The products of ingenuity

When the right tool for the job isn't available, law enforcement can get remarkably creative


     Each episode seemingly showed a new way to combine a straw, toothpicks, a paper clip and a wad of gum: The task varied from story line to story line, but on the television show MacGyver, the hero always, somehow, created an ingenious tool and saved the day.

     While law enforcement officers don't hit the streets with firearms fashioned from marbles and rubber bands, it turns out that they are surprisingly good at ad-libbing solutions to problems and finding good substitutes for gear that either doesn't exist or is unavailable for their use. Officers have been known to turn cell phones into recording devices, for instance, and to make zip ties into temporary handcuffs. One department even outfitted a hobbyist's remote-control mini-helicopter with a wireless camera to create an inexpensive yet functional piece of aerial surveillance equipment.

     Darin Logue, an Officer.com writer and a special agent-investigator for the State of Missouri's Department of Social Services, says he understands.

     "I'm a big advocate on using what you've got," Logue explains. "I am commissioned in a number of countries, with four to seven departments in each, [and] it is a lot of area to cover. A lot of the departments don't have the budgets to buy the expensive latest-and-greatest products so we have to improvise a lot of gear."

Benefits and limits

     In fact, departmental budgets are a common obstacle to obtaining new technology and specifically designed equipment. With budgets becoming more and more constrained in today's high-technology, computers-for-everything day and age, law enforcement is increasingly forced — or inspired — to think creatively when it comes to getting the job done.

     Jeff Barton, who has served as an officer and bondsman and is currently a director of surveillance for a Missouri-based casino, explains the fundamental problem that faces many cash-strapped agencies: If a department doesn't have the resources it needs, then it's limited as to what officers can do.

     As a result, thrifty and resourceful officers, SWAT team members, and even bail bondsmen have developed creative new uses for existing law enforcement equipment. And one obvious benefit of that is financial in nature: the job gets done, and it gets done at less cost to the department.

     In a budget-minded department the constant search for the appropriate tool — or its substitute — can yield unexpected benefits, including the development of an innovative procedure or an easier-to-use tool.

     While imagination can be inspired by almost anything, an officer's resourcefulness is limited by the technology that's available and the task that is at hand. In addition, using a tool for something other than the purpose it was designed for can bring its own set of problems.

     "I don't want to say that there is no liability in using something that may not be designed for a particular application," notes Logue. "There are certain liabilities, but it depends on what they are being used for."

     As an example, Logue says that if an officer were to use a flashlight as a baton, the question could be raised in court as to what training he or she had received that concerned using flashlights as defensive weapons.

     Another limitation to on-the-job ingenuity can be the simple cost of the created device, which may be prohibitive, or the fact that the department cannot pay for it.

     "It may not be free; the tool may cost money," says Barton. "The officer may have to put the money out of his pocket unless his department happens to pay for it."

The MacGyver effect

     Sometimes, though, officers can be as resourceful as their situations allow. Each job may require a different solution for the problems at hand.

     "Officers can be as innovative as they need, or as out-of-the-box as they want to be," says Logan. "To a certain degree, there really are no limits."

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