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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

Information Sharing

All of these devices and technologies can increase officer awareness at the scene, but may not be of much help if the information cannot be transmitted to a command post or shared with other officers. Thus far, bringing everybody involved into the information loop has been almost impossible. There are two systems, however, that are in the development and prototype stages that may alleviate the problem.

Gord Scott, a 31-year RCMP veteran who now works in the agency's Bomb Data Center, recently rolled out the prototype of a tactical video system that takes the images of up to 12 cameras and displays them on a 13-inch flat screen that is housed in a small suitcase. Although the system can transmit via radio frequency, Scott prefers using cables "because RF only works about 5 percent of the time."

Video cameras on extensible poles, like this Chang Industries model with an infrared attachment, help SWAT officers achieve their primary tactical goal: to avoid taking fire.

Such a system would supersede the use of robots, which are restricted to a forward view and to a monitor held by the operator. Scott's battery-operated system sends pictures from anywhere a camera is placed, transmitting it to the vest-mounted monitors of field officers and to a command post up to 2,000 feet away. It can use thermal imagers or night vision, with views appearing individually or multiplexed on the commander's screen. The system has a VCR input to play reconnaissance video, and will send scanned photos of suspects or floor plans from the command post to team members.

The LASD is working with private industry to create a similar system, only one that is wireless and can transmit to officers' PDAs, a nearby command post, an operations center, and finally, that is accessible via the Internet to experts at national labs, university research centers, or other government agencies.

This "ground-link video system" is part of the LASD's Technology Exploration Program, which has officers working with developers to make sure new gadgets meet operational needs. The system's most recent incarnation combined wireless handheld technology with encrypted digital video surveillance and a secure mobile intranet. It would receive images and audio from the field and make them available to command and field personnel, and to a remote emergency operations center. The goal was to create a cyber command post where the limitations of geography and time were irrelevant. The only problem was, it didn't work.

The department stopped working with the developer and has forged relationships with other companies in search of one that can build such a system. Heal envisions using it in any number of situations, whether a chem/bio incident that requires the expertise of scientists from Utah's Dugway Proving Grounds, or a hostage situation where profilers from other agencies or university behavioral scientists lend their expertise while remotely viewing the negotiations. It also could link to any number of local, statewide, or national databases. Such a system forms the basis of what Heal foresees as the LASD's ability to operate in fifth-dimensional battlespace.

"We want our deputies to see through a window or under a door and determine what type of weapon a suspect has so they'll know what level of force they need to respond. We want them to determine whether a less-lethal option is appropriate without making a risky entry into the building. We want them to view the scene without sticking their heads in a window or above a fence. Therefore, we'll continue to use thermal imagers, night vision, infrared, and anything else that works, and we'll continue to find ways to maneuver in cyberspace. Our goal is reliable, accurate, and timely information, which defines every tactical operation. It is the bedrock for dependable intelligence, effective decisions, and efficient operations."

High-Tech is Nice, But...

High-tech gizmos may be the thing of the future, but field officers are interested in only one thing: Does it work?

Such is the disconnect between the front lines and command staff, between the users and the inventors. In an interview with officers of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's specialized SWAT teams, the message was clear. They rely on training and those things that have been proved effective.

Technology is nice, they say, but it is often only applicable in special circumstances. "Take our robot," says Dep. Jim Corrigan. "In the four years we've had it, we've only used it nine or 10 times."

Necessity, coupled with the lack of technology, has forced enterprising officers to come up with a few inventions of their own. Although they are unabashedly low tech, they work like a charm.

Giant Fish Hooks-These enormous iron hooks can rip the door off just about any building. In one instance, officers planned to serve a warrant on an armed robbery and kidnap suspect, who was holed up inside a home barricaded with bars and a steel door. No amount of ramming would break down the door, so in the wee hours of the morning, they quietly attached the hooks to the door and the other end to the hitch on their truck. When the time was right, they drove off, taking the door of the house with them, and allowing other officers to enter and arrest the suspect.

Giant Fish Hooks

The Burn Safe-This crude metal container is used as a carrier for tear gas canisters when the goal is to arrest a suspect without burning down the house. Created by an officer in the San Diego area, the container is large, heavy, and cumbersome, yet when lobbed into a home, it allows for the dispersal of hot gas without allowing the resultant heat and flame to ignite the area.

The Burn Safe

The Gas Ax-Developed by the same San Diego officer, the gas ax is yet another inventive way to disperse gas. It looks remarkably like an ax, but with a handle attached to a gas canister that feeds into a hollow, metal pole with holes drilled in the end. It has been used in apartment entries, where the only way to inject gas was to get into the apartment next door to the suspect's, and ram the pole end of the ax through the wall between the two apartments.

The Gas Ax

"This stuff is high-tech when you think about some of the other things we do," says Dep. Rick Rector. "We've drilled holes in old military ammo cans, put the gas in there and thrown them into the house. Or if we need to put gas in an attic and we're in the house, we'll put the canister in a big spaghetti pot and slide it into the attic."

Clearly, SWAT officers are not picky about their equipment; they'll use just about anything. They have only one single, non-negotiable demand: It has to work. This is not to say they are averse to working with technology developers or trying out new equipment and offering feedback on its performance. "What we want them to understand," says Sgt. Scott Walker, LASD's Blue Team Leader, "is that while we are happy to help and we certainly benefit, nothing is ever going to take the place of a person. Technology can increase our awareness prior to entry, but there is no technology they can come up with that will replace a trained officer and proven SWAT tactics."

Lois Pilant is the former editor of a law enforcement magazine, a writer for the National Institute of Justice, and a frequent contributor to POLICE.

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