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.
What I encourage a department or agency to do is determine what is needed in the department through what we call a "needs assessment"— then prioritize.
For example, for officer safety, ask, "What items do I need to buy for that officer to keep him safe?" For communications, ask, "What items do I need for communications? What kind of radios do I need? What kind of range do I need?" Look at what is needed for your vehicles — specialty features and accessories — and what training will be needed with specialized tactical equipment. Then you can determine a priority item from a "want."
LET: What advice could you offer the low-budget rural department on how to handle the high cost of technology?
Barker: First I suggest going through the needs assessment and determine what is available from the existing budget. Then a department can find what they can get from grants. There some grants out there, but don't rely on grant money to operate everything.
Mutual aid agreements are another way to share expenses. Agencies can go to other departments and explain the need to show the reduction in crime with implementation of a specific technology. Go to other departments and talk to their administrators and see how they respond to the implementation of technology in that department.
Outside the police department, once exhausting all that, I would advise them to go into partnerships. With the higher-priced technologies, technologies that may or may not be used on a regular basis in a small department, the best way to do it is with partnerships. Finding another department to partner with is a good idea because if something costs $50,000 and two departments are doing it, it only costs $25,000.
So I would advise them to look at multi-jurisdictional units such as SWAT teams, evidence collection teams, computer forensic units and major incident command units to spread that cost responsibility over several agencies. Because agencies are probably not going to use some of those things every day, why not share the cost, responsibility and manpower?
A small department with 20 guys can't really support a 10- to 15-man SWAT team. But if it's spread over several agencies and each put two to three people on a SWAT team, the cost and the personnel commitment are greatly reduced.
One other thing I'd like to mention is community partnerships. We had a presentation recently at our Rural Law Enforcement Institute. We fund small department chiefs or sheriffs to attend and discuss technology issues. One department chief gave a presentation on how he funded a new computer forensics unit to do some basics. He went to a local large discount chain that had a store in a related field and told them what he wanted to do. They believed in the concept and gave him some money to fund the opening of this unit.
So don't leave out the communities because agencies are partners with them, and sometimes the community will come together and contribute to causes they believe are worthwhile.
LET: Is there a risk of becoming too dependent on computers/technology for information and on day-to-day activities?
Barker: I think that's absolutely correct. I think that there is a risk of dependency and one thing which is absolutely certain is that computers and technical devices will break at some time. Agencies have to build in that back-up for information and be able to function without that technology. We've been able to function without it for years. When you get a lot of officers that are used to advanced technology and they've had the ability for a period of time, and all of a sudden they're without it, it's understandable there's a period of anxiety there.
So yes, agencies have to function without.
Technology can never replace the discretion of a police officer. I know the military has a saying that goes something like, "You don't own the real estate unless there's an infantryman standing on it." It's kind of the same thing in law enforcement — somewhere along the line there has got to be a patrol officer in the middle of an incident before it is resolved.
A computer or device is not going to resolve it from the station; an officer has to go out there and be in the middle of it before it is resolved. Almost every major case is solved by the actions of the street police officer somewhere along the line just doing what he's supposed to do. Technology is wonderful; it will increase our capabilities, but it will never replace the discretion and common sense of a good police officer on the street.
LET: Do you think high-speed information is necessary for today's officer?
Barker: I think necessary is a strong word. There are many small departments operating without the technologies that larger departments take for granted. A lot of the small departments don't have broadband access; some don't even have complete communications coverage in some of their areas of responsibilities. Most of them certainly don't have fingerprint readers and some don't even have access to some less-lethal options that would help them.
So, necessary, no. Beneficial, yes. Definitely.
LET: Will technology ever come to a peak?
Barker: I don't think that will happen. I do think there will be periods of plateaus in advancement to where technology advancement will level off for awhile, and then take off again and continue to advance. I don't think we've ever seen technology actually peak to say, "that's the end of it."
LET: Which part of law enforcement needs the most help from technology but is not receiving the attention it deserves?
Barker: Even though I was with the FBI for years, outside of a few in Washington and New York, most of my time was spent in rural America dealing with small and rural agencies, and really close to the front line officers.
I think the patrol officer, whether he or she is a patrol officer, trooper, sheriff's deputy or city beat officer, is the one that's probably not getting the attention that he/she deserves with the exception of some really truly progressive police departments.
A big part of that problem is that it is the largest section of law enforcement. When dealing with the largest section of law enforcement, it's only logical to assume the cost is the biggest factor in the applying and equipping of technology.
