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Tech 2009: The year in review and the years to come

Editor's Note: Throughout December, we've been featuring commentary and analysis that looks back at the past year and the past decade, or looks ahead to what's on the horizon for law enforcement. If you've missed the columns from Fred Burton, Craig FloydLarry Jetmore, Terry Dwyer, Dan Marcou, Dick Fairburn, Ken Wallentine, and Eddie Reyes be sure to check them out and watch for more in coming days.

The technology that supports the mission of law enforcement is evolving at an ever-increasing rate. Every year in the past decade has seen dramatic advances in technology that facilities the free-flow of information to cops on the streets and increases officers’ ability to more safely apprehend suspects. We predicted very early on in 2009 that final year of this decade promised to be one of the busiest in history for police technology, and that turned out to be exactly what we got. In January and February we were only speculating about the newest technology in body armor that meets the .06 NIJ standard. By June and July we were holding it in our hands. As winter turned to spring we were still contemplating the prospect of a nationwide D-Block re-auction in late summer. By Labor Day that option had all but vanished in favor of a regionalized approach to 700MHz broadband communications deployment being touted by the Major Cities Chiefs.

Here is just a small selection of the milestone events and technology trends — decidedly not in chronological order — we witnessed in 2009...

Digital Video
• AXON and other body-worn video camera technology went from science fiction novels and “RoboCop” movies to daily use in numerous departments across the country
• “Virtual backup” and other uses of surveillance video began to let responding officers get a look at the scene to which they were responding before even getting there
• Several next-generation in-car video systems were introduced, making it possible for images to be captured around the entire vehicle, not just through the front windscreen

Computer Hardware
• Police agencies began buying servers with multiple-terabyte capacity in order to keep up with rapidly increasing volume of digital evidence in their possession (much of it consisting of abovementioned digital video)
• The Panasonic U1 and other handheld mobile computers began to enter service, taking high-powered computing from the squad car to the sidewalk
• Fingerprint scanners began to see widespread use as their prices dropped and their capabilities increased

Computer Software
• Even more sophisticated CAD programs came to market with enhancements designed to increase officer safety
• The category of “e-citations” became mainstream — these software products increase officer productivity and reduce mistakes common to hand writing tickets and citations
• They don’t “feel” much like software, but they are: Information-sharing services like YouTube, Facebook, Myspace, and even Trapster grabbed headlines for their contributions — both positive and negative — to law enforcement

• Even as new designs in P25 radios continue to come to market (many offering much lighter weight and longer battery life) officers responding to incidents outside their immediate patrol area still use personal cell phones and PDAs with push-to-talk capability
• Signaling a growing frustration among public safety agencies in some of the larger metropolitan areas, FCC waiver requests to begin their 700 MHz build-outs were filed by 13 regional entities
• Major Cities Chief’s support for regionalization of 700 MHz rollout may be the beginning of the end for the failed plan to build a nationwide public safety network in the D-Block

Vehicle Technology
• License plate readers in both mobile and fixed environments became more common
• Hybrid vehicles began to find their ways to police fleets across the country as the price of fuel seemed at one point this year to never be headed back down to a rational level
• One type of vehicle disabling technology from OnStar was first used to prevent a high-speed pursuit and another was introduced by StarChase at IACP in October

Your humble PoliceOne Senior Editor at IACP in Denver, trying on and trying out the new TASER AXON video camera technology. If you've ever taken your sunglasses and popped them over your head so they’re still resting on your ears (but on the back of your head) you know exactly what it feels like to wear the AXON.
Your humble PoliceOne Senior Editor at IACP in Denver, trying on and trying out the new TASER AXON video camera technology. If you've ever taken your sunglasses and popped them over your head so they’re still resting on your ears (but on the back of your head) you know exactly what it feels like to wear the AXON.

Space and sanity do not permit a complete recap of everything we’ve reported on or found interesting in police technology over the past 12 months. But it’s a worthwhile endeavor to look a little more closely at how a handful of these things might tie together into 2010 and throughout the decade to come.

For example, in the area of computer hardware we think the introduction of the U1 and other ultra-mobile PC (UMPC) solutions will continue to increase the ability of police officers to share vital mission data. Think of the ability to wirelessly tie that handheld device, which might be in the hands of an officer preparing to make tactical entry to a suspect’s dwelling, to the type of software database announced this year by from Mobile BIS. Their software solution provides police officers “with instant access to an individual’s criminal history, gang affiliation, a color-coded warning rating, and more.”

With ultra-high-speed wireless broadband networks powered by IPWireless beginning to spring up in places as diverse as New York City and rural Georgia, the information arriving to the officers on scene can also include everything from building schematics to live video of the dwelling captured by a helicopter orbiting the area. Then, when the entry is made it is entirely possible that the teams will be wearing lighter and more resilient body armor meeting the NIJ .06 standard, and bring to bear a couple of new less lethal devices, notably the new TASER X3 which can take down three hostiles without having to change the cartridge in the weapon. Or maybe the suspects might just choose to get themselves shot — the technological marvels introduced in all manner of firearms have continued every year since the invention of gunpowder, and cops today have a wide variety of new options as long as their local politicians allow the armorer to make those purchases.

Another way we can string together a couple of seemingly unrelated developments in police technology might go thusly. An estimated 1.7 million General Motors vehicles will leave the showrooms next year with a new version of OnStar that allow police pursuing a stolen vehicle to disable the accelerator and slow the fleeing vehicle to a gradual stop. Using this technology, a highway patrol officer can easily and safely identify and stop a suspect vehicle without ever alerting the driver to his suspicions, or endangering himself or nearby drivers with a high-speed pursuit.

In an example scenario, the patrolman’s car passes a vehicle and his onboard license plate reading technology records the tag of a vehicle heading in the opposite direction. Moments later, the officer receives an audio alert that the plates match a JTTF database of vehicles associated with individuals suspected plotting domestic terrorism. It’s quite possible that in 2010, that information will travel to the officers’ squad car via the new Vehicle Mounted Modem (VMM) 4300 device from Motorola, which delivers wireless broadband connectivity “at highway speed” and data throughput rates that “far surpass those available through operator data cards, enabling new applications, such as streaming video from the moving vehicle or accessing real-time video surveillance footage for better situational awareness.”

The officer calls for backup, alerts the neighboring jurisdiction toward which the offending vehicle was headed, and reverses his course to come in behind the car. With the help of their GPS-enabled mobile notebook computers mounted in their squad cars, officers from a dozen different points on the compass rose all converge on a single location on an unpopulated stretch of the country road.

The Chief of Police for a small nearby town, driving an unmarked hybrid vehicle meant mostly for patrolling the sleepy streets in a hamlet of 8,000 people, enters the two-lane highway behind the suspects. When they look at the car following 100 yards behind them, the suspects see nothing unusual about it whatsoever. As the two vehicles approach the pre-ordained spot, the Chief activates the accelerator disabling feature, and instantly the hazard lights on the suspects’ car are lit as it comes coasting to a stop.

Like a heard of turtles, cops from three different jurisdictions are on the scene in what seems like an instant. But it was careful coordination and high-tech communication that made the takedown possible. Without a shot being fired, two dangerous terrorists are in custody. 

These are but two examples. The possibilities are literally limitless. What do you see on the horizon as implications of this year’s newest developments in police technology? Add your thoughts to the comments area below.

Have a happy, healthy, hearty holiday season and a safe and productive New Year.

— Doug Wyllie, PoliceOne Senior Editor

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