Cellphone Challenges for Law Enforcement and Corrections

Cellphone Challenges for Law Enforcement and Corrections

From a public safety perspective, it would be difficult to call cellular phones anything but a net positive for society. Although other factors doubtless contributed, researchers widely credit the rise of mobile phone use in the 1990s with crime drops recorded worldwide. Even without heavy research and academic rigor, individual examples of their life-, injury-, and property-saving potential abound online. As a preventive tool or as a direct response to active crime, the ability to call emergency services on the go is an undeniable benefit.

A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), meanwhile, illustrates how the technology’s relationship with law enforcement agencies themselves may be a bit more complicated. The devices “may have undercut turf-based street dealing” in the 1990s, the study says, “undermining [the] drug-dealing profits of street gangs,” and pushing users and their dealers to make prearrangements via cellular phone before deciding on a place to meet. While mobile devices may well have reduced the country’s murder rate and played a role in defunding violent criminal enterprises, law enforcement agencies are ultimately also responsible for curbing drug use. In many situations, a drug order placed over cellphone is more difficult to detect than one that takes place in the open air.

More than 35 years after the mobile phone’s mass-market arrival, the story is much the same for public safety agencies. In particular, the law enforcement and corrections fields have seen both illicit and legal cellphone use become central to their day-to-day duties. The emergence of the smartphone has only deepened the trend, with the high-powered devices and their multitude of functions making the public safer in some ways and hindering basic agency functions in others. Although most any agency will have adapted to its presence by now, the format is likely to remain a focal point in the game of cat-and-mouse between government entities and public technology adoption. In turn, public safety organizations would be well-advised to avoid becoming complacent with the technology, no matter how many innovations may arise from its presence.

A camera in every pocket: How smartphone use can hinder the battle for better PR

Mass smartphone adoption has proven particularly challenging for law enforcement. On one hand, the powerful, pocket-sized computers are useful for any number of investigative functions. Their unique identifiers, powerful location tracking, and connections to local Wi-Fi networks, for instance, have made them a sort of fingerprint for the modern era. These same devices, however, effectively placed a professional-grade camera and video recorder in the pocket of every citizen. Combined with the rise of social media, the rapid communication of perceived or real misbehaviors can essentially place an entire agency under siege before it fully understands the situation.

There is consequently little doubt the smartphone’s ubiquity has contributed to heightened tensions between law enforcement agencies and the public. Alongside concerns raised during legitimate instances of video-recorded abuse, a department may find itself with a highly public black eye if cameras capture officers’ behavior in a way that makes them appear dismissive or ignorant of standard procedures and policies. As in the above link, even small-town organizations with a sudden public relations nightmare may find themselves hunkering down against criticism from an online audience far larger than the population of their jurisdiction.

More to the point, high-level court decisions have been consistent in protecting the public’s right to record officers at work. Most recently, 2018’s Glik v. Cunniffe affirmed that citizens are generally allowed to film government buildings and employees at work in public, including officers carrying out arrests and other operations. A unanimous decision from the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals states that so long as the “peaceful recording of an arrest in a public space […] does not interfere with the police officers’ performance of their duties,” officers are generally unable to review footage, seize recording hardware, or arrest the person holding the device.

Between technological advancement and case law, then, clear training is the first and best protection a law enforcement organization can provide itself. Assuming officers have not undergone full training on the matter in recent years, memos and less formal reminders should be supplemented with formal training efforts from the agency, with potential topics including:

  • Citizens’ rights
  • Officers’ responsibilities and departmental expectations
  • Behavioral consistency on- and off-camera
  • Possible repercussions
  • Real-world examples, good and bad

While many agencies have no problem with law-abiding officers carrying out their duties on camera, being recorded by a curious citizen or disapproving bystander can cause on-scene personnel to bristle. Anyone being openly monitored while carrying out a high-stress, dangerous job is bound to feel added pressure — and a training-backed reminder can be the difference between a graceful, PR-friendly response and a reaction that draws the wrong kind of media attention.

