The evolution of technology in policing

In September 2001, less than half the U.S. population used the Internet. Many smaller or remote law enforcement organizations were not wired for Internet connectivity due, in part, to lack of resources or lack of a perceived need. However, criminal elements and terrorist groups were already a step ahead, regularly using this network as a means of clandestine communication and fraud.

In the wake of the tumultuous events of September 11, 2001, first responders were inundated by media and committee reports explaining how and why investigative processes failed. A dire need arose for better processes and better technology, from deployment of first responder resources to tracking of criminals.  Though 9/11 exposed weaknesses in our country’s crime-fighting infrastructure, many other less significant historical events have led to the innovation and technological advances—often by individuals not directly identified with law enforcement—that shaped the way officers analyze, predict, fight, and prevent crime today.

GIS technology solves crimes and deters criminal behavior

The Geographic Information System, or GIS, is one of the most widely used technologies in the modern world; used to track demographic changes, voting trends, and make strategic business decisions.  Smartphone users typically have some form of map application on their wireless device, which not only employs Global Positioning technology to determine location, but also GIS technology to indicate what amenities are nearby and how to avoid traffic snafus, among other things.  The basis for the first usage of GIS technology, however, is rooted in the 1854 cholera epidemic that ravaged London.  Through painstakingly mapping the locations of cholera cases throughout the city, Dr. John Snow found that the outbreaks tended to occur in compact geographic areas surrounding wells and pumps that provided public drinking water.  By pinpointing the outbreaks, city officials identified which wells needed to be decontaminated and successfully ended the cholera outbreak.

A modern policing equivalent of using GIS to pinpoint a problem and provide vital information in a concerted eradication effort is the Data-Driven Approaches to Crime and Traffic Safety (DDACTS). By using GIS mapping to define areas in which crime or traffic accidents are prevalent, DDACTS allows participating law enforcement agencies to deploy their resources in a more efficient and effective manner. Created as a crime prevention tool through a collaboration of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Bureau of Justice Assistance, and the National Institute of Justice, DDACTS directs officers to locations where their services are most needed. The goal of DDACTS is to decrease the occurrence of accidents and crimes by encouraging high-visibility policing in those areas.

DDACTS may also be instrumental in identifying appropriate places to install another modern crime fighting tool: the Gunfire Detection System (GDS), which uses acoustic, camera, and GIS mapping technology to pinpoint the location of gunfire and report it directly to an officer’s in-car computer.

In areas with the highest rates of violent firearms activity, witnesses may be either desensitized to the sound of gunfire or reluctant to call the police. GDS can fill the communication gap by alerting police automatically, providing an invaluable tool for capturing and prosecuting violent criminals, as well as deterring future gun violence.

GDS were developed in the 1990s, drawing from science understood by seismologists, and are now implemented in over 90 locations in the U.S. In 2003, GDS was instrumental in the investigation and eventual arrest of the man responsible for the Ohio sniper attacks. In Washington, D.C., authorities expanded their GDS to cover nearly a quarter of the metropolitan area. In its first year of use, Nassau County’s GDS recorded 337 incidents of gunshots while monitoring a three-square mile section of a New York jurisdiction noted for its high rate of gunfire and violent crime. According to former Deputy Commissioner Michael Flanagan, by 2011 that number had fallen to 77—an 80 percent decrease over the course of one year—owing in large part to the predictive policing capabilities GDS afforded the department.

Law enforcement is embracing social media

Though not a singular historical event, the significant rise of Internet penetration over the last decade has led to the soaring popularity of social media, and its subsequent use as a crime fighting tool deployed by agencies to solve crimes or plan for resource deployment. Police are using social media as both an information radiator—increasing public awareness of crimes, disasters, traffic issues, and other emergencies—and to ask for the public’s assistance. For example, the Bloomington (Indiana) Police Department recently cited an example on a public radio broadcast in which the posting of a suspect’s picture online helped identify the suspect within five minutes. Monitoring social media channels also helps agencies to scout future protests that may benefit from a law enforcement presence.

According to a 2014 survey of federal, state, and local officers conducted by LexisNexis, 40 percent of respondents stated they had used social media to monitor special events and public gatherings, while 34 percent responded that that had used it as a means to inform the public of a specific criminal danger or disaster situation in their communities. Additionally, respondents cited specific examples in which the use of social media was integral in solving crimes associated with active shooter and kidnapping situations, as well as a valuable tool in conducting routine police activities such as executing search warrants and tracking gang activity.

Identification tools get a technological infusion

While human fingerprints have been used throughout recorded history to bind business agreements and create impressions on official documents, the history of fingerprinting as a means of distinguishing identity dates back to July 1858.  In that year, Sir William Herschel, Chief Magistrate in Jungipoor, India began requiring that locals signing official government contracts also impress their handprint on the back of the contract.  Initially, this was not done as a means for identification, but rather as a means of contract binding rooted in the superstitious belief that making personal contact with an object bound a person to that object.   Later, however, Herschel began to compare the fingerprints he had collected, noting that none were identical and could be further used to determine an individual’s identity.

Fingerprinting was first used to solve a crime in 1891, evolved beyond the basic ink blotter fingerprinting largely used throughout the 20th century, and now the FBI’s Next Generation Identification (NGI) initiative is helping police replace traditional identification systems with new systems that improve capabilities.

For instance, through the use of a portable fingerprint scanner, officers can read a fingerprint, run it against local and federal digital archives, and identify the person within seconds. Ten years ago, the best case scenario in the return of fingerprint results was several hours. Results could take several days or weeks to complete if the lab technicians reviewing the prints were experiencing a backlog. According to NGI’s December 2015 report, Rapid Fingerprint Identification (RPIS) was used to scan over 194,000 fingerprints in the previous year. Almost always, a response was returned to the officer within six seconds.

Events will continue to shape policing technology

Much like innovative individuals have taken seemingly innocuous events and enhanced their practical applicability, criminals, too, will continue to adapt to high-technology policing. To stay apace, law enforcement agencies must be willing to change and invest resources in better tools as they mature. Though technology may never fully eliminate crime, its continued improvement—supported by the imagination of those who serve and protect—has certainly set an intriguing precedent towards innovation.

Posted on Jun 10, 2016