Cool cop tech: 5 new technologies helping police fight crime

Throwable robotic cameras, gunshot detection systems and even familiar iPads are among the tech tools in police departments' arsenals.

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About 50 of the StarChase systems have been built, with about 40 available for testing by law enforcement agencies. The cost for the system is about $5,000 for one vehicle, plus monthly fees for GPS monitoring.

Law enforcement experts are divided about the usefulness of the GPS dart systems. "It still needs to be seen if it will work effectively," said Andrew J. Scott III, a former police chief and president of AJS Consulting, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based law enforcement consultancy. Still, he said, he likes the idea. "It could reduce the number of lawsuits related to police pursuits, and the number of pursuits," he noted. "If it does those things, then why wouldn't you use it? All it takes is one bad chase and someone is killed or injured."

But Dennis Jay Kenney, a professor in the department of criminal justice at John Jay College in New York, called the technology "just goofy."

"The accuracy of the things is going to be very limited," he said. "And the pursuing car is going to have to be very close. Then the question is: Will the dart stick?"

The use of GPS technology to track people in their vehicles also raises some privacy concerns. In fact, a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, United States v. Jones, declared that it was illegal for the government to attach a GPS device to someone's vehicle and use the device for long-term monitoring of the individual's movements without first obtaining a search warrant.

Legal experts say it is unclear how this ruling pertains to a GPS device attached to a car for short-term tracking, as with the pursuit darts. In a statement (download PDF) released in the wake of the ruling, StarChase CEO Jaffe unequivocally states that the Jones decision does not bar law enforcement from using the StarChase system because it's designed "for short-term monitoring directly after the commission of a crime." Nevertheless, in light of the ruling, some police departments might be reluctant to invest in the technology.

Better policing through technology?

Will high-end tech devices like aerial drones really help police win the war against crime?

Kenney is not a believer. "Technology does not solve crimes," he said. "Police departments are laying off cops to save money, and they can't afford new technologies like these." Most of the products, he said, are "very expensive technology with little change of any yield."

Scott disagrees. "Failure to progress and use the appropriate technology as it evolves and use it on a trial basis in law enforcement means that the public is getting shortchanged," he said. "I believe technology is a link for doing our jobs more effectively. If you have a technology that can provide data and can mitigate law enforcement injuries, you're going to use it."

Another policing expert, Lee Streetman, a professor of criminal justice at Delaware State University in Dover, Del., said that some new police technologies are encouraging and should be adopted, while others -- such as the imaging systems that New York City police are testing to identify people carrying weapons in crowds -- raise health, safety and privacy concerns that haven't been fully addressed. "I'm a little wary of technology that isn't fully thought through," said Streetman.

What he does support, he said, are technologies that "can be used to make police safer and people safer." The problem, though, "is that police don't always use it the way it's intended to be used," Streetman added. "We have to be sure we do training and that they don't use these things outside their design scope."

Todd R. Weiss is an award-winning technology journalist and freelance writer who worked as a staff reporter for Computerworld.com from 2000 to 2008. Follow him on Twitter, where his handle is @TechManTalking, or e-mail him at toddrweiss@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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