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Columns : The Federal Voice

Irrational Fear vs. Officer Safety

Through-the-wall radar systems can help prevent officer and civilian casualties, but anti-police critics think they are being used for illegal surveillance activities.

March 13, 2015  |  by Jon Adler

First, law enforcement critics such as civil libertarians and liberal journalists claimed that we were over-militarized, and now they're mischaracterizing officer safety equipment as spy tools.

In a Jan. 20 USA Today article titled "New Police Radars Can 'See' Inside Homes," the reporter states, "At least 50 U.S. law enforcement agencies have secretly equipped their officers with radar devices that allow them to effectively peer through the walls of houses to see whether anyone is inside." The article specifically identifies the Marshals Service and the FBI as two agencies that use this equipment. Then it makes a bunch of unfounded claims about the capabilities of through-the-wall radar. This article is an example of journalistic paranoia trumping common sense and the law.

The radar device in question, the Range-R from L-3 CyTerra, is not a nefarious gadget employed by officers to spy on people. To the contrary, it is a device that allows law enforcement to detect the movements and locations of people inside a building before entering that building during a legal operation.

According to the manufacturer's Website, the "Range-R is a highly sensitive handheld radar system designed to detect and measure the distance to moving and near-stationary personnel through walls constructed of common building materials." The device's purpose is to provide "first responders with critical information that may make the difference between life and death."

Officers are using the Range-R prior to a lawful entry to maximize officer safety. As established in Payton v. New York, law enforcement officers enforcing an arrest warrant may enter a suspect's dwelling if they have reason to believe the suspect is there.

So we are talking about officers using the Range-R to gather critical intelligence before making legal entry, not using it to spy on people. In fact, this device not only reduces risk to officers entering a building, it also reduces the risk of harm to those inside, including the suspects. With the Range-R, officers can effectively cover vital threat areas and reduce the likelihood of the use of deadly force. Unfortunately, critics are quick to dismiss this.

By using the Range-R before entry, law enforcement officers can reduce their risk of being ambushed. The priority is officer safety, not fabricated justifications to conduct searches. According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund's 2014 fatality report, "Ambushes were the leading circumstance of officer fatalities in firearms-related deaths. Of the 50 firearms-related fatalities in 2014, 15 officers were shot and killed in ambush attacks, more than any other circumstance of fatal shootings in 2014." The rise in officer ambush fatalities needs to be addressed, not ignored by those who dismiss officer safety issues. And the intelligence provided by the Range-R can prevent such ambushes. Rather than impede its use, this critical officer safety tool should be made available to all law enforcement agencies.

By way of example, Derek Hotsinpiller with the U.S. Marshals Service was ambushed and fatally wounded during the execution of a fugitive arrest warrant in 2011. The suspect fired a shotgun at Deputy Marshal Hotsinpiller and other officers as they entered. If the entry team had been equipped with a Range-R device, the intel it might have provided could have increased the chances of preventing this brutal attack. In this instance, there was no issue of a Fourth Amendment violation, or an unwarranted search. At a minimum, all fugitive task forces should be equipped with the Range-R or its equivalent. When they pursue violent fugitives, they already have an arrest warrant, and are not misusing the technology.

Law enforcement officers are trained in due process and the rule of law, and understand when it's appropriate to use equipment or apply force. In the rare instance of an allegation of abuse, there are criminal investigators within law enforcement agencies such as internal affairs to investigate misconduct and even facilitate prosecution of bad officers. That's why our system works well, yet critics overlook the presence and relevance of internal investigators.

Our mantra must be officer safety first, and we cannot allow critical officer safety equipment to be compromised by the paranoid theories of civil liberty groups and liberal journalists.

Comments (6)

Displaying 1 - 6 of 6

Sheri McMahon @ 3/15/2015 7:08 PM

This article provides helpful perspective on the use of through-the-walls radar, but the writer makes a serious--and disturbing--error when he closes his article with references to paranoid civil liberty theories and liberal journalists. That is absolutely the wrong attitude for someone in law enforcement to take regarding members of the civil society which employs and depends on him.

Sheri McMahon @ 3/15/2015 7:14 PM

I should add: especially after a court has expressed "grave concerns" about this technology, which is how the public became aware of its use:

"Agents' use of the radars was largely unknown until December, when a federal appeals court in Denver said officers had used one before they entered a house to arrest a man wanted for violating his parole. The judges expressed alarm that agents had used the new technology without a search warrant, warning that "the government's warrantless use of such a powerful tool to search inside homes poses grave Fourth Amendment questions. (Newsweek)

Sheri McMahon @ 3/15/2015 7:16 PM

K9 @ 3/23/2015 1:52 PM

"...paranoid theories of civil liberty groups" wow, I guess that defines you perfectly. It speaks volumes about your indifference to the Constitution I went to war to protect. You lack critical thinking and sound like a man locked into a very small box with only one issue before him. Real life is not as simple as yours.

top @ 11/17/2015 3:30 PM

well said k9

top @ 11/17/2015 3:30 PM

well said, k9

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