One of the easiest ways to find appropriate training is through the FirstForward Marketplace, where member departments can browse through available courses, many of them at little or no cost. If a training program offers certification, FirstForward can help individuals and departments keep track of specific requirements and expiration dates. The software can also help ensure that policy documents have been read and acknowledged, thus providing legal proof that personnel have been properly informed of departmental standards in case a question should arise about their conduct in public or within the workplace.

Cellphones in prisons becoming a ‘national crisis’ with potentially deadly ramifications

Of course, public recordings are just one of many ways cellphones can cause headaches for law enforcement agencies. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s struggle to unlock a passcode-protected iPhone in the wake of the 2015 San Bernardino shootings ignited a nationwide debate over the line between individual privacy and law enforcement function, and could have ultimately ended in a messy court battle had the organization not found alternate means to access the device. Echoes of that frustrating battle can still be heard today at every level of enforcement. Even if investigators strongly suspect critical evidence is held on a seized device, they are often unable to open it without the owner’s cooperation.

Mobile devices pose a starker challenge for the corrections field, with far fewer benefits. Most notably, phones smuggled inside facilities for illicit inmate use have become a serious health and operational security concern, a problem widespread enough that one source classifies it as a “national crisis.” In a South Carolina case, inmates used an illicit cellphone to call in a hit on a facility employee, who was followed home and shot six times. Although the wounds were not fatal, the former captain had to undergo at least 24 surgeries to recover. In a more recent South Carolina case, prison inmates were able to plan and order the killing of a woman on the outside with the help of contraband devices. The problem has become so widespread in some states that agencies have asked the public to report any social media activity by inmates, cellphones being a primary method of utilizing the services.

Further compounding matters, technological countermeasures have not yet caught up with the relative strengths mobile devices were designed to provide legal users. The wireless network over which voice traffic travels is a “dumb pipe.” Carriers have little or no ability to tell whether a number using the network is authorized by the outside source (in this case, the facility), and have no legal responsibility to introduce measures that can make the determination. Measures to jam or block signals at correctional facilities have arisen and fallen at various points over the years, most failing simply because utilizing jamming devices is often a serious offense under federal law. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) notes that jammers deployed to stop illicit calling also interfere with legitimate use [PDF link], such as 911 calls during a phone service outage or emergency calls from outdoor prison grounds.

Looking to the near future, the most promising solutions to this growing problem will likely take one of two shapes:

  • “Micro-jammers” have been tested to largely positive reviews in federal corrections environments, and may help ease the FCC’s fear that traditional jamming equipment would also prevent the lawful use of communication devices. In one such demonstration, prison officials were able to block cellphone activity in a cell but still make a phone call some 20 feet away.
  • A class of technology the FCC has dubbed “inmate call capture,” essentially turns the “dumb” network pipe into something facility officials have control over. Championed by the FCC, these devices allow stakeholders to determine which numbers may make and receive calls on facility grounds [PDF link] and which may not. While ideal on paper, the concept still raises concerns about legitimate use from unrecognized numbers (visiting family members, for instance) and unintended jamming beyond facility grounds.

Though immature compared to the devices they are designed to block, these countermeasures could signal a turning point in the fight against illicit cellphone use. Considering the influence a powerful, well-connected inmate may exert with an inexpensive prepaid phone, agencies from the federal government on down are in desperate need of effective defenses. One hopes innovation, regulation, and the public interest in a functional communication system converge in a sensible approach soon.

Conclusion: A net positive — with notable drawbacks

It would be hard to say cellular phones have been anything but an overall positive when it comes to their public safety impact. That is true for members of the public, who enjoy greater access to emergency and safety services now than ever before. It is just as true for members of the public safety community themselves, who can tap into a wide range of useful (and even lifesaving) features directly from their work-provided and personal phones.

However, the security issues raised by mobile devices show that even the most useful innovation can create an unintended ripple effect. At a higher level, agencies must develop clear policies and effective training so they can adapt quickly when a new technology fundamentally alters the way they work.

Posted on Jan 7, 2020