Technology's Role In The Fight Against Narcotics

April 18, 2019
Emerging solutions help agencies reduce manual analysis, increase officer safety and improve situational awareness.

When John O’Hare, former commander of the vice, intelligence and narcotics division for the Hartford Police Department (Conn.) first began working narcotics, he recalls a scene to which many investigators can relate; he and his team would get a tip, draw up operational plans, set up operations and wait. They would spend hours sitting and watching with their binoculars, sometimes gaining information but other times striking out. “Anybody who has been in narcotics prior to seven years ago knows what I’m talking about,” he says. “It’s not fun.”

That scene may become a tale of the past, however, with the introduction of technologies that give narcotics investigators more information prior to arriving on a scene. In fact, several technologies on the market today—both software and hardware solutions—are helping to reduce time of manual analysis, improve situational awareness and increase officer safety in narcotics investigations.

From pen and paper to digital

One of the biggest advantages for O’Hare’s investigations was the addition of video and video analysis software. The agency began using cameras, which proved to be useful, but the amount of information became overwhelming. “I couldn’t dedicate people to sit there all day and night and watch video,” he says. The agency then invested in BriefCam, which allowed them to more easily sift through the massive amounts of video collected. “There’s a lot of video data but now you sift through it because you know what you’re looking for so you find that needle in a haystack,” he says. With this technology his team could track migration patterns, including how people moved through a neighborhood and where they stopped the most. “When it comes to narcotics interactions, where they stop the most or hang out the most is likely the stash spot,” he says. “We used to have to sit and maybe we’d watch one or two sales per hour, or maybe more, but it would be spread out all over the street and you’d have to figure out after hours where everyone is going the most. It was time consuming.”

The reduction of manual analysis greatly improved efficiencies for investigators. Rather than spending hours watching a home or scrolling through video footage looking for a specific car, video analysis technology allowed O’Hare’s team to identify a “who,” “what,” “when,” and “where” prior to arriving at a location. “With the BriefCam Respond module, investigators can put identifiers in ahead of time and can get alerted in real-time when a specific vehicle or person they’ve identified has come into a neighborhood,” he says. “Because of technology, law enforcement can be far away. They can set up real-time alerts and don’t have to be right on the street. You’ll know where to go, why you’re going there and when to go there. You’re armed with your intelligence before you even get there now. It’s such great situational awareness.”

He points to one example where the technology showed more than 300 people going to one house in 24 hours in a particular neighborhood known for heavy narcotics. “Now we could see when people walked up to those doors. Just before the heavy traffic times is when they are most loaded down with drugs. At the end of that time is when they are the most loaded down with money,” he says. “So, what are you trying to get, drugs or money?”

With video analysis, O’Hare, now the law enforcement sales director with BriefCam, believes the unmanageable becomes manageable and the unsolvable becomes solvable. “You can’t accurately diagnose neighborhoods based on verbal information,” he says. “You need data. You can put a cop on the street and he’s going to say he has his neighborhood locked down but he can’t be on every street at once and he can’t know everything. How can an officer do that? He can’t…but cameras can.”

Identify and target drug trafficking players

Drug dealing and trafficking actors are using social networks and dark web services to orchestrate their operation and by product generates digital footprints that can be followed, says Eyal Bachar, managing director, North America, Cobwebs Technologies. While BriefCam reduces manual analysis through video analysis technology, Cobwebs Technologies offers automated WEBINT analysis software that monitors online activity, collects and analyzes data online, on social media, mobile, the open, deep and dark web spheres. Using artificial intelligence (AI), the Cobwebs solution offers law enforcement predictive monitoring, social network analysis, target profiling, natural language processing, entity extraction, deep image analysis and facial recognition tools to name a few.

“If I’m an analyst, I would like to spend my time using my skills to vet system generated insights and alerts to conclude and generate actionable intelligence in a timely manner rather than spend time on tracing and collection of data,” says Bachar. “Our technology sifts through massive amounts of endless digital channels and flags the most relevant pieces of information, reducing the time for actionable intelligence and creating efficiencies.” Rather than law enforcement sitting on a computer monitoring individuals, real-time alerts can be set and keywords and individuals can be easily searched.

One large benefit of this software in narcotics investigations is the amount of time it can save just by automating many menial tasks for the analyst which practically couldn’t be done manually. When it comes to criminal investigations and drug trafficking, Bachar says everyone today is utilizing social networks platforms to relay messages or to share information, which can be essential for predictive policing. “You can identify trends and patterns based on this data that the human eye can miss or it can take such a large amount of time that it’s impractical.” Applying AI and machine learning highlight hidden insights and improve the efficiencies of the crime analyst. “He or she can be covering more cases and it can conclude leads much faster which will allow agencies to handle crime more efficiently.”

Bachar points to one way in which the AI technology can be beneficial. If a criminal posts something online, perhaps a photo, the AI Deep Image Analysis technology will scan the image and try to deduce types of entities, faces, or if there is text inside such as street name, potentially leading to the location of the suspect. “This is the AI element that is generating the initial insight and is suggesting to the investigator which is the more priority source of information that they should look into and try to act upon. This is where AI gets into place. It reduces the time it takes the analyst to detect such crucial leads.”

The technology also increases an agency’s situational awareness. “Once you’ve found the actor on the deep or dark web, you should monitor it continuously, with or without geofence criteria, and generate real-time actionable alerts,” says Bachar. “Without a tool like Cobwebs, investigators can be blind and miss crucial insights of what is really happening in their area.”

