Building a better mousetrap
Police inventors draw inspiration and dedication from a desire to make life better for fellow cops.
For most of us the head-slapping moment comes as we lie in bed with insomnia or after a late night and channel surf the tube looking for anything to pass the time between night and day. These days the only thing on TV at 3 in the a.m. is an infomercial. So we stare gape-mouthed at the screen as somebody shows us the Amazing Dog De-Barker, and we all respond in unison as we marvel at its simplicity, "I bet that guy's making millions. I could have thought of that."
Since Edison and even before, invention has held a near religious fascination for Americans. And few Americans have been more inventive than those who serve in law enforcement.
It's said that necessity is the mother of invention, and that's clearly true for cops. Sent out on the streets with often outdated or unproven equipment, cops, like soldiers, have been forced to improvise, tweak, jury-rig, or just plain create what they need.
So it is that every day cops sit down to sketch out ideas, then go back to their garages, basements, and even the corners of their city apartments and actually design and prototype their inventions with dreams of bringing them to market.
The following is a look at just some of the many officers who have chosen to create police products. Theirs are stories of inspiration, innovation, perseverance, and ultimately, triumph. And any cop thinking about developing his or her own product can benefit from their experience and insight.
For ages now the moment of inspiration has been imagined as a light bulb going off in the inventor's head. That may work for the general public but for cop inventors the "Eureka" moment is more likely to come in the form of discomfort, anxiety, or even pain.
Consider the case of Officer Tim Callahan of the Minneapolis Police Department. His moment of inspiration came in the form of a sharp folding knife slicing through the pad of his thumb. It happened in the late 1990s when Callahan was removing a flexcuff from a subject. He didn't have a flexcuff cutter, so he pulled his knife and went to work on the tough plastic. "I was really pulling on the knife, and it was a very sharp knife," recalls Calahan. "It cut through the Flexcuff but it kept going into my thumb."
Right then Calahan thought the words of every inventor since Og the caveman chiseled a knife out of stone, "There's got to be a better way." His invention, an easy-to-cut, disposable handcuff trademarked as the Strap Cuff was conceived.
But inspiration doesn't always come in a flash. For holster inventor and Boise, Idaho, cop Mike Lowe, inspiration came after a lifetime of wearing sidearms in the Marines and as a patrol officer, investigator, and police defensive tactics instructor.
"I'd see all these officers come in for (in-service training), and it was pretty apparent that they were all experiencing the same problems in terms of holster performance," says Lowe. "I thought to myself, 'Gosh, there's got to be a simple, practical solution to this problem.' So I just started giving it some thought."
Lowe's solution to the problems that he perceived with many duty holsters resulted in the Professional, a radical new holster design, and it helped him launch a new company, Tactical Design Labs. The Professional duty holster is designed to enhance officer safety by offering level three retention, a natural draw, and easy reholstering. And it has garnered much praise from police tactical trainers and duty equipment testers.
It's also forced Lowe to prematurely end his police career so that he could dedicate his time to its production. But Lowe doesn't mind. He's a man on a mission. "I was very content and happy being a police officer," he says. "But I feel so strongly about this that I just had to do something."
The Drawing Board
An invention begins as an idea. It then probably becomes a sketch or a drawing, but for it to reach market, an invention must become an actual object. For police inventors, who are trained as law enforcement officers and not as engineers or designers, this can be the toughest and longest part of the process.
Retired Cranston, R.I., SWAT officer Robert Barber says that transforming his training safety product from thought to reality involved many hours of trial and error. Barber's idea was to create a way to make sure that live weapons could be operated and handled during force-on-force police training with no chance of a live round being introduced into their chambers. The result was Ammo-Safe, a combination of a caliber-specific plastic plug that blocks the chamber and a highly visible plastic whip that protrudes from the barrel. Ammo-Safe allows the user to cock the weapon and pull the trigger, but the plug prevents the chambering of live ammo and the whip sticking out of the barrel tells everyone in the exercise that the gun is safe.
"The idea was born in my head about a year before I retired, and I kept working on it off and on in my basement," says Barber. "Over time I tried a lot of things. I even ran flexcuffs through the barrel, but that didn't work because the weapon wasn't serviceable."
