Reshaping Law Enforcement in the 21st Century

Technology improvements continue to reshape the law enforcement sector in new and exciting ways. Beyond the smartphone “app” revolution of the past five years, which has brought robust, enterprise-level computing capabilities and a wealth of data out of the police station and directly into the hands of mobile officers, other technological solutions are further expanding the capabilities of police officers when conducting day-to-day operations. These solutions not only improve officer performance, but also help to ensure the safety of both the officers and their communities.

One of these new technologies, body-warn video cameras, is becoming increasingly popular as “standard equipment” for the mobile officer. Capturing up to an entire eight-hour shift, these relatively inexpensive cameras (significantly less than an in-car, dash-camera system) have quickly demonstrated their value at agencies testing this technology. The popularity and affordability of such cameras are garnishing attention at high-profile agencies – including the Alexandria, Virginia, Police Department (APD) just outside the nation’s capital.

New Technologies in Action

Deputy Chief Eddie Reyes with the APD stated in a phone call with this writer on 3 December 2013 that he is a proponent of the new body-worn cameras. With its small form factor, eight hours of recording time, and “one-button” operation, officers are able to download and manage their own videos using a simple USB dongle, thereby eliminating the need for a team of information technology professionals to support them. Building on the recent experiences at other police departments, Alexandria and other jurisdiction’s use of body-worn cameras can reduce the number of incidents where officers use force, decrease the number of complaints against the police department, and increase trust between the officers and the public. In a 25 October 2013 press release, the American Civil Liberties Union even recommended the use of body-worn cameras for all Customs and Border Patrol officers as part of a policy framework, which includes strong privacy protections.

In addition to the use of new hardware, APD is also expanding its use of existing technology, notably the use of social media as a means to more proactively communicate with and inform the public, as well as to engage their support, when necessary. Reyes noted a recent incident: A robbery suspect fired a gunshot in a grocery store, resulting in a large police response, which included a helicopter. The scene prompted a large influx of calls – many inquiring about the incident and asking what, if anything, they needed to do. After posting multiple social media updates, the APD noticed a rapid drop in the call volume. Social media quickly reached a large percentage of the population, in many different places. “This is community-oriented policing in the 21st century,” Reyes said.

New & Emerging Technologies in Other Jurisdictions

Following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, the use of social media – specifically Twitter – became an invaluable tool for the Boston Police Department (BPD) to communicate with the public and the media. In fact, BPD’s Twitter followers jumped from about 50,000 to nearly 300,000 in the week following the bombing. Twitter also served as a “lifeline” for many people to communicate with BPD as cellphone networks became unusable due to high call volume. As traditional “land-line” use continues to decline, cellphones have become for some people the only means of voice communications. Fortunately, internet-enabled social media channels, like Twitter and Facebook, provide a more resilient communication platform.

Another new field recording technology includes the use of relatively inexpensive (less than $1,000) “throwable” camera sensors. Companies such as Bounce Imaging are developing small, ruggedized cameras packed with sensors that first responders can literally throw into an emergency setting and immediately receive live audio, video, and other sensor data – for example, temperature, oxygen levels, methane, carbon dioxide, and even mapping capabilities – directly on their connected smartphone. Applications for this type of technology are many, and can support a variety of incidents, including: a hostage situation, fire and hazardous material, and disaster recovery efforts involving small or difficult terrain, such as a collapsed building following an earthquake.

New applications for mobile devices continue to increase the amount of data and capabilities available to the mobile officer. For example, there are applications that provide access to comprehensive Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) data, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC). Due to the strict security requirements for accessing CJIS/NCIC data – federal encryption standards, two-factor authentication, and mobile device management – these solutions have been slow to emerge. However, a growing number of security-compliant third-party virtual private networking software solutions are making these data available to mobile officers via off-the-shelf smartphones and tablets.

In addition, other software solutions take full advantage of the capabilities of mobile devices by integrating near-instant facial recognition capabilities. The San Diego County, California, Tactical Facial Recognition solution developed by the Automated Regional Justice Information System uses tablets to photograph suspects in the field and receive facial recognition results from a database of more than a million booking records within seconds. The value of this capability is significant, particularly in a field environment where suspects intentionally do not carry any form of identification and who may not have fingerprints on file that would result in a response from a mobile fingerprint reader.

The Future “Robocop”

Other new technologies to support the mobile officer are on the horizon, including the use of drones, which continue to grow in popularity as evidenced by Amazon’s proposed “delivery drones.” Though fraught with technical, policy, and cost challenges, drones in the domestic public safety environment are likely here to stay.

By combining the new and emerging technologies described above, it may soon be possible to have a palm-sized drone capable of self-navigating into any environment, conducting facial recognition on the people it finds, running NCIC queries on all facial matches, and then streaming the results, including live audio and video, back to a mobile officer. In effect, the “Robocop” of the future may be available for duty in the near future.

Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso

Rodrigo (Roddy) Moscoso is the executive director of the Capital Wireless Information Net (CapWIN) Program at the University of Maryland, which provides software and mission-critical data access services to first responders in and across dozens of jurisdictions, disciplines, and levels of government. Formerly with IBM Business Consulting Services, he has more than 20 years of experience supporting large-scale implementation projects for information technology, and extensive experience in several related fields such as change management, business process reengineering, human resources, and communications.



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