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The Fifth Element

High-tech information-gathering tools are becoming a critical weapon in the tactical officer's arsenal.

August 01, 2002  |  by Lois Pilant

When the United States was attacked by terrorists on 9-11, it was a blow beyond our wildest imagining, devastating beyond belief. Thousands died at the hands of enemies most of us never even knew we had. The ripple effect damaged everything from the economy to our relationships with our government and with one another. Which was exactly the point.

Welcome to the new battleground. Called "fifth-dimensional battlespace," it takes the old three-dimensional battlefield (the spatial dimensions of length, width, height or depth of an area), and the temporal dimension of time, and adds the fifth dimension of cyberspace. It is a place where none of the old rules apply, where attacks can come out of nowhere, and your sworn enemy might be your next-door neighbor.

Fifth-dimensional battlespace is the perfect playground for terrorists, who require anonymity to operate. Yet it also is the very thing that, when used appropriately, can keep the good guys safe.

The concept of fifth-dimensional battlespace, while typically applied to military operations, is beginning to affect law enforcement, especially in the area of SWAT tactics. It moves SWAT officers out of the predictable dance of symmetrical response, where officers respond to a show of force with an equal or greater force, and into an asymmetrical response, where they too can operate with anonymity and exploit their adversary's weaknesses.

Sensory Perceptions

"The old idea was to rush in and dominate the geography as fast as possible," says Sgt. Don Kester, SWAT Supervisor for the Pima County (Ariz.) Sheriff's Department. "Now the emphasis is on officer safety, slowing down, and the ability to switch tactics in the middle of an operation if the circumstances call for it. The way to manage that is through information, and the way to get that is to use different technologies."

Information is the new tool, the fifth element, that lets SWAT officers overcome the physical limitations of the three-dimensional crime scene, where the biggest, the baddest, or the best armed win. It also overcomes the fourth dimension of time, where tactics be damned if the timing is wrong.

Maneuvering in cyberspace means using GPS to locate a suspect or do surveillance from space. It is the ability to intercept cell phone calls or use radar to monitor a suspect's movements inside a building. It is what will allow law enforcement to remotely shut down vehicles, lock and unlock cars, or open and close garage doors.

Dep. Brice Stella of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department demonstrates some of the more high-tech devices available to SWAT teams, including Remotec’s Mini-Andros robots and portable video systems and monitors from Chang Industries.

"The new weapons will be sensing technologies," says Capt. Sid Heal, who heads the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department's Special Enforcement Bureau. "[The bad guys] send a message from one point to another. If we can acquire, manipulate, or deprive them of information of all types, including the message, and if we can do it while it's in transit, then we have the advantage.

"It's not technically difficult to kill people. What is really hard is trying not to kill them. What is really difficult is dealing with the ambiguity of making the right decision. Our intent is to make better decisions, not develop better weapons."

Improving Intel

Better decision making requires the ability to gather information. New technologies are being employed by SWAT departments for just this purpose. Some have been developed by SWAT officers, while others come from research facilities, government labs, or private industry. Some are nothing more than a developer looking for the problem that fits his solution, but others are appropriate, workable tools that can have a dramatic effect on officer safety.

"Our goal is to not be shot at. Period," says Kester. "We use cameras, under-the-door scopes that we can slide in and look around an entire room. We put them in vents or through holes drilled in walls. They can work on radio frequency or a hard line, and transmit a picture back to the team leader at the scene or to the command post. We use microphones that we can slip under doors or attach to windows. Using these things means we don't have to engage people in the same way we used to. If we know what room they're in, we can have the team do a stealth entry. The microphones let us listen to the hostage taker and get an idea of his mental state and his intentions. All of these things help us decide what tactics to use."

Optical Awareness

Night vision and thermal imagers, once the expensive province of the military, are becoming the norm in SWAT operations. Not only has the price dropped considerably since these technologies were first introduced, there are grant programs, most notably from ITT Night Vision, that help underfunded agencies afford them. State-of-the-art night vision devices, dubbed GenIII, are small, light, and provide clearer images than previous generations. They can be handheld or take the form of a monocular that attaches to a helmet.

Pole cameras also are becoming more popular, allowing officers to safely peer around corners, over walls, or into areas outside their field of vision. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) equips its officers with pole cameras, a vest-mounted flat-screen monitor, and a battery pack that operates both units.

An emerging technology that holds some promise is radar that can "see" through walls. One device is being developed by Time Domain Corp. in Huntsville, Ala. Called RadarVision 2000, it broadcasts short, low-powered pulses over wide-band frequencies to show the location of a person and the direction of movement. RadarVision 2000 can detect gross motions, such as walking, running, bending, or turning, through almost everything but solid metallic surfaces. It could be used outside of a house, from the roof of an apartment building, or inside a building to scan the attic, basement, crawlspace, or individual rooms or offices.

The National Institute of Justice has funded the venerable Georgia Tech Research Institute in Atlanta to create a Radar Flashlight. This device transmits a beam and detects anomalies in the frequency of the returning beam. The results are plotted on a bar graph. Although the Radar Flashlight is in the prototype stage, the NIJ offered it to rescue workers at the World Trade Center site. The hope was that it would detect the movement of survivors, but the device was never used.

One of the most popular technologies is the robot. It has been used to batter down doors, clear rooms, or make contact with a suspect. In many instances, robots have saved lives.

A case in Pima County, Ariz., had three suspects wanted for aggravated assault hiding in a house. An explosive entry in the rear door got no response, so the team sent in its robot. Two of the suspects were contained, but the third proved elusive until the robot pushed open the door to a darkened laundry room. There stood the drug-addled suspect swinging a samurai sword high over his head. By communicating through the robot, officers convinced the man to surrender. "If we'd have gone in, we'd have been forced to kill him," Kester said.

Robots also have been used to toss "throw" phones, lob tear gas into buildings, or plant cameras or microphones to gather information for SWAT commanders. The disadvantage to deploying robots is that the technology typically has been adapted from bomb disposal teams, which means robots also have limited capabilities. Some cannot climb stairs, for example, or record conversations. Robots engineered specifically for SWAT purposes are a somewhat new device and are still relatively expensive.

CONTINUED: The Fifth Element «   Page 1 of 2   »

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