Authoritative resources: Four technology centers of excellence

     Focusing on four different areas of technology, the Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs (OJP) began four technology-based centers of excellence (COE). Working within the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center (NLECTC) system, each center provides expertise in either: communications; forensics; sensors, surveillance and biometrics; or weapons and protective systems.

     "The centers serve as the authoritative resource within the NLECTC system for both practitioners and developers in their technology areas," explains Dr. John Morgan, deputy director for Science and Technology at the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). "The centers better align the NLECTC system with NIJ's activities, enhance cost-effectiveness and better serve the needs of state and local criminal justice practitioners."

Research

     The Applied Research Laboratory (ARL) at the Pennsylvania State University, received $3.2 million for the Weapons and Protective Systems COE. This center supports the OJP's efforts to enhance the safety of law enforcement and corrections officers and put into use safer, more effective less-lethal devices in support of officers. The center provides technical and administrative support to the National Bomb Squad Commander's Advisory Board. It is also establishing a bomb technology test and evaluation program, and a community corrections technology demonstration and evaluation program.

     Agencies may recall the Attribute-Based Evaluation done by the ARL several years ago, using internal funds, on commercially available less-lethal munitions. Retired U.S. Marine Corps Col. Andy Mazzara says the evaluation was well-received by law enforcement.

     "Much of our work with the military on less-lethal technologies has a 'dual-use' aspect that often benefits law enforcement," says Mazzara, who is the director for both the Institute for Non-Lethal Defense Technologies and for the Weapons and Protective Systems COE.

     Having been chosen to operate a COE means the ARL will further build its reputation domestically and internationally. Mazzara points out the ARL's Institute for Non-Lethal Defense Technologies is unique within academic and research communities worldwide for its depth and breadth of knowledge and experience in working with less-lethal munitions, devices and technologies.

     The Weapons and Protective Systems center supplies law enforcement and corrections a "reachback" capability through the NIJ, which allows them to get issues investigated and resolved, questions answered and independent assessments completed. The center looks specifically at new and emerging technologies in the areas of school safety, pursuit management, less-lethal technologies, corrections, personal protective equipment and bomb remediation.

Forensics

     The National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC) in Largo, Florida, received $6 million for the Forensic COE that will support numerous OJP research and development initiatives relating to forensic science and technology. The center will host and continue to populate the National Clearinghouse for Science, Technology, and the Law online resource, and host and manage the National Y-STR Database. This center is also hosting and supporting the general forensics and DNA forensics technology working groups, executing the grant progress assessments and DNA quality assurance audit programs.

     Prior to establishing the centers of excellence, there was only ad hoc forensic support within the NLECTC system, says NFSTC Executive Director Kevin Lothridge. Since its establishment in 1995, it has been a service organization dedicated to the support of operational forensic services providers as well as the law enforcement community. Specifically, the center has assisted law enforcement with missing persons, cold cases, latent fingerprints, Field Investigation Drug Officer programs and more.

     "We might look at a piece of equipment that an agency was going to buy and say it's not ready for use in the field yet," Lothridge says. "Or, we might say here's a piece of equipment that you may not know about. Or, here's a field test that's very inexpensive that would be very helpful for you in your day-to-day work."

Communications

     Drakontas, located in Camden, New Jersey, received $3.68 million for the Communications COE to provide a means for testing, evaluating and demonstrating communications tools and technologies. Drakontas is establishing and managing a law enforcement wireless pilot project, supporting a communications technology working group and providing specialized communications technology assistance to law enforcement when needed.

     The Communications center has four focus areas: interoperable voice communications; personnel location, officer tracking for assistance; data and data communications; and alternative tools, such as cell phones.

     The center's coverage into interoperable voice communications involves establishing and managing a P25 pilot with practitioner agencies, as well as a software-defined radio pilot.

     Rick Mulvihill, deputy director of the Communications COE, anticipates software-defined radios will be coming out in the next couple years and, depending on how they're deployed, believes these will solve some interoperability issues.

     To further assist with voice and data interoperability, the center is hosting and managing the Computer Assisted Pre-Coordination Resource and Database system.

     The data and data communication focus includes trying to provide data communications over a wide area, connect all the information systems and back up these systems.

     "Certainly there's a lot of information that's stored in systems," Mulvihill says. "The question is how can we get that out to the end-user in a timely manner."

