10 Innovative Police Technologies
Technology is transforming police work in the 21st century — introducing new tools to fight crime and new categories of crime to fight. For example, while more and more police departments across the country are deploying drones as eyes in the sky, the FBI reports they are also being used for criminal activities.
As technology continues to reshape nearly every sector of society, law enforcement leaders now have an arsenal of high-tech systems and tools that are designed to enhance public safety, catch criminals and save lives.
Eyes on Innovation – Police Technology
From drones and body-worn cameras to facial recognition software and artificial intelligence, here’s a list of 10 of the most important technologies that are equipping law enforcement agencies with new capabilities to protect and serve.
Facial Recognition Software
One of the more controversial emerging police technologies involves the use of facial recognition software. A hypothetical example offered in an NBC News report illustrates the pros and cons:
Picture a crowded street. Police are searching for a man believed to have committed a violent crime. To find him, they feed a photograph into a video surveillance network powered by artificial intelligence.
A camera, one of thousands, scans the street, instantly analyzing the faces of everyone it sees. Then, an alert: The algorithms found a match with someone in the crowd. Officers rush to the scene and take him into custody.
But it turns out the guy isn’t the one they’re looking for ─ he just looked a lot like him. The machines were wrong.
Though advanced forms of facial recognition offer “dazzling potential for crime prevention” (for example, tracking wanted criminals, missing people and suspected terrorists), the report cautions that it is also “raising alarms” about the potential for mistakes and abuse since it could be used to secretly monitor the public.
Police have been using fingerprints to identify people for over a century. Now, in addition to facial recognition and DNA, there is an ever-expanding array of biometric (and behavioral) characteristics to being utilized by law enforcement and the intelligence community. These include voice recognition, palmprints, wrist veins, iris recognition, gait analysis and even heartbeats.
The FBI has developed a database called the Next Generation Identification (NGI) system, “which provides the criminal justice community with the world’s largest and most efficient electronic repository of biometric and criminal history information.”
With comprehensive electronic databases now in place to more effectively use DNA and other biometric data in law enforcement, even the use of fingerprints to identify suspects has gone high-tech. For example, a CNBC report explains how police in London can now use a mobile INK (Identity Not Known) biometrics device to scan a suspect’s fingerprints and in many cases reveal their identity within 60 seconds.
Many law enforcement agencies are now using next-generation robotic cameras to deliver visual and audio surveillance of potential crime scenes that may be too dangerous or too hard for officers to reach.
Some of these devices are even “throwable” (up to 120 feet and capable of withstanding repeated 30-foot drops) — powered by an electric motor and equipped with high-tech wheels that enable it to move, climb and explore even the most challenging spaces while being operated wirelessly by a trained officer.
Automaker Ford has filed a patent for a self-driving police car equipped with artificial intelligence and designed to catch violators of traffic laws or impaired drivers by transmitting information to human officers or carrying an optional passenger officer who could make arrests.
Additional applications for using robots in police work, now and on the near horizon, include:
- Ever-expanding capabilities for robots to gather surveillance information, take police reports and provide communications in settings where human officers’ safety would be compromised
- China’s ongoing development of an “AnBot” robot to patrol banks, airports and schools
- Patrolling tourist attractions with a touchscreen-equipped robot officer, as is now on duty in Dubai
“Shots fired!” is not an uncommon dispatch from witnesses or officers on patrol, but pinpointing the exact location of the gunfire takes up precious time when every moment counts. Today, more and more cities are implementing ShotSpotter technology that uses sensors to detect gunfire and analysts to track the data and instantly relay it to police, enabling them to arrive on the scene more quickly than ever before.
Named for the leading provider of this technology — California-based ShotSpotter — the service can cost $40,000 to $60,000 per square mile per year for cities to cover high-crime areas. The company claims it can “detect 90%+ of gunfire incidents with a precise location in less than 60 seconds to significantly improve response times.”
A dramatic example of ShotSpotter in action took place in 2017 in Fresno, Calif., where police used it to apprehend a criminal on a killing spree. The technology enabled police to trace the killer’s movements and apprehend him in 4 minutes and 13 seconds.
Thermal imaging has become an important police technology tool that is especially helpful in dark conditions. Thermal image cameras, some available as small hand-held units, utilize infrared imaging to detect heat emitted by such objects as humans and animals, and to deliver a “heat picture” or “heat map” of the environment in question.
As seen on any number of TV crime shows, it can be used to track the motion of suspects in a darkened building. Such technology has life-saving applications — from firefighting to search and rescue missions (for example, finding a lost child or senior citizen in a blinding snowstorm).
The ongoing expansion of the Internet of Things (IoT) means more data is being generated, collected and analyzed than ever before — much of which can be incredibly valuable in a law enforcement context.
