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Making Technology Work for You

Don't let the bells and whistles of modern policing get in the way of good old-fashioned tactics.

December 30, 2011  |  by - Also by this author

Vehicular Performance

Most patrol officers develop a love-hate relationship with their patrol cars. Today's factory models are definitely faster and safer when they reach your fleet than your father's Oldsmobile. But by the time the gun rack, radio equipment, cameras, computers, MDTs, and other equipment are added, you can end up feeling like a sardine wedged into a tin can for much of your shift.

The aforementioned surveillance cameras, mounted fore and aft of the patrol car, not only make capturing and storing video easier for you, they can also broadcast images wirelessly. Supervisory personnel at the station, using real-time video information, can provide direction during pursuits or other technical callouts. Many patrol cars are equipped with automated vehicle license plate readers that can scan thousands of license plates per minute and inform you if the car is reported stolen or is linked to a suspect.

Some departments have taken to installing GPS tracking devices in every patrol car. This means your watch commander will know where your patrol car is and how long it has been there: Goofing off just got a whole lot harder. The good news is that you, too, will know where your fellow officers are. This can not only facilitate coordination of radio calls, but hopefully mitigate the potential for radio car vs. radio car collisions.

When combined with centralized mapping technology, departments can pinpoint the locations of criminal activity and officer responses to develop strategies for improving patrol coverage. State-of-the-art maps displayed in patrol cars can also inform officers when they pass by locations where suspects reside or recent crimes have occurred.

Having access to all of this electronic wizardry inside a patrol car is fast becoming a necessity in today's technological world. It allows officers to concentrate more on policing than mundane clerical work, but can also come with a cost. Besides reminding you to lose a few extra pounds, these components may become airborne projectiles in a collision.

State-of-the-Art Databases

From Riverside, Calif., to Sellersberg, Ind.; from Boston, Mass., to Farmington, New Mexico, law enforcement agencies prominently promote themselves as technological innovators. Some, such as the Kenner (La.) Police Department, use such innovation as recruitment inducements.

Others like the Tigard (Ore.) Police Department recognize the need for technical competency and openly recruit police technology specialists. But while filling computer-centric positions makes sense for the routine supervision and maintenance of fingerprinting databases, computerized crime mapping, and records management systems, there will be continual and growing emphasis on officers being computer literate enough to handle much of the day-to-day load.

This reality extends over the law enforcement landscape and is manifest in virtually all aspects of the profession. Special weapons and tactics teams are increasingly computer-dependent, as modern technology allows them to use all manner of remote surveillance tools to acquire intel and retrieve schematics for residential and commercial layouts.

When it comes to entering data, the adage "garbage in, garbage out" is most applicable. One officer transposed two digits in running a firearms check. The weapon came back clear when it actually had a hit entered on it. The suspect and the firearm were released and less than a week later the weapon was used in the shooting deaths of multiple victims. Overcome with remorse, the officer became yet another victim when he committed suicide.

With such import being placed on the proper use of technology in the field, it stands to reason that the more computer savvy you are, the greater the edge you will have on your competition.

Because You Can, Doesn't Mean You Should

Determining the optimal amount of technology that should be required of officers is a hot topic among law enforcement administrators, risk managers, and policy analysts.

As retired LAPD lieutenant and author of "Police Technology" Raymond E. Foster notes, "There are many aspects of technology that have improved police work. Perhaps more importantly, there are some aspects of technology that tempt us to violate basic officer safety field tactics."

Martinelli agrees that tactics trump technology. "We need to be very careful about what technological wizardry we force upon our officers," he says. "Officers have to process what they are experiencing. They have to analyze what they are seeing. They have to develop tactical plans and engage those tactical plans. When milliseconds count, it is more important that officers have a good sense of situational awareness and are not distracted in their basic law enforcement functions."

Tomorrow's Technology Today

It is the nature of technology that new innovations are constantly being researched and implemented. Among the products on the horizon for law enforcement are portable printers to expedite field citations and arrests; facial recognition systems, DNA and print scans to rapidly verify peoples' identities and aid in the identification of wanted felons; weapons recognition systems that can identify an armed person from a safe distance; and safer deployment of less lethal weapon systems.

Despite our increasing dependency on technology, the future of law enforcement will not likely come in the form of Robocop or The Terminator.

Martinelli places equal emphasis on an officer's non-technological skills. "Even in these technologically advanced ages, law enforcement is ultimately and will always be about people and relationships: the ability to talk to people, the ability to engage people, the ability to focus on officer and citizen safety, the ability to conduct pre-contact threat assessments, and to have an officer function at a level that is least distracting."

Each generation of law enforcement recognizes the unique advantages and challenges the next will face as the torch is passed, and with this comes an understanding that rookie officers will hit the streets with certain perks that their predecessors lacked.

As long as you view them as supplemental to tactics, by keeping up to date with technological changes you'll stay dialed in.

Make that wired in.

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