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.

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