As FirstNet continues to be debated, developed, and eventually deployed, there are myriad examples of law enforcement officers using applications — run on the commercial 4G mobile broadband network — which enable greater efficiency, effectiveness, and safety on the streets.
Some are large-scale, made-for-LE products like One Force Tracker, a Raytheon product originally used by the U.S. military in the Long War overseas.
Others are simple systems that come as standard equipment on every smartphone like SMS/MMS messaging, as well as a dizzying number of mobile applications for iPhone and Android devices, which let police harness the power of 4G mobile broadband.
Real-World COTS Case
The first mobile “apps” to be used by police officers were COTS — which stands for consumer, off-the-shelf — solutions like SMS and MMS that come with the smartphone.
“There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that there are a lot of exchanges of photos and images and sharing of basic information that bring police up to the level of your average teenager,” said David Pollack, Managing Director of FirstAID Labs, a not-for-profit technology incubator seeking to facilitate first responders’ adoption of mobile broadband data and video applications and solutions.
In fact, within the past three months, an officer told me of a particularly heartwarming, real-world success involving the real-time exchange of an important photo.
Caveat: I promised the officer who told me this story that when I eventually wrote about it, he and his PD would not be named.
An officer is standing duty at the county fair when a woman frantically approaches him and says, “Please help me. I’ve lost my son.”
He asks her for a description of the boy, and as he begins to transmit that information out via the LMR clipped to the epaulette on his shoulder, she interrupts him.
“Can I text you his picture?”
Many parents today make a habit — particularly when going out to a large-scale event — to take a picture of their kids with their smartphone, and that’s precisely what this woman had done.
The officer contemplated this proposal for a moment, gave her his mobile phone number, and seconds later had a picture of the boy to send via MMS to other officers he knew to be working the fair that day.
He sent out the photo, made his radio call, and the boy was quickly located, unharmed.
“She asked me to take a picture of them, reunited, using her phone,” this cop told me. “A few minutes later, that picture was on my phone, too, with a thank you note attached.”
Was this all within agency policy? Maybe, maybe not — the cop who told me about the incident didn’t say.
Should it be written into policy sometime in the near future? It probably should, because the use of mobile broadband solutions by police officers is rapidly increasing — that genie is not going back into the bottle.
BYOD — Bring Your Own Device
There are a handful of hazards to consider when contemplating the use of 4G networks and handheld devices, but perhaps the most widely-discussed is what industry experts call BYOD — bring your own device — and it’s not just a law enforcement issue.
When you look at private enterprise and you say, ‘Why can’t people bring their own devices for work?’ the answer is frequently another question: ‘What happens if it falls into the wrong hands?’
When your employer is in the private sector, that could mean leaked company documents, but when you’re in law enforcement, the issues include chain of custody, admissibility of evidence, and citizens’ Constitutional rights to privacy.
“There is a lot happening at the grassroots level among innovative agencies, but there is a little bit of a fear that it’s not secure enough,” Pollack said.
He quickly added, though, the solution may not need to be complex.
“There are a few issues that can be handled easily. I think it’s as simple as clarifying BYOD policy — just clarifying the basic do’s and don’ts of using SMS and MMS to exchange thoughts and information between officers,” Pollack said.
“It’s not as much of a challenge as one might think.”
A Battlefield Example
So, given our understanding of COTS and BYOD, how might cops use 4G mobile broadband to send and receive real-time and near-real-time information to enhance service to their communities?
Let’s examine the abovementioned One Force Tracker (OFT) from Raytheon, and then apply it to a hypothetical scenario.
First off, using the phone’s GPS capabilities, OFT sends data across the broadband network in such a way that operators and incident commanders alike can see the locations of other officers, areas of known or perceived danger, and possible suspect(s) location(s).
All of these elements are overlaid on a map which is shared by all the operators involved in the incident, giving everyone a live, real-time, tactical overview of what’s happening.
Further, because the data can be analyzed and labeled by the on-scene commanders, operators can used also to plan what happens next.
Finally, in addition to situational-awareness information like map locations, OFT for the transfer of videos, still photos, and other digital data and in one single application.
An OFT Hypothetical
Imagine you have a standoff situation in which a bank robbery suspect claims to negotiators that he had taken from the bank not just money, but also a hostage.
He’s holed up in a neighboring building to the robbery, and refuses to let the negotiator speak with or see the hostage to verify the claim.
Unfortunately for the bad guy, there is surveillance video available from an adjacent building that shows our suspect entering the building with the “hostage” — and each one is holding a weapon. That video is shared out to everyone at the scene.
Soon, a police countersniper team set up on the rooftop of a building near the location is able to snap a photo of the “hostage” through a window — verifying that the hostage is really an accomplice — and report nobody else in the building.
Further, a floor plan of the suspect building is available, and countersniper team tags the location of the two suspects and other observable elements, and shares that information with other operators in real time.
Now we know much more about what we’re up against — certainly more than the subject thinks we know. A plan is developed, and the situation is resolved.
Just the Beginning
The use of 4G mobile broadband technology has potential pitfalls, to be sure, but if officers and agencies address some of those issues head-on, with carefully thought-out policies and procedures, most (if not all) of those problems can be averted.
Given that fact that FirstNet — which without question is going to be the future of secure, mission-critical, mobile broadband communications for public safety — is still in its early stages of evolution, the wisest strategy for law enforcement is to embrace what we have in the now, even as we look toward the future.
“The fastest path to public safety broadband network buildout,” said Pollack, “will be to stay focused on the applications and solutions that increase situational awareness, streamline procedures, and act as a force multiplier.”
Yeah. What he said.