21st Century Law Enforcement Technology Presents Opportunities and Challenges

4 min read
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Technological innovations have been changing the law enforcement landscape. From drones to body cameras to GPS tagging systems and thermal imaging technology, advances in law enforcement technology are making it possible for officials to enhance public safety like never before. But just like any technology, it is only useful if the operator knows how to use it and maximize its potential while also understanding its implications and possible threats.

Technology: A Double-Edged Sword

In a paper written by the Futures Working Group on Law Enforcement Technology in 2015, it was stated, “Every new system or network intended to improve policing can also bring with it unwelcome financial hardship, organizational transformation and public scrutiny to agencies that may not be prepared for them. Technology is a multi-edged sword that will cut in many directions. Its use for law enforcement and homeland security in the coming years is essential if we are to provide for the safety of our cities and neighborhoods, but used unwisely by government it could have an adverse impact on civil liberties and social stability. Technology will be used by criminals and terrorists, giving them more opportunities for crime, more tools to use against the innocent, and a greater ability to avoid apprehension.”

Not only will it be important for law enforcement professionals to understand how to use technology for their own good, but they will also need to understand how others are using technology to commit crimes.

Consequently, an educated police force that has had significant training in 21st century technology is essential in order to meet the challenges and opportunities facing law enforcement officials today.

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Social Media

Social media has permeated American culture and the police force is feeling the affects. While many departments have begun using social media to their benefit in recent years, they have also felt the negative ramification of the technology. For instance, social media is being used by terrorists to organize, recruit and plan; it is used by pedophiles to share images and videos, as well as seek out potential victims; and by jurors who post biased comments or share their opinions on social networks during an active trial. And then there is the transparency issue for police. When officers act poorly or forcefully with citizens, there is a chance someone is filming and that video could find its way to YouTube.

As Sgt. Steve Staletovich of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department said in an NPR article, “Social media has made stories that never would have been heard or seen before, national news.”

But social media has also aided officers in tracking down witnesses and suspects, helped them gather public support and communicate with citizens. As an article in Government Technology said, “Social networking rapidly has become a valuable intelligence-gathering tool for law enforcement agencies, as well as a source of evidence for defense and prosecution personnel who search Facebook pages, Twitter feeds or YouTube videos seeking to discredit witnesses, establish law enforcement bias, track down evidence or establish associations between gang members.”

Facial Recognition Software and Biometrics

Biometrics has come a long way since fingerprinting. Now with the introduction of facial recognition software, biometrics is entering new territory beyond the print. Facial recognition software is being used by law enforcement professionals to much more rapidly identify suspects. It also has the potential to help police identify people when they are pulled over for routine traffic violations but fail to produce an ID. Instead of arresting every person without an ID, police can use the facial recognition software to identify them immediately, during the traffic stop.

While facial recognition software is not new – it was developed in the 1960s and has been used on a military front in Iraq and Afghanistan for years – it has not been used in police departments until recently and its use is still being debated in many cities and departments across the country. The FBI has allocated $1 billion towards the creation of the Next Generation Identification program to gather data that will make it possible to analyze images from surveillance cameras nationwide. This type of program is an example of how advances in biometrics are offering a new level of intelligence to law enforcement. Other biometric initiatives being explored are speech recognition software, keystroke (analyzing a users typing pattern) and CODIS (combined DNA Index System).

Body Cameras

Body cameras are yet another new technology being debated in police departments across the country. As police face increased scrutiny, many departments see body cameras as a way to exonerate themselves from false claims and build trust and transparency within the community. The City of Detroit recently announced the launch of “the nations first law enforcement video system that would integrate body cameras and in-car dashboards,” according to The Detroit News. Yet, while many departments see the benefits of body cameras, there are those with privacy concerns.

“There are definitely issues with body cameras,” said Canton Township Police Lt. Scott Hughesdon, whose agency began using cameras in June 2015. “A lot of people will think Big Brother is being intrusive. But the whole point is to capture anything controversial. It will protect both citizens and officers,” as stated in an article by The Detroit News.

Beyond privacy concerns, the cameras don’t come cheap. Cameras run from about $300-$500 each; docking stations are around $1,500, and then there’s the additional cost of storage. The good news for some departments is that the Federal Government is pushing for officers to be equipped with body cameras and has awarded nearly $20 million in grant funding to select departments across the country.

These are just three modern technologies changing how law enforcement operates. Drones, advanced radar systems, CCTV and Next Generation 911 are also being explored and implemented in departments throughout the nation. However, with the introduction of so many new technologies to policing come questions surrounding privacy and use. Yet, the need for law enforcement to understand and employ advanced technology in the 21st century can’t be denied.

As stated by the National Institute of Justice and the Harvard Kennedy School in Police Leadership Challenges in a Changing World, “In an era where technology, financial institutions, and terrorist threats are constructed on global landscapes, a greater awareness and knowledge of global history, and connectivity to global issues and their impact on crime, will all be necessary in that crime of the future will also be global and supported by a strong technological base (Clarke and Knake, 2010).”

The University of San Diego offers a 100% online Master of Science in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership taught by accomplished academic- practitioner  faculty and professors with both advanced degrees and extensive law enforcement experience. As a top 100 nationally ranked university, USD equips students with the 21st-century skills needed to create real change throughout the community and country. To learn more about our program, visit our Program Page.


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