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."
While Law Enforcement Technology does not hold a bias toward non-law enforcement specific equipment, some contributed ideas for alternative tools for three aspects of law enforcement include:Tactical
- The fiberglass handle of a sledge hammer can be used as an option to the tactical ram for breaching. Officers can carry this common tool in their trunks without a specific storage system and such sledge hammers can be found at almost any commercial consumer hardware store. Limitations to usefulness can include a break or fracture in the handle or the possibility that the chosen size or weight may not provide enough force for the intended task.
- A telescopic pole originally intended to hang holiday lights can be outfitted with a video camera and used as a make-shift tactical pole cam.
"We bought a wireless camera, built a heavy-duty housing for it and devised one [of these tools] for a relatively low price," says Logue. He adds that it is possible to wire the camera from its audio-video ports to a consumer monitor on an officer's back.
- An automotive telescopic mirror and/or magnet can be used for evidence or drug searching and for material retrieval in smaller places. This telescopic pole and mirror were designed for automotive searching for engine problems. The telescopic pole and magnet can retrieve dropped magnetic tools and parts. Small, tight hidden places could potentially be a hazard when searched with a bare or gloved hand. Using the telescopic mirror and magnet can aid officers in searching for, locating and retrieving evidence.
- Zip ties can be used as handcuff alternatives to the large zip ties; if the large ties are too large for available storage, these smaller versions take three to secure a suspect: one on each wrist and one holding the ties together.
- Certain consumer mp3 players on the market are able to record conversations to an mp3 file. Instead of a potentially expensive hidden wire, the consumer mp3 player may be able to record conversations while the officer holding it assumes the guise of someone listening to music.
- Many common cellular phones can fill in for an officer's note pad. A voice memo can be recorded on the phone for future reference, and the result will be a digital recording that won't be as easily lost as a scrap of paper or a note scribbled on a wrapper.
- Another innovative use for cellular phones involves those that have the ability to record a the dialogue on a call.
"You can program the phone to record both sides of the conversation or block your own voice from the playback," notes Logue.
Such recordings can be limited by law, though. Conversation recording regulations vary from state to state; in Missouri, it is acceptable to record a conversation as long as one contributing party is aware of the recording. Also, additional software will be needed to retrieve the recording from the phone.
- The blood pressure/heart rate monitor clip may not be a tool that would seem useful to an undercover officer, but it can be used as ruse — a crafty way to obtain the illusion of a polygraph test in suspect interviews. The effect can be created by attaching the stripped wire end of a finger heart rate monitor clip to a laptop USB port.
- Red evidence tape can be used to create red light by taping it over the vehicle interior dome light to save night vision during surveillance operations. Logue also suggests any red material applicable can be taped onto the light to achieve the same effect.
- Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) radios may be able to transmit on a different frequency from many police scanners, allowing officers to communicate off the police scanner and rendering listening suspects none the wiser.
- A remote controlled (RC)mini-helicopter may appear to be a neighborhood child's toy but could be outfitted with a wireless camera to provide surveillance without moving officers too close to the situation. However, using a helicopter for this effect brings its own limitations such as wind conditions, flight time and load capacity. The weather on any given day might not allow the RC helicopter to fly with accuracy to the intended location. A short flight time may force officers closer to the intended landing position for surveillance, thus putting officers closer to potential danger. The helicopter's load capacity — its ability to carry an amount of weight — may be too low to handle the surveillance gear that would need to be attached to meeting the requirements of the mission. In addition, officers might have to receive a homeowner's permission to land the craft on a roof.
Alternative tools are commonly not concocted off-hand, or on the street with a ball of string, a pencil and a milk crate. Instead, working together with fellow officers creates a brainstorm where many ideas can come to fruition.
Logue says that his team meets regularly and occasionally discusses the latest law enforcement technology and how to recreate it with tools they already have in their possession.
"If we can't figure something out," Logue adds, "we try to find the departments that do have the money for [new] equipment and we use their older equipment."
Funding from any of the many equipment grants that are sponsored by law enforcement manufacturers and distributors is also an option. Grant details have been posted in previous editions of Law Enforcement Technology's "Funding Solutions" section and can be found online at www.officer.com.
Internet searches for equipment grants may lead to alternative opportunities. This resourcefulness in any aspect of law enforcement can only be an advantage provided the future faux MacGyvers know the boundaries, limitations, regulations and liabilities to their ingenuity.