06/12/2000

GADGETS ON PATROL AGAINST CRIME

THE L.A. SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT'S TECHNOLOGY EXPLORATION PROGRAM IS ON THE LOOKOUT FOR GIZMOS THAT MIGHT DETER CRIME--FROM NEW NONLETHAL WEAPONS TO WAYS OF PINPOINTING THE LOCATION OF GUNFIRE NO OFFICER HAS HEARDLos Angeles Times -- Sid Heal can't quite recall where he first heard about the ShotSpotter, but like almost everything else that comes across his desk, it smacked of science fiction. The high-tech system was billed as a way for police to detect gunfire, trace the shots to their precise location and all but instantaneously dispatch officers to the scene. But this was not some pie-in-the-sky futuristic vision. The ShotSpotter was already in place in Redwood City where, in a matter of two years, celebratory New Year's Eve gunfire--once an epidemic--had all but vanished. Heal, a lieutenant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, tracked down the developer, a tiny Silicon Valley technology firm. He'd heard of similar gunshot detection systems, but "nothing like this," he said. "It's a passive system," he noted. "It requires no human monitoring. That was very attractive." Heal eventually coaxed Trilon Technology to bring the ShotSpotter to Los Angeles, where the volume of gunfire on New Year's morning, or any day of the year, dwarfed that of Redwood City. The system is now used on a trial basis in a 1-square-mile area of Willowbrook, one of 17 pilot projects the Sheriff's Department has launched in four years as part of its technology exploration program. Heal makes his living hunting down devices like the ShotSpotter. He is one of the few police officers in the country dedicated full time to scouting out new technology, and a big reason the Sheriff's Department is now widely regarded as a trailblazer in high-tech crime-fighting. "I know of no other group in the U.S.--state, local, federal--that can hold a candle to what they're up to," said Maj. Steve Ijames of the Springfield, Mo., Police Department, an expert on weapons that are not lethal. Through the years, Heal has seen it all: remote-controlled rifles; pellets that unleash an odor so vile, they can disperse angry mobs in a matter of seconds; even a gun designed to use sound waves to induce stomach cramps and diarrhea. Once the kinks were straightened out on the ShotSpotter, it proved to be a useful tool. Since March 13, it has prompted about 35 police responses and one arrest. Also being tested is the Communicator, a companion technology that dials telephones in the vicinity of gunfire and plays a recorded message, entreating residents to call police with any information. When the ShotSpotter's six-month trial expires June 30, the department must decide whether to purchase the technology at $ 185,000, suspend the project or abandon it altogether. But even if the ShotSpotter doesn't pan out, the cost to taxpayers will have been virtually nothing. That's because, with zero budget allocation, the sheriff's technology exploration committee must persuade developers to provide their gizmos at no cost. Developers are lured by the prospects of high-profile media coverage and the advice of law enforcement pros who can help them fine-tune their equipment before going to market. "Frankly, if they get the endorsement of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, I think that helps them a lot," said Chief Ken Bayless, chairman of the sheriff's technology committee. Said Heal: "We live in an area that has 10 million people. We're the largest urban laboratory in the world." If a device proves successful, he said, it can bring the developer "exposure far beyond anything that he could afford." After some cajoling, Trilon agreed to provide the ShotSpotter equipment for free, and Dialogic, which produces the Communicator, agreed to cover the cost of phone service. All the Sheriff's Department had to do was find county electricians to install the equipment. Relying on a handful of acoustic sensors planted on rooftops and utility poles to "listen" for the sound of gunfire, the ShotSpotter routes data to a central computer inside the Sheriff's Century Station in Lynwood. The computer then calculates the shot's location and plots it on a digital map. One drawback: The system cannot reliably distinguish gunfire from other explosive noises, such as the sound of firecrackers. Before sending deputies to the scene, a sheriff's dispatcher listens to a sound bite of the blast. That helps weed out false activations, said Sgt. Jim Lally, who oversees the pilot project. "For most trained officers who've been on the street, once you hear a gunshot, that's unmistakable," he said. Developers Scramble for New Markets The Sheriff's Department established its technology exploration committee in 1996 at a time when military contracts were drying up in the post-Cold War era. Weapons developers were scrambling for new markets, paving the way for a new age of high-tech law enforcement. "In some cases developers had millions of dollars and hundreds and hundreds of work hours invested, and the technology was just going to be basically put on a shelf," Heal said. "They started looking at law enforcement as a new market." Heal--a 32-year veteran of the Marine Corps--was the lead military advisor during the evacuation of United Nations peacekeepers from Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1995. When he returned, the Sheriff's Department put him in charge of acquisition for its technology committee. He is now one of the nation's foremost experts on weaponry that is not lethal, a category that many law enforcement officials prefer to call "less than lethal." Heal said the committee focuses on three main areas: nonlethal force, stopping fleeing vehicles and detecting concealed weapons. He is constantly on