     Additionally, the center is looking at tools like cell phones and how they can be used in law enforcement and what their requirements are, including power, for example.

     The challenge with law enforcement communications is not a lack of equipment, says Brian Regli, CEO of Drakontas and director of the Communications COE.

     "We keep hearing that agencies have received federal funding and purchased a lot of equipment in the last five to six years," he says. "Sometimes that equipment is doing what it's supposed to be doing and sometimes it isn't. Part of that is because of funding gaps and capabilities that have not yet been identified. We know that law enforcement communications professionals are trying to enhance their planning capabilities ... trying to fill these gaps so their new radio system can achieve 100 percent interoperability. Some of that is a little bit more training, a little bit more capacity building, and the introduction of new technologies and the research and development the NIJ is doing. The problem is a lack of capacity, and that's what we're here to build."

     Mulvihill, former police chief in Absecon, New Jersey and former director of public safety in Atlantic County, New Jersey, says, "We're looking at all the technologies that are out there and we're trying to cultivate those that will best serve them in the future. We're looking at technologies that may not have been originally developed for public safety … to see if they have an application to public safety. Then we place those technologies in the hands of law enforcement practitioners and officers to see if it works the way it's proposed to work. We look at whether or not it brings some value that makes their jobs easier, or if it gives them more information at their fingertips when they are trying to make decisions on the street."

Biometrics

     International Biometric Group (IBG), in New York City, is receiving $2.95 million for the Sensors, Surveillance and Biometric COE to support OJP's law enforcement and corrections biometrics and surveillance technology projects. This center is managing a concealed weapons detection and through-the-wall surveillance technology test and evaluation program and an aviation pilot, with a particular focus on the needs of small and rural agencies.

     IBG has extensive hands-on experience with a range of biometric hardware and software solutions including fingerprint, AFIS, face recognition, hand geometry, iris recognition, multimodal systems and emerging biometrics.

     Raj Nanavati, director of the Sensors, Surveillance and Biometric COE, says: "We're very excited to further the mission of state and local practitioners. There's a lot of good technology in the research and development stages [and] being used at Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security. It's an exciting opportunity for us to get technology to police departments, jails, prisons and courthouses and provide support so they can test and evaluate these products and get an understanding of how these technologies work."

     The Sensors, Surveillance, and Biometric COE will also host and support the sensors and surveillance, the biometrics technology working groups and the Aviation Technology Focus Group.

High-tech thoughts

     To law enforcement agencies looking at new technology on the market today, Nanavati advises, "Define what your requirements are and understand what your goals would be for the technology."

     Then, he says, it's helpful if an agency can do some research to understand the technology at hand.

     NLECTC's regional centers can provide generalized technology assistance and the COEs provide specialized information.

     When practitioners have a very specific issue, for example, Communications COE Chief of Staff Carrie Supko says, "We may talk them through over the phone and provide advice for them." Specialized help also can be provided on site.

     The centers are assisting the boarder law enforcement and corrections communities through technical working groups that bring users/practitioners together to identify, review and prioritize requirements to fill operating capability gaps.

     Operational evaluations of technology in the field, and in-house evaluations of different products and technologies in labs will be conducted by the centers.

     With these centers, "[law enforcement agencies] now have access to a capability to assist them in making important and intelligent procurement decisions," says Mazzara.

     Research and development information from the centers is being made available through publications, technical working group meetings and conferences.

     With the introduction of new devices, tools or weapons into the field, user guides will be produced and the centers of excellence will assist on a national level with the initial deployment.

     "In the long run, a wise investment in appropriate technologies will save time and money and help close cases," Lothridge says.

     The centers look at those technologies and will partner with the people who will be the first adopters of technology to pave the way for the second adopters.

     With tried and tested technology, Lothridge says, "We're trying to make [officers] work smarter so they don't have to work as hard."

     Editor's Note: NLECTC regional centers are located in Rome, New York, Anchorage, Alaska, Denver, Colorado, North Charleston, South Carolina, and El Segundo, California. Further information on the NLECTC and geographic coverage of its regional centers can be found at www.nlectc.org.

     Rebecca Kanable is a freelance writer and editor specializing in law enforcement topics. She can be reached at kanable@charter.net.

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