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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Tablets aren't just for writing speeding tickets anymore

The utility and agility provided by iPads and other tablets hasn't been lost on police departments around the nation, and the devices are becoming an ever-more-essential part of police work.

"Officers can [use iPads to] take notes and tape statements from witnesses and suspects," said William Clark, chief of police in Jefferson City, Tenn. "Officers are always looking for new ways to use them in their work. One detective asked if we could find an app to diagram crime scenes. It's almost unlimited in what you can do with these things."

The Jefferson City Police Department bought 20 iPads for its 19 officers in late 2010, choosing Apple's tablet over much heavier ruggedized laptops that would have been permanently mounted inside patrol cars, according to Clark. The flexibility of the smaller, more nimble iPads was a key feature the officers noticed in testing. "They can carry them wherever they go," said Clark. "They can tuck it under their arms and walk into a crime scene."

The iPads allow officers to do just about anything they could do while sitting at their desks, from filing accident and incident reports wirelessly to looking up photos of suspects and accessing information in a state crime database.

"The iPads allow them to be on the streets more and do their computer work there instead of having to come back to the office," Clark said. "Even if they're not patrolling, they are more visible."

In Lincoln, Neb., some of the city's 321 police officers are testing 15 iPads and 15 Motorola Xoom tablets that were deployed last year, said Thomas K. Casady, public safety director of Lincoln's police, fire and 911 departments and former chief of police.

officer with iPad
An officer in Lincoln, Neb., uses an iPad in a protective case. Credit: Lincoln Police Department.

"We were originally planning a study of handheld phones, but the iPads certainly changed the complexion of the project" because they can do so much more, Casady said.

"It's great for situational awareness, for simple access to Google maps and aerial maps," he said. "Our entire records management system is available via our intranet, using a Web browser. Officers can get the info they need wherever they are."

The iPads and Xooms continue to be evaluated in the field for toughness and overall performance, he said, but their value is already proven within the police force. "With a tablet, you just pick it up and it works with instant on -- none of that three-to-four-minute boot time," said Casady. "You can't hold a laptop and talk and stand and type. You can with a tablet, and that's how police officers work."

"I have a feeling that tablet computers will be the form factor of the future for police departments," he continued. "Mind you, though, I don't think it will be these exact devices because they don't have the needed toughness at this point. I think the ruggedized tablet is where the future of police mobile computing will be. That said, we haven't had any of our 30 Xooms or iPads damaged -- yet."

It's a bird ... it's a plane ... no, it's a flying police drone!

Perhaps no police technology is more controversial today than flying robotic drones equipped with cameras that officers can use to get a bird's-eye view of a crime scene in an emergency. Critics say the use of drones raises major privacy concerns.

But drones offer some promise for law enforcement, according to Sgt. Andrew Cohen of the Miami-Dade Police Department in Florida. The department is testing a T-Hawk Micro Air Vehicle (MAV), an aerial camera drone from Honeywell International, but it hasn't used the aircraft in a real-world emergency situation yet. Before it could use the device, the department had to obtain licensing approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, and it did that last July.

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