Once upon a time men and women in blue patrolled a neighborhood on foot. During a regular shift they got to know the people who owned businesses, shoveled the sidewalks and delivered the morning paper. If something suspicious or even dangerous was happening, the officer usually heard about it on his or her radio, via word of mouth or witnessed the event with his or her own eyes. Officers radioed for backup, and later on made their way back to the department to do further research or write a report.
But the world has changed. We may text our grocery list rather than call, check someone's Facebook status before knocking on their door. And officers of the law are hardwired, too — increasingly so. For them, riding the high-tech wave is necessary to keep up with more sophisticated crime, in an ever-changing Wi-Fi world. But at what expense are officers logging on and letting remote video do the watching? Are wired officers less inclined to build a rapport and form relationships with members of the community than in days past?
Yes and no. It's true that these days law enforcement units spend less time on foot patrol and more time in their squad/mobile office. On the other hand, the mobile devices and sophisticated surveillance systems available to them can actually help track and monitor crime, sometimes as it unfolds. When utilized effectively, these systems can serve as a backup, as an extra set of eyes that ultimately could give officers more time to make positive interactions in the community.
Additional eyes and ears
In addition to simply watching and patrolling the streets, agencies can become more accessible online and can communicate with citizens and each other in a number of ways. The Baltimore Police Department, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and Oklahoma County Sheriff's Department have all recently purchased BlackBerry Smartphones to give officers immediate access to information so they can make more informed decisions. Oklahoma County Sheriff's Department uses the phones to provide in-field officers with rapid access to criminal and license plate databases, rather than having to call in two-way to dispatch and wait for someone on the other end to look up information.
The thought of officers texting away on their mobiles can be disconcerting for some. But the reality is patrol-enhancing technology like mobile devices, in-car computers, crime mapping and remote surveillance units can actually keep officers in the field for more extended stretches of time. No longer are they constantly running back to headquarters to review a video, look up a suspect or write a report. Now it's all about getting more information, in a shorter amount of time, and from a concise source. Not all agencies can afford Smartphones quite yet, but even strategically placed surveillance has its merits in modern community patrol.
The Vacaville PD in California services a community of about 97,000 and has a prominent downtown area that regularly hosts concerts, craft sales and tree lightings. Lt. Bob Denton says about a year ago his agency installed cameras downtown so dispatchers can continuously monitor the large area, especially during these events. Meanwhile, officers are on the ground, walking around and mingling with the crowd.
"What we impress upon our officers is to get out of your car," says Denton. "We tell them to get out and talk to people, meet people — don't just drive around in your car. We encourage them to know the businesses in their assigned area, what the hours are and what their security systems are like, and then advise them (business owners) on security issues."
Denton maintains that everything his department does technology-wise is done to help give officers more information on the street, so they don't have to come back and do the research. "It keeps them out of the building and in the neighborhoods and streets to do the best work they can," says Denton. "That's our biggest advantage."
Another facet of community policing that has changed since officers struck out to find the nearest phone booth is simply a better team approach among departments. Over the years, Vacaville PD has used a COMSTAT model of community policing, in which they hold weekly meetings to identify crime issues or patterns, and adjust patrol strategies accordingly. The meetings involve not just patrol, but the investigations sergeant, traffic sergeant, youth service sergeant dispatchers, and others. "We try to make a plan to address an issue if we identify one … it's a team approach," says Denton.
Bundling high-tech apps
To go one step further than planning, portable handhelds and surveillance video, things like video, GPS data and instant messages can now be streamlined into one concise package using mobile mesh networks. The hope in utilizing these networks is that agencies can communicate, strategize and watch in real time, on the streets, even when infrastructures are down or bandwidth is lacking.
Det. Sgt. Sherman Hall with the Atherton (Calif.) PD plans to implement this type of mobile mesh solution in the coming months. His department will install innovative IT cameras to help monitor residents' alarms and supplement existing cameras. The Atherton jurisdiction consists of a number of higher-end residences that already have some form of video surveillance deployed. But Hall says his agency always struggled with its infrastructure — how to get the video from the residences back to the agency; then potentially into its patrol cars.
Mobile networks like AWARE, developed at SRI International, let officers communicate better with each other and the department, and also provide the capability to share live video feeds, GPS data location and other tactical information between responding agencies and their remote headquarters. This system was first developed by the military to set up a network system in a battlefield environment, or disaster setting where no infrastructure exists. All information sharing can be done on an independent network and happens between users.
For Atherton PD, it means patrol cars can be superimposed on a map as they drive around … and in the meantime, other users can write on that map, like one would use a whiteboard; or send instant messages back and forth between cars while an incident is unfolding.
"At a high school incident a commander can see where his cars are, he can send instant messages to officers about closing an intersection and draw a line on the map … if they're in range of a camera system they can pull that camera up and look at it because it's sensitive to the location on the map," says Hall. And then there's also the ability to provide live video from the cars, which, Hall claims "is the brass rings of officer safety."
With AWARE, there's no reliance on external infrastructure; meaning the system does not need a cell tower, Wi-Fi hotspot, or Internet connection to work. Police vehicles can securely share information between each other on the scene when they're within range of each other — this is especially beneficial in disaster scenarios like hurricanes. When communications infrastructure is available, AWARE securely connects officers to dispatch over these networks to provide streaming video and data on demand. Using these tools allow agencies to better strategize, organize and plan on the spot.
Chris Lockett, SRI Direct Technology general manager, says agencies that seek out systems like AWARE are usually looking for "a standards compliant, independent network, the ability to cover certain hot spots and a cost effective way to leverage their existing resources. They want officers to be able to view video and data while they're out in the city looking around."
Agencies from neighboring jurisdictions can tie into other agencies with the network, and security is tight; everybody within the network is a trusted agent. Lockett also adds the company is currently integrating Smartphones with the AWARE system.
Tech boosts human exchange
"I think when you start looking at how technology helps an agency become more productive, it's not so much about keeping them on the street, although that's important. You start looking at the force multiplier," says Hall. Systems like AWARE serve as excellent backup as well as an additional resource for officers. But they're certainly not the only option for increasing surveillance, awareness and communication within a community.
"If there's a finite number of tax dollars for law enforcement … how do you use them intelligently?" says Hall. "I might spend X amount of dollars on a camera … is that a good use of dollars? And I'd say yes, because it allows the agency to monitor that additional location continuously, and then respond intelligently to an event, whether it's a high school with an active shooter or an intersection that has a lot of traffic collisions, or even a creek that has a propensity to overflow after a big storm. It's an intelligent way to be more effective."
Even with the best technology in the world at their fingertips, it's crucial that law enforcement officers continue to get out, interact and build relationships. Citizens want to see men and women in uniform as partners in crime prevention — not just an ominous presence when something has gone wrong. Rather than isolating law enforcement, in-car computers, surveillance tools and handheld mobile devices can actually have the opposite effect. They can keep officers on the street longer, inside the neighborhoods they serve.