The days of index card record keeping and calling dispatch for information are long gone. Today, information is fast, in real time and at an officer's fingertips. Many technologies have been created, adapted and adopted into today's police procedure.
Scott Barker's near 33 years of law enforcement experience began in 1973 as a dispatcher with the Morehead (Kentucky) Police Department while earning his law enforcement degree. From 1976 to 1980, he served four years in the U.S. Army as a military police officer and then worked in the FBI until 2004 when he retired as a supervisory special agent. Barker currently serves as the deputy director of the Rural Law Enforcement Technology Center (RULETC).
LET: What technologies have you seen become mainstream in law enforcement?
Barker: Probably at the top of my list would be the everyday use of computers in all facets of law enforcement including records management, computer dispatch, information sharing systems and evidence collection. It's just a mainstay for police officers today, whereas not many years ago, it wasn't.
Others that have become mainstream are ballistic vests and car videos. Probably one of the most dynamic things is DNA evidence collection and use. Years ago evidence was just class characteristics, and now it's individual. Less-lethal devices such as OC spray, electromuscular disruption devices and others have become mainstream as well.
LET: What technological invention has been the single most important enhancement to law enforcement?
Barker: This is going to sound a little contradictory, but probably DNA analysis. Even though the computer has affected all facets of law enforcement, I think the most dramatic advancement has been in the DNA field. The investigative impact of utilizing today's techniques on just a small piece of evidence collected years ago cannot be overemphasized.
For example, the BTK case out in Kansas — those detectives collected DNA evidence that was later utilized against the subject. At the time they were collecting evidence, they didn't know this type of technology would be available 20 years later. So today, that evidence was used to specifically identify the suspect.
LET: What is the difference between a "toy" and a practical product?
Barker: We've all commented at one time, "that officer has all the toys." In fact, while on the SWAT team in New York, we had one agent who carried enough equipment that he could equip an entire team himself. We always joked we couldn't let him be captured because the criminal would have all our equipment. We all make that statement "toys" and I'm sure some items used are called toys by some departments, but in others considered essential.
For example, a common technology in law enforcement today is the laser sighting accessory on a weapon. If an officer in a small department has a laser sighting system on his weapon, the other officers in his department may say that it's a toy. On the other hand, consider a SWAT team; ask one of the operators in the SWAT team, "Would you consider your laser aiming device on your weapon a toy?" He'd probably say it's an essential piece of equipment to him because that's what they train on and wouldn't consider going into a crisis site without it.
A lot of new items that come out are considered toys by a lot of people because they go through a proof of concept phase, then a testing phase, evaluation phase and later on, when that item becomes tested, evaluated, and people become trained and procedures are performed on it, it becomes an essential piece of equipment.
If the device serves a significant purpose in the mission in that particular officer or department, then it's a tool; if it just looks cool on the belt or in the car, then it's probably a toy.
LET: How much of a department's budget should be allocated for technology?
Barker: First off, unfortunately, many times departments and agencies look at how much money they have and then look for things to spend it on. We're all guilty of that — how much grant money can we get and then go out and look for something to buy.