Across the Globe, Law Enforcement Goes High Tech




Body cameras, smart guns, crime reporting apps, tracking darts, and 3D crime-scene laser scanners. These are just a few of the technologies being adopted by police departments across the globe. 

In the United Kingdom, you can create your own crime report using an app on your iPhone. In New England, K9 units have special sensors built into protective vests which monitor body temperature and send an alert to the handler’s phone if the dog gets too hot.

At crime scenes, tape measures and cameras are becoming a thing of the past. Some laser scanners can record 10 million data points in five minutes, store them in the cloud and replay the picture in 3D—complete with bullet trajectory and blood splatter—back at the lab or in the courtroom. 

Meanwhile, in Austin, Texas, high-speed police chases are no longer necessary. Officers there are launching small projectiles from the front of their squad cars à la Spider-Man. The module sticks to the getaway car and transmits a GPS signal so police can track the suspect without needing to resort to a hazardous chase.  

The Internet of Things—which allows the connection of things to other things, and to the internet—is playing a crucial role in much of this new tech. The most promising—and perhaps the most contentious—of which is the smart gun. Promising because it has the potential to improve safety; problematic because it’s packaged in what some believe is heavy-handed legislation.   

Recently, the Obama administration released a report outlining new gun safety technology and incentivizing gun manufacturers to incorporate smart technology into their products. The aim is to keep guns out of the wrong hands—think fingerprint readers—in the general population. However, smart-gun technology is already being adopted by some law enforcement agencies. 

The sheriff’s department of Santa Cruz County, California and the Carrollton, Texas Police Department both use smart sensors in officer’s guns to wirelessly transmit real-time event and location data to command, dispatch, or nearby officers via smart phone, tablet or laptop. The advantages of this are obvious, especially during the event itself, and after the fact it can also help to provide valuable data—like the direction of aim—to crime scene and forensic investigators. California-based Yardarm provides this type of technology to the police, military and private security. 

“Law enforcement is adopting technology to offset reductions in force and tighter budgets,” says Jim Schaff, vice president of marketing at Yardarm. “By connecting the firearm to the cloud we give departments a technology that enhances officer safety, improves operational efficiency, and builds community trust.”

Yardarm’s internet-connected gun is just one of many smart gun breakthroughs in recent years. Beretta, an Italian manufacturer, is currently testing its iPROTECT system, which integrates motion sensors into its Px4 Storm pistol. The sensors are triggered when the firearm is drawn from its holster, when the hammer is armed or disarmed, and when the gun is fired. The data is then transmitted to the officer’s smartphone, which then passes the information to a police operations center.

Other manufacturers such as German-based Armatix are developing user-authorization firearms that can only be unlocked with a PIN code and only fire when in close proximity to an associated wristband. 

And it’s not just guns that are becoming smart. One company out of California is using smart, connected technology to listen to and record gunshots all over San Francisco.
Newark-based SST has developed a sensor that alerts police when guns are fired in public places. SST installs and monitors its ShotSpotter system, notifying police when there is an incident. Its cloud technology also allows for the collection of crime data to pinpoint areas with high gun violence.

Since implementing the ShotSpotter system, gun violence in San Francisco is down 50 percent, says the city’s chief of police Gregory Suhr, primarily because of the fear of getting caught. The ShotSpotter helps police locate gunshots quickly. And reliable forensic evidence boosts successful prosecutions. 

Wearable body cameras come with similar promises. 

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, about 4,000 U.S. police departments (one-fourth of the country's total) have purchased body cameras in response to a federal push to improve police accountability. 

Manufacturers of body cameras have seen a huge boost in sales over recent years—Los Angeles-based Wolfcom, for instance, has grown its earnings by nearly 400 percent from just last year. 

And the technology too is getting smarter. Wolfcom is developing a body camera that will transmit real-time footage to police headquarters, while manufacturer Taser has introduced Bluetooth technology to its body camera that allows the device to automatically turn on when an officer draws his or her Taser stun gun. 

The verdict is still out on whether body cameras really do the job they’re supposed to do.   

While some early studies suggest the cameras reduce the use of force by officers and the number of complaints from citizens, it’s still a gray area in which concerns, especially regarding privacy, are still being hashed out. 

Cost is another prohibiting factor. Each camera ranges from $300 to $800 per officer, but can cost hundreds of thousands more in monthly video storage. And sifting through recording and editing out, say, the faces of children or vulnerable adults in sensitive cases, can also be hugely time consuming with few manufacturers offering robust editing software.

One thing is clear—whether you think this technology is beneficial or not, it’s probably here to stay. And in some ways it’s not how law enforcement is encompassing new technologies that’s most interesting, but rather what happens when the two collide.

Image by West Midlands Police on Flickr (CC by 2.0)