Tried and true

Technological innovations in narcotics investigations aren’t just happening from a software perspective; there are hardware solutions that are making the job safer and more efficient, too. Earlier this year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at the Nogales Commercial Facility in Arizona seized nearly 254 pounds of fentanyl with a value of approximately $3.5 million and almost 395 pounds of methamphetamine valued at $1.1 million from a Mexican national when he attempted to enter the U.S—the largest seizure of fentanyl in CBP history.

“It’s not like the old days where law enforcement is finding cocaine, meth or heroin,” says Bill Kotowski, sales manager, Thermo Scientific Field & Safety Instruments. “Now there are hundreds of white powders law enforcement can encounter.”

Technology in the field, including the tried and true Thermo Scientific TruNarc, is helping law enforcement officials stay safer and increasing their situational awareness when encountering both old and new narcotics. Though the device has been around for several years, the TruNarc is one that continues to be developed to aid law enforcement narcotics investigations. When TruNarc was first launched, it had about 110 substances in it; now, it includes more than 450. The TruNarc handheld drug detector uses Raman spectroscopy, “a vibrational spectroscopy technique where a single wavelength laser is focused on a sample,” according to Thermo Fisher Scientific. “The laser excites the bonds of a molecule, which generates measurable scattered light to identify the material in question.” CBP uses both TruNarc and Thermo’s Gemini analyzers, the latter of which combines both Raman spectroscopy and Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy, an absorption spectroscopy technique where infrared light is passed through the sample.

They are complementary technologies, says Kotowski, and although the science of Raman spectroscopy and FTIR technology isn’t new, it is improving. “Those early FTIR spectrometers were huge,” he says. “The early ones were 30 to 40 pounds, then down to 22. Now our Gemini handheld is about 4 pounds and the TruNarc is between 1 to 2 pounds. It’s incredibly small and lightweight.” Plus, the TruNarc technology includes hardware and software, ultimately increasing efficiencies for officers. The software allows LEOs to upload scan data and print a report for evidence submission. “You can add information to the scans as well, including location, name, badge number, notes about the product, any type of information,” says Kotowski. “You can also analyze that data to find trends, which improves situational awareness.”

Changes in other markets have helped lead to a smaller, handheld product for law enforcement in the field, but the real impetus of change, says Kotowski, is officer safety. “The TruNarc in particular is non-contact and non-destructive,” he notes. “You can actually analyze inside containers. As long as you can see through the containers, so can the TruNarc. You can scan through plastic bags, bottles and envelopes.” The handheld technology has proven to be a game-changer for officers in the field who have been using them for presumptive testing, which in turn saves time. “If the case were to go to trial, it would have to go to the lab for confirmatory testing, however, many jurisdictions are taking advantage of the Raman spectroscopy for their presumptive tests to see an increase in plea agreements and a reduction in the backlog of cases at the crime lab, effectively saving time and money,” Kotowski says.

Spot contraband easily with this handheld instrument

When it comes to identifying weapons or drugs in a concealed area, there is a huge safety concern for LEOs. Technology that is able to identify items while being non-destructive and non-contact is a win for narcotics investigators. Viken Detection (formerly Heuresis) addresses safety concerns head on with its HBI-120 handheld backscatter x-ray instrument that allows law enforcement to find concealed narcotics without having to tear apart hidden compartments.

The 7.5-pound handheld can scan up to a square foot per second and projects a high-contrast backscatter x-ray image of the narcotics on the instrument’s screen. “Prior to this technology, law enforcement would spend hours tearing apart vehicles, aircraft, etc. to find contraband, now they can immediately look at it with this tool,” says Viken CEO Jim Ryan. The product is grounded in safety, he says. “It allows the LEO to see what’s inside a vehicle tire, behind a car panel, in the dashboard or stuffed into seats so they can see these anomalies and from a safety perspective they are able to get an image without disturbing anything.”

How does it work? With their reflective or backscatter x-ray technologies, you only have to access one side of the target that you’re trying to see. “When you go for a CT scan or x-ray, the x-rays go through and you see the shadow on the other side to create that image,” says Ryan. “The backscatter is providing an energy source but it’s picking up what’s reflected back from the object that you’re applying the energy source to. Rather than having a detector or film on the other side like with a traditional CT, with backscatter you’re actually looking at the reflection of what’s coming back.”

The technology, which has been out for about a year now, is Android-based and comes with everything you’d expect on your smartphone. The screen is integrated into the system so it can be a one-man operation, says Ryan. Plus, with Viken’s new Broadwing detector attachment, the HBI-120 can now scan wider and deeper. “As you’re scanning across an area you’ll see images, so if there is nothing behind the car panel it’ll be fairly dark, but if you start to go over bricks of cash or stashes of drugs, you’ll see a bright outlined image,” says Ryan. This not only saves an agency time by taking away some manual labor, but it increases officer safety, too—the most important factor.

About the Author

Adrienne Zimmer | Editor

Adrienne Zimmer was the Editor of Law Enforcement Technology magazine, a monthly business-to-business publication that covers technology trends and best practices for public safety managers from 2017 to 2019. LET is part of Officer Media Group, which also publishes Law Enforcement Product News and Adrienne has been in publishing since 2013. 

Send her an email here or find her on LinkedIn here

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