stick?"

The use of GPS technology to track people in their vehicles also raises some privacy concerns. In fact, a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, United States v. Jones, declared that it was illegal for the government to attach a GPS device to someone's vehicle and use the device for long-term monitoring of the individual's movements without first obtaining a search warrant.

Legal experts say it is unclear how this ruling pertains to a GPS device attached to a car for short-term tracking, as with the pursuit darts. In a statement (download PDF) released in the wake of the ruling, StarChase CEO Jaffe unequivocally states that the Jones decision does not bar law enforcement from using the StarChase system because it's designed "for short-term monitoring directly after the commission of a crime." Nevertheless, in light of the ruling, some police departments might be reluctant to invest in the technology.

Better policing through technology?

Will high-end tech devices like aerial drones really help police win the war against crime?

Kenney is not a believer. "Technology does not solve crimes," he said. "Police departments are laying off cops to save money, and they can't afford new technologies like these." Most of the products, he said, are "very expensive technology with little change of any yield."

Scott disagrees. "Failure to progress and use the appropriate technology as it evolves and use it on a trial basis in law enforcement means that the public is getting shortchanged," he said. "I believe technology is a link for doing our jobs more effectively. If you have a technology that can provide data and can mitigate law enforcement injuries, you're going to use it."

Another policing expert, Lee Streetman, a professor of criminal justice at Delaware State University in Dover, Del., said that some new police technologies are encouraging and should be adopted, while others -- such as the imaging systems that New York City police are testing to https://www.starchase.com/pdfs/StarChaseSuperemeCourtRulingStatement02012012.pdf -- raise health, safety and privacy concerns that haven't been fully addressed. "I'm a little wary of technology that isn't fully thought through," said Streetman.

What he does support, he said, are technologies that "can be used to make police safer and people safer." The problem, though, "is that police don't always use it the way it's intended to be used," Streetman added. "We have to be sure we do training and that they don't use these things outside their design scope."

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