But the process of deriving actionable insights from immense amounts of data is so incredibly time-consuming that it is not remotely cost-effective when performed by humans. That’s where artificial intelligence (AI) comes in. AI is used to support many other police technologies, including some of those mentioned above like ShotSpotter, facial recognition and biometrics. It can also be used for crime mapping, crunching data that can be used to far more effectively pinpoint high-crime areas, so police can monitor them more closely and deploy additional resources.
Artificial intelligence is also being used for “predictive policing.” Utilizing so-called “deep learning” algorithms, programmers can train computers to analyze data from a vast array of sources and categories to actually predict when and where crimes are likely to occur, increasing the likelihood that officers will be in the right place at the right time.
Police cruisers have come a long way since the first police car hit the streets of Akron, Ohio, in 1899 (with a gong for a siren and a cell in the back for prisoners).
Innovation in modern police cruisers (and those of the future) has brought about such upgrades as fingertip access to Wi-Fi connected laptops, tablets and in-dash computers, giving officers the benefit of instant access to vital information, communication systems and more.
Enhanced dashcam capabilities are highly useful for surveillance and information gathering, as well as for evidentiary and accountability purposes. Next-generation officer safety features (for example, armor-piercing bulletproof doors) are also being incorporated into some police vehicles, and semi-autonomous operational capabilities are not far down the road.
Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR)
The same technology that enables toll collectors to automatically scan and collect the registration numbers and letters on your license plate to charge you a fee is now being used by police for a variety of law enforcement purposes, from identifying stolen cars to catching up with people who have active warrants or monitoring “Amber Alerts.”
For police, this technology is helpful to automate and speed up the process of taking down license plates and checking them against law-enforcement databases. ALPR cameras can be used in police cruisers, and in many cities such cameras are also mounted at streetlights, intersections and elsewhere.
The reality that multiple cameras could be capturing images of the same license plate potentially gives police the ability to track a vehicle’s movements over time, revealing details about an operator’s whereabouts, which could obviously be helpful in catching criminals.
However, privacy advocates like the ACLU — asserting that drivers are not voluntarily offering up detailed information on their comings and goings — warn that such powerful technology should be subject to restrictions and close monitoring to ensure it is not being abused. Many states and law enforcement agencies have put in place limitations to how this valuable technology is deployed.
Enhanced Body-Worn Cameras
Video of police officers doing their jobs in challenging situations used to be rare; today it is ubiquitous, as seen in a number of high-profile incidents that have drawn intense public and media scrutiny.
As more cities and communities choose to equip police departments with body-worn cameras, the ability of law enforcement supervisors, as well as the public, to gain a street-level view of on-duty police work has expanded dramatically — setting in motion an ongoing debate around the importance and the impact of this technology.
In addition to being smaller, less cumbersome and more durable, some body-worn cameras are designed to better integrate with in-car systems to provide synchronized video of an event from multiple points of view. Other advancements include higher resolution, clearer audio and wider fields of vision and heightened resistance to environmental conditions such as extreme cold.
Related technology now includes smart holsters that are designed to activate the body camera anytime the officer draws his or her firearm. At least one manufacturer of body-worn police technology makes a camera capable of issuing an alert when an officer is down. On the horizon: body-worn police cameras equipped with facial recognition capabilities.
Also called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), drones are increasingly being used by police to gain aerial vantage points for crime scene work, search and rescue efforts, accident reconstruction, crowd monitoring and more. Some of the more sophisticated models can be equipped with thermal imaging or 3D mapping software to offer GPS-enhanced precision to the areas being surveyed.
Many police drones and UAVs are also equipped with zoom cameras, making them incredibly valuable for delivering actionable, real-time intel in high-risk, “armed and dangerous” situations.
As with many other forms of advanced police technology, these law enforcement “eyes in the sky” are being closely watched by civil liberties advocates.
At the same time, the law enforcement community is actively engaged in putting in place policies and procedures intended to minimize the potential for violation of constitutional privacy rights.
Addressing this issue in a CNN report on police drone systems in New York City, Chief Terence Monahan asserted that “NYPD drones will not be used for warrantless surveillances. NYPD drones will be used to save lives and enhance our response in emergency situations.”
Mastering the Use and Implications of Police Technology
As police technology continues to evolve, law enforcement leaders have a powerful stake in staying well-informed about these advanced capabilities — both their positive impact on the safety of officers and the public, and the ethical questions involving rights to privacy.
Police chiefs and agency executives will need to understand the pros and cons to make informed recommendations on what technologies their departments and communities should be investing in. As retired California police chief Jim Davis explains, when he started his career “if we were 10 to 20 years behind in technology it really didn’t matter that much. But now, if you are 10 to 20 days behind in your technology the bad guys are getting way ahead of you.”
Chief Davis, a graduate of the online Master’s in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership program offered by University of San Diego, emphasizes the importance of lifelong learning for any law enforcement leader wishing to stay abreast of the accelerated pace of police technology development. “It is clear that our profession has become much more complicated. Now more than ever, continuing education is a critical component of your ability to lead your organization and serve your communities.”