One thing that a number of police inventors have in common is that they have family members, friends, or friends of friends who are engineers or craftsmen. Such was the case for Mark Tremblay, vice president of Tremco Police Products.
A paramedic and a 10-year veteran of the Billerica (Mass.) Police Department, Tremblay observed that ambulances and police vehicles were being stolen on duty around the Boston area, and he realized that the reason for this wave of thefts was that emergency personnel had to leave their vehicles unattended with the engines running to prevent battery drain.
Tremblay believed that the solution to the problem was an electronic system that would lock the shifter in park until authorized personnel wanted the vehicle to move. He went home and presented the problem to his father who was an electrical engineer and together they developed the Tremco Anti-Theft System. Twenty years later, their invention is installed in more than 75,000 emergency service vehicles worldwide.
Before you can turn an invention into a product, you need money. Serious money. Police inventors tap their personal finances, mortgage their homes, accept loans from relatives, and enlist investors, all in an effort to make their dreams come true.
But the problem with such dreams is they only come true after financial nightmares. Three years ago when Santa Barbara, Calif., police officer Brian Quittner dropped a flashlight while writing a ticket on the midnight shift, he had no idea that he would soon be risking his family's financial future on a company called Quiqlite.
Quittner's Quiqlite (pronounced "Quick Light") is an inexpensive, hands-free LED flashlight designed to clip into an officer's shirt pocket. It's a simple and ingenious solution to a problem that plagues not only cops but soldiers, hikers, fishing enthusiasts, boaters, and other people who work in the dark. But making the Quiqlite a viable product available to police officers and the public worldwide was not so simple.
The development of the Quiqlite forced Quittner to accumulate capital from the only source he really had: a second mortgage. "You really put yourself on the line (to start a company)," Quittner says. "In my case, I put the house up. I put everything into this."
Palo Alto, Calif., reserve police officer Ken Dueker agrees that starting a company and bringing a product to market is not for the faint of heart. And Dueker should know. He's started high-tech companies and he's helped finance startups as a venture capitalist. Today, Dueker is the inventor of a new police product called PowerFlare.
About two years ago, Dueker was working a traffic accident and setting up a flare pattern when he had the eureka moment. "It occurred to me that there must be a better way to do this," says Dueker. "So I started doing some research to see if I could find something that could do the job, and I found there really wasn't anything available to replace flares."
Most police inventors would have come home to their garage workshop and started tinkering. But Dueker's development model was considerably more sophisticated.
"I went to talk with my patent lawyer, and I did some research about the economic and environmental issues involving fusing flares. Afterward, we basically concluded that it was worth starting this business to fill this market need," Dueker explains.
Dueker put together the financing; assembled a team that included an electrical engineer, an optical engineer, and other specialists; and set about transforming his invention from a concept into a product. The result is an array of battery-powered LEDs encased in an aircraft-grade polymer disc that can be used to replace traffic flares at accident scenes and marking flares at helicopter landing zones.
The U.S. patent office was one of the first services provided by the federal government. A patent office was a fitting priority for a new nation obsessed with innovation and technology. So it's little wonder that Americans have come to see patents as the gateway to wealth and success. Unfortunately, the truth is not quite so rosy.
A patent is usually considered an essential protection of the inventor's idea and his or her execution of that idea. Consequently, many people believe that you must have a patent before you attempt to bring an invention to market. That's not necessarily so.
Many of the inventors who agreed to be interviewed for this story chose to establish their rights to their inventions immediately with patents. Others chose to wait. And some even marketed their products without patents. Which illustrates the diverse opinions that some inventors have about patents.
When Mark Tremblay showed his first anti-theft device to a fleet manager for the Massachusetts State Police, the man's response was, "Get it patented. I want to equip the whole fleet." Tremblay obviously had a reason to initiate the patent process and he did so.
But the patent process is not always easy. Applying for a patent often involves a lot of documentation and paperwork. It also requires the petitioner to conduct a patent search to ensure that the invention is truly original. Preliminary patent searches can be conducted on the Web, but if you're going to do it right, you need a patent attorney. "I did a search on the Internet, but the patent attorney I hired came up with five times more than what I found," says Ammo-Safe's Barber.
