Much of what many Americans know about law enforcement comes from various television shows and movies. Some of these great shows, like NCIS, emphasize the role of crime labs and their scientists in solving complex cases, often as quickly as in an hour (while still allowing adequate time for commercials). While technology is no substitute in law enforcement for observation, persistence, courage, dedication and curiosity, technology clearly plays an increasingly important complementary role improving the ability of officers to protect the communities they serve. Technology’s positive impacts fall into five broad categories: computers and information systems, optics, chemical, airborne and other mechanical areas. This essay provides a non-exhaustive and superficial overview of the contributions of technology in law enforcement.
In the computer and information areas, officers use computers in vehicles and handheld mobile devices to respond to dispatched calls for service, provide instant access to national and even international law enforcement data bases, monitor traffic, maintain contact with other officers, and complete paperwork. Cell phone apps provide ballistic data, shot timers, flashlights, photographic capabilities, compasses and maps, measurement devices, voice recorders, emergency response data bases, and more. A rural law enforcement officer in Alabama can communicate from the field with an Interpol official in Athens. The integration of disparate capabilities allowed by the internationalization of communications and integration has improved law enforcement operations.
Additionally, driving and firearms simulators, alerting systems, and explosive and radiation detectors are only the tip of the technology iceberg that is used effectively by law enforcement officers. In education settings, technology provides enhanced emergency notifications to students, staff and faculty through apps, networked landlines, computer pop-up messaging, flat panel displays and other methods. Timely critical emergency information to campus citizens makes them more knowledgeable, imparting a synergetic impact on public safety efforts to save lives.
Infrared technology has improved night vision, heat sensors and targeting capabilities. Improved optics also support spherical photography, facial recognition, license plate readers, pocket-sized fingerprint readers, and improved surveillance cameras. Video surveillance, increasing at a dizzying rate in education setting, serve as force multipliers and sometimes as a deterrent. Although video surveillance may not always prevent crime it can provide invaluable details for an investigation that results in faster apprehension thus keeping one crime from becoming ten crimes. Together, these law enforcement technologies enhance the reputation of the institution as a safe place to study.
Advances in chemistry now permit DNA test results to be delivered faster than ever. Other advancements, such as improved battery life, alcohol and drug identification and diagnostic systems, fentanyl-resistant gloves, improved longer range and more accurate ammunition, and improved ballistic vests are saving officers’ lives.
Drones allow 24/7 unobtrusive surveillance that protects lives, GPS satellites allow precise location, surveillance and tracking, and other satellites facilitate instantaneous communications.
In the final category, mechanical devices, we find robots used in building searches and explosives demolitions, underwater search, and automated external defibrillators.
The impacts of these technologies keep officers safer, improve the effectiveness of law enforcement, and can enhance institution reputations. However, these advances do not come without challenges and risks. High costs strain budgets. New technologies challenge accepted ways of doing things and risk shifting centers of expertise away from senior officials who currently exercise authority in law enforcement organizations. Last, but not least, technological innovation and exploitation demand changes to organizational cultures but change comes with difficulty to entities steeped in standardization and routine. Law enforcement finds increasing challenges in developing mechanisms to identify and prioritizing priorities, integrate new technologies, and manage cultural and organizational turbulence.
Further, the ubiquity and intrusