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Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes ...

Officer safety tactics have evolved to accommodate the prospect of dealing with suspects via a variety of media, developing a hitherto unknown degree of intimacy with a suspect even as it keeps him at bay.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

Picturing magnate Bill Gates gobbling up the rights to David Bowie's ditty as an anthem for technological change is easy. To tax the imagination, one would have to identify any private or public sector outside of an Amish community that has been immune to this era of hi-tech evolution.

Thanks to cellular phones we can reach out and touch someone even as we encroach on their driving lane. Words like "worms," "firewalls" and "viruses" have taken on new meanings. Thanks to "Play Station II," we can improve our hand/eye coordination even as we alienate our significant others (in which case that improved hand/eye coordination may come in handy). 

Nothing Is the Same But Change

The changes in our jobs have been similarly dramatic. To use a term that's a product of its age, law enforcement has "morphed" in direct response to the various pressures brought to bear upon it. Officer safety tactics have evolved to accommodate the prospect of dealing with suspects via a variety of media, developing a hitherto unknown degree of intimacy with a suspect even as
it keeps him at bay. Crimes have been decriminalized, replaced by new statutes covering the gamut from identity theft to cyber-stalking. Computers are tabulating and tracking everything we detain, crash and shoot. With FATS-type training, we can evaluate an officer's decision-making skills and tactics before they become manifest in the field.

In the field, we've become walking-talking circuitry men, with cameras on our dashboards and lapels. We carry microcassette recorders in our pockets and run subjects on our MDTs. We're decked out in improved ballistic vests, using safer traffic radar and getting quicker access to pertinent information. Throughout, we're only a click of a portable away from backup.

But just what are the most profound changes? Which technological advancements have proved themselves worth their weight in Pentium® chips? Creating a standard that placates the whole of the law enforcement spectrum would be formidable. What appeals to the forensic might be anathema to the layman. I've elected to go with the man in the trenches, the point man on the thin blue line: the patrol cop. In posing the question to a variety of American officers, I found the answers were as diverse as the products they endorsed.

Who Says What?

Paul DeLameter, a retired Santa Monica PD officer, believes "the importance of our innovation lies in its ability to improve officer safety ... to increase the life expectancy of the police officer. This ... is the most important concern as it allows the officer to address the balance of their duties more effectively." Because of this, DeLameter is partial to portable radios and body armor.
Sergeant Eddie Gonzalez, with the New York State Park Police, is enamored of computers, recognizing that even fingerprints and their returns can be done in a fraction of the time of a decade ago and more accurately, too.

This isn't to say there aren't some double-edged swords out there. Indeed, what technology giveth, it sometimes taketh away. Video cameras have documented various acts of officer-involved idiocy, while sophisticated testing devices allow internal affairs reps to accompany us to the urinals and air bags give drunk drivers a second shot at you.

Still, it's fun to make lists. With that in mind, and weighing in a variety of factors involving everything from efficiency to safety, these are the top innovative five:

Ballistic Vests. They're not much in the floatation device department but they have resulted in more police officers' lives being saved than anything this side of driver simulator training (another also-ran).

Peripheral plus: Can make skinny cops look buffed.
Biggest liability: Can make buffed cops look fat ...

The Portable Video Camera. If a picture's worth a thousand words, then it's fair to say ...

If its deployment doesn't result in instant behavior modification, then it can at least show the situation confronting peace officers. This can come in handy when it comes to justifying why we used pepper spray, bean-bag shotguns or tasers - all recent innovations, too - against some problem child. Or, worse, why we couldn't.

Of course, being cost friendly, video cameras are increasingly on-scene on both sides of the fence. This occasionally translates into some "high-noon-with-zoom-lens" scenarios, as cops and agitated citizens face-off against one another with video cameras running. Not surprisingly, some memorable pictures have played themselves out during the past decade. Who can forget one trooper losing his cool (then his job) and pulling a befuddled motorist out of her car in a Keystone Cops version of a felony takedown? How about those cops vs. cops in Florida on the highways and byways? LAPD vs. Rodney ... er, we won't go there.

Biggest thing to watch for: Leaving the lens cover on.

The Automated Wants and Warrants System. Allowing most agencies to check a suspect across multiple jurisdictions within minutes, it has obviated the need for officers to trump up charges on some hinkey suspect simply to detain him and has prevented the premature release of more than one bad guy.

Portable Radios. As close to having a lifeline as anything we're apt to have next to a partner, it allows for the expedient response of assistance, prevents situations from escalating and allows officers greater freedom from their patrol cars.

Biggest asset: Greater mobility for the officer.
Biggest liability: Embarrassing transmissions for the less vigilant among us.

Laptops. No longer are cops necessarily compelled to document their every action and inaction on lined paper. They can type 'em out on their computers now. Well, those who can type can.

Biggest asset: Spell check
Biggest liability: Getting caught looking at questionable downloads.

What's Up Next?

What does the future hold? Hopefully, we can get some of our powder sprays to come as roll-ons and maybe get some more "less than lethal" Fisher-Price weapons. In any event, be prepared for our egos to end up feeling like they've run over a spike strip if we find we're a little behind the learning curve in the future. As technology gadgets and gee-gaws take over in the car and on the beat, befuddling our powers to cope with them, we'll always have our Play Station IIs to turn to.

Pardon me, but according to the beeping on my Personal Data Assistant, I'm due for a meeting.

Gotta go. n

Sgt. Dean Scoville is a patrol supervisor for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office and a regular contributor to POLICE. He also buys batteries by the 24-pack these days and confesses he still can't fix that blinking "12:00" on his VCR.

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Author Dean Scoville Headshot
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