We've always made comments that specialized smaller groups, such as SWAT teams, usually get the latest and greatest because they're good people to test this equipment. They're usually in the worst situations and that is where a lot of this technology is tested. Since these are smaller groups, agencies can afford to equip them and use them as testing beds. Several tools used in patrol today originated in these specialized units.
But the cost, I think, is one of the biggest factors. Take ballistic shields for example. I personally think every officer should have a ballistic shield in his trunk. Is that going to happen? No. It's not going to happen because the cost factor; there's not enough money out there to put a shield in every trunk of every patrol car. Are they going to become more and more available to officers as that technology advances? Sure. They'll be in sergeants' cars, school resource officers' cars and high-risk-area cars. They'll become more and more common place, but due to the cost, they are probably not going to be everywhere.
LET: In your eyes, what is on the horizon for the future of law enforcement technology?
Barker: As people start seeing particular needs in this area, they'll step forward with solutions.
I've seen a significant increase in simulation training in law enforcement. I know that at our facility we have both a firearm and vehicle simulator. They're great training devices, and I think that this will become a future standard of training of law enforcement. The older real-life videos are now being replaced by very realistic animation video, which is cheaper to produce and more timely. So, I think we'll see a lot more developments in training areas because, while technology is great, it has to be accompanied by good training, policies and procedures. Agencies could have the greatest technologies in the world, but if the officer doesn't know how to use them, he's either going to lose it from litigation, or the agency is going to take it away because he's not performing correctly. With technology comes training and proper guidelines on how to use it. We can't separate them.
The emerging technology in the forensics and evidence field that is going to be dramatic is the field identification of drugs. This device would yield identification information that would be admissible in court. This is very similar to the Breathalyzer used for drunk driving. They're small and will sit in the police department. The great thing is that if officers have the result immediately on a print out, they can use it in their hearing the next morning. It increases pleas immediately and they're not waiting on lab tests. But, most importantly, all of our crime labs are just inundated with drug identification requests now. If officers could take a significant amount of drug cases going to a crime lab, 60 to 70 percent in some cases, agencies could dedicate lab people to DNA analysis and violent crime evidence matters.
From a tactical or command standpoint, unmanned aerial vehicles are going to have a significant impact on law enforcement. The ones coming out now are very portable; officers could put them in the back of a car and hand-launch them just like a recreational plane. Officers also can use them for surveillance platforms for tactical teams without the cost of a helicopter or airplane.
Probably one of the neatest things I've seen being an old patrol officer is the new license plate readers. Years ago, on night shift, we'd drive through a hotel parking lot and write down license plates. We'd ask the dispatcher to run them and check to see if they're stolen or if there were any warrants. If you got 20 to 25 an hour, you were lucky and the dispatcher would be real mad because he had a lot of work to do. These new license plate readers are like a radar gun mounted on top of the car. They are able to recognize and read thousands of plates a day from parked or moving cars and check them against the stolen or wanted database.
There are real-time tests being done in several states right now with remarkable results. An officer turns the reader on while driving down the road, and it picks up the plate from every car he's passing and won't bother him until he gets a hit on something with a notification. They are going to change patrol as we know it.
LET: Apart from emerging technologies, what would you like to see in the future that doesn't exist right now?
Barker: Well, some things involving officer safety, like uniforms. I know there's work going on in uniforms but most officers wear common cotton uniforms. I would like to see a more flame-, puncture-, impact- resistant and user-friendly material that would protect the officer — to have a little more of a threat-based uniform as opposed to something that looks good when it's pressed. There are some studies being done and materials out there, but I think we're going to see a totally new uniform package.
One of the other things I'd like to see is a vehicle designed from the ground up to be a police vehicle and not just a passenger vehicle adapted or modified to meet some needs. Law enforcement should be more like the fire service. When the fire service wants a fire truck, they put specs out on what type of truck they want and how they want it built. The truck is built to the standards required. It's built from the ground up to be a fire truck. So I think we'll see police vehicles built to be police vehicles in the future. They'll be built around the fact that it will be used by an officer. The equipment will be staged; it will not be a hazard when an airbag deploys. It will probably be diesel instead of gas because of the long life expectancy. Probably more of a ballistic characteristic in certain parts of the vehicle and lighting systems would be a little different.
There's a lot of technology research being done right now but we're still just a few years away. In some cases, projects are being funded by the government or by private vendors looking to produce better products.
The flying car may be a long way off, but law enforcement technology will continue to be cutting edge for the officers on the beat, in the vehicle and in the office. As the needs arise, technological solutions will develop, change and adapt to the future needs of an ever-changing world.
Employees of the RULETC are not employees of the U.S. Department of Justice and therefore do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the National Institute of Justice.