the lookout for new contraptions, a luxury that is afforded few other police officers. At the Los Angeles Police Department, for example, less-than-lethal weapons is just one of the many responsibilities of Lt. Richard Webb, who handles tactics and firearms at the LAPD training facility in Granada Hills. Other technologies are handled by various departments on a product-by-product basis. Most of the sci-fi gadgets dreamed up by developers and inventors will never see the inside of a patrol car, said Ijames, of the Springfield Police Department,. "A majority of things out there today, they are simply not practical for street deployment," he said. "I keep saying to these scientists, 'Keep doing what you're doing. Call me when you're done.' " Lt. Collie Provence, in charge of training for the Santa Ana police Department, says hundreds of samples of new equipment cross his desk, but his department purchases only a small percentage of them. "A lot of times, the equipment may be different, but it doesn't make it better," Provence said. "In some cases, it may not be as good as what we currently have." Technologies that do make it to Los Angeles sheriff's patrol cars can expose the department to tremendous liability, so Heal works closely with two attorneys in developing pilot projects. He acknowledges that technology tends to blur ethical lines. Hand-held weapons detectors are an example. "We've never had to consider some of these alternatives before, so we haven't really understood all the ramifications," Heal said. "Historically, our searches have been defined on the amount of intrusion to the suspect. . . . Well, what happens if there is no intrusion to the suspect? What happens if he doesn't even know he's being searched? Is it still a search?" The Sheriff's Department said it consults the public before going forward on new projects. In Willowbrook, the department said, it took surveys of residents, held a news conference to publicize use of the ShotSpotter and convened a forum to listen to community concerns. The ShotSpotter was fully deployed in the Willowbrook area in March. On April 29, deputies responding to a ShotSpotter alert found two men drinking beer in a driveway and a 9-millimeter shell casing on the ground. A 33-year-old man admitted to having fired his gun in the air and was charged with negligent discharge of a firearm, a felony. The system has drawn support from community residents but also some concern from activists. Anything to Help Stop the Violence Anything that can cut down on violent activity is a useful tool, said Charles Norman, executive director of the Central Recovery and Development Project, a nonprofit gang intervention and prevention group. "This tracking system would be helpful in not only the Willowbrook area, but in the entire South-Central area," he said. Community activist Arturo Ybarra cautioned that he did not think law enforcement agencies do a good job of educating the public about laws and new technology. The ShotSpotter is useful because the Watts-Willowbrook neighborhoods have high crime rates, said Ybarra, executive director of the Watts Century Latino Organization. But, he continued, "many citizens who fire their guns off for celebratory reasons would think twice if they knew about the new technology." The office of Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who represents Willowbrook, said she is basically in support of the ShotSpotter technology, said Glenda Wina, press secretary for Burke. As law enforcement officials reflect on new technologies what do they see as the point of all these newfangled devices? In the short run, they say, technologies like the ShotSpotter will help police to identify and arrest more lawbreakers. But in the long run, Heal said, truly effective technology will deter people from committing crimes in the first place. After all, a driver would be less likely to lead officers on a high-speed chase--endangering countless lives in the process--if he knew police can stop his car at the push of a button. The true measure of success for the ShotSpotter, then, will not be an increase in arrests but rather a decrease in gunshots. "The technology can do everything it's designed to do, and still not solve a law enforcement problem," Heal said. "Detecting the gunshots is not our objective. Our objective is reducing them." # # #Police Equipment of the Future? They sound like devices from science fiction. But this equipment is under development for possible use by law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department: Chang EyeMaker: Chang Industries, La Verne, Calif. This tiny camera, smaller than a pack of cigarettes, transmits images using radio frequency. It can be attached to windows, poles or the human body to look under vehicles, in attics, on roofs or in other dangerous or hard-to-reach places. Status: Sheriff's Department pilot project Auto ArrestorMaker: Jaycor, San Diego Also known as the "electronic vehicle stopping system," the portable road strip and energy source uses an electrical pulse to damage a vehicle's engine-control electronics, shutting off the engine but leaving the driver in control of braking and steering. Though promising in its potential to halt highway car chases, it has the same drawback as spike strips: It must be prepositioned in front of the fleeing vehicle. Status: Under development Laser DazzlerMaker: LE Systems Inc., Glastonbury, Conn. The size of a large flashlight, it can be used to disorient violent or uncooperative suspects without causing eye damage. Originally developed for the military, the hand-held device projects an intense green light. During civil disturbances, the laser dazzler could be used in conjunction with other nonlethal devices. Would only be available to police and military.

Back to previous page