Patents are a lot of trouble. They're also not cheap. A patent attorney may charge an inventor as little as a few thousand dollars to more than $100,000.
And what you really get for all that money and trouble may not be worth it. A patent is a way of proving that you own the intellectual property of an invention. It doesn't prevent people from stealing your idea. It just gives you the right to stop them from doing so. Unfortunately, the only way that you can stop them is by hiring a lawyer and taking them to court.
PowerFlare's Dueker says that fending off assaults from aggressive larger companies is a harsh reality that all inventors and entrepreneurs should be aware of before they enter the market. "There are a lot of bigger companies, even in the public safety space, that have been known to play dirty pool. And if you're going to be a startup company, it can be difficult sometimes to swim with the big sharks."
Building the Dream
Perhaps no other point in the process of bringing a product to market is more hazardous than the moment an invention goes from prototype to production. At this juncture the invention is no longer a secret, so it can be easily stolen, and the manufacturing process is expensive, so it's likely to tax the resources of the inventor.
Quiqlite's Quittner chose to send his flashlight prototype and engineering drawings to a China-based manufacturing company. He was well aware of the dangers that posed to his dream, but he also knew that overseas manufacturing was the only way to make the light affordable to every cop who wanted one. "I was so scared when I first started dealing with China," he says. "You hear horror stories. I spent many nights just lying awake. Other nights I'd wake up just freaking out. Fortunately, it all worked out."
Another common way that police inventors handle the production side of the equation is to take themselves out of it. They license their products to other companies for royalty payments.
Such was the case for Trooper Alan Beatty of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. Following the escape of a prisoner from the back of his patrol car, Beatty spent some time thinking of ways to prevent a repeat. His solution was a seat belt alarm that he calls the "Trooper Trap."
But inventing the Trooper Trap created a dilemma for Beatty. As a uniformed trooper of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, he couldn't just drive around the state hawking Trooper Trap. First, there was some concern that to do so might represent a conflict of interest. Second, it might interfere with his duties. For these and other reasons, Beatty licensed his invention to another company.
Announcing Your Presence
It's never enough to just build a better mousetrap. You have to let everyone know that you have built a better mousetrap, and you have to convince them that it is indeed a better mousetrap. Police inventors have accomplished this impossible mission through a variety of different strategies.
Some have advertised in specialty publications like POLICE, bought booths at industry trade shows, and spent hours on the phone cold calling colleagues across the nation. The most savvy of police inventors have done all these things and more. But the real sales momentum happens when cops who buy their products start showing them off to other cops.
Word-of-mouth is a critical marketing strategy for police products because police officers are very skeptical about new products, says San Jose, Calif., officer Ron Baldal who invented the Cool Cop, a device that allows an officer to attach a hose to a car's air conditioner vent then thread the hose between his or skin and a ballistic vest.
"I have worn a vest since I started working patrol in 1983, and I was always just hot and sweaty, so I made this for me," says Baldal. "Then I showed it to my friends, and they wanted one. I never really intended to sell them, but one thing led to another."
Today, word of mouth is still working for Baldal. When Baldal scores a sale to a small force in the South or Southwest, he says additional sales from that small force are sure to follow.
Wealthy and Wise
Most people have visions of Bill Gates' money when they dream of turning some idea into an invention. Police inventors say the returns are considerably less lucrative, but they can be very rewarding in other ways.
"I could have started many other types of companies to make money," says PowerFlare's Dueker. "But this product can save lives. If you look at the statistics for line-of-duty deaths, automobiles are more dangerous than guns."
Dueker is not alone in voicing such sentiments. All eight of the inventors interviewed for this story developed products that are intended to enhance the safety of or improve the lives of their colleagues. This was clearly of equal or greater importance to them than making money on their inventions.
Asked what's been the best thing about bringing their products to market, these eight officers universally exclaim it's the thrill of hearing that cops benefited from using their products. The real reward is lives saved, prisoner escapes prevented, and even in some cases careers rescued.
"I once got an e-mail from a guy in Florida who said he was going to be taken off patrol because he couldn't wear a vest in the heat," says Baldal. "Then his chief found Cool Cop. That makes you feel really good."