Gadgets & the Connected Officer

July 10, 2020
The connected officer is here and it is real, but it requires a good bit of strategic thinking and thoughtful planning.

Remember the cartoon detective Dick Tracy? Created by Chester Gould, Tracy sported a wrist radio, and later a wrist television, as he dealt with the likes of Flattop, Mumbles and The Brow. The wrist television was considered so futuristic that no one thought it ever would come to fruition. But little did Gould realize just how prescient the concept was. 

Today, a major electronics manufacturer has a smartwatch designed specifically for public safety. It integrates with the department’s computer-aided dispatch system, receives dispatch alerts and notifications, transmits officer biometric data in real-time, and more. Given that consumer smartwatches are capable of receiving video, it seems only a matter of time until the public safety version also has that capability, bringing Gould’s concept full circle.

Indeed, law enforcement communications have developed tremendously since 1877, when the first police telephone was installed in a cast-iron box mounted on a telephone pole. A half-century later, police call boxes served as a miniature police station, a place where an officer could write incident reports, and communicate directly with the district station, without leaving the beat. A decade after, the Bayonne, N.J., police department became the first in the U.S. to institute two-way radio communications between a police station and cruisers in the field.

Now a dizzying array of devices and systems are available to the “connected officer,” all of which enable officers in the field to do their jobs better and safer. However, the devil is in the details.

A cornucopia of gadgets

The device that most readily comes to mind when one thinks about the connected officer is the body-worn camera. But there are many devices and systems available that enable the transmission of mission-critical data to and from officers in the field. For example, body-worn cameras, and biometric sensors communicate with the in-vehicle laptop or tablet, or a vehicle-mounted router, via a personal area network, which has a range of about 10 meters. Those in-vehicle devices—as well as fixed and vehicle-mounted cameras, drones, and AVL and gunshot detection/location systems—communicate with the department’s command center via a local area network. Meanwhile, voice and text communications occur over wide area networks, such as LMR systems or over various wireless networks.

Collectively, all of this gadgetry exists to provide officers in the field and their incident commanders with unprecedented situational awareness, and to provide commanders with vital health and well-being information about the officers. A few more examples:

The integrated GPS capability automatically turns on the body-worn camera when the officer leaves their vehicle, and live streams the video to the command center.

Similarly, the body-worn camera would be triggered by the holster sensor when the officer clears his weapon.

The data generated and transmitted by biometric sensors provides incident commanders with critical data that may help them prevent significant health traumas, e.g., the officer suffering a heart attack while in foot pursuit.

Drones flying overhead can transmit their video to smartphones used by officers on the ground during large-scale events, such as outdoor concerts, festivals and protests. This intelligence will enable them and their commanders to make better-informed, split-second decisions regarding where and how to marshal their resources.

The use cases surrounding the gadgets available to the connected officer are seemingly limited only by one’s imagination. At no time in the history of law enforcement have officers been as well equipped to get the situational awareness they need to do their jobs better and safer. But deploying and using these devices and systems face a wide array of significant, but not insurmountable, challenges.

A plethora of obstacles

The first obstacle concerns whether the department has access to a broadband communications network. Without one, most of the devices and systems referenced in this article would be unusable because the size of the data files they generate would choke a narrowband system, causing significant jitter and latency, and perhaps preventing data transmission altogether. In addition, the department’s back-end infrastructure needs to be capable of supporting them. For example, the video generated by all of the camera systems in play has to be stored in a way that ensures chain of custody and court admissibility if the footage is to be used for evidence in a criminal proceeding.

There also will be policy, governance and statutory challenges that must be resolved. For instance, the state of Texas does not allow drone use, even for public safety purposes. In the cities of San Francisco and Oakland, Ca., use of facial-recognition systems by law enforcement is taboo.

Data harnessing is yet another major challenge. A tremendous amount of data will be generated by devices and systems leveraged by the connected officer. However, incident commanders don’t want to comb through a tsunami of raw data to make decisions regarding who to send and where, or how to respond. What they want instead is a much smaller volume of highly contextual data. That context ultimately will need to be delivered by improved data analytics driven by artificial intelligence and machine-learning solutions.

Arguably the biggest challenge concerns funding—which should come as no surprise. The devices and systems that combine to create the connected officer are expensive, as is the back-end infrastructure needed to support them. Technology procurements should not be approached haphazardly. Develop a well-conceived strategic plan that prioritizes device and system purchases based on needs and available funding. Needs should be prioritized from most important to least important, and then those needs should be tied to the available funding. There always are “must haves” and “nice to haves.” The process is no different than buying a car. There are things you absolutely need, e.g., an automatic transmission, power steering, air-conditioning and cruise control—and everything else is optional. Engaging the services of an independent, vendor-agnostic, third-party consultant to guide the prioritization and strategic plan development is a good idea.

This is a very exciting time for law enforcement departments and the officers who work for them. The devices and systems that combine to create the connected officer will generate unprecedented situational-awareness data that will enable field personnel to perform more effectively, in turn helping them better serve and protect the citizenry, while at the same time keeping them safer. Numerous obstacles exist to deploying and using such gear, but none are insurmountable, as long as departments are thoughtful and disciplined. LEPN

Scott Neal is a former Pennsylvania State Police major who leads Mission Critical Partners’ wireless communications market segment team. Scott can be emailed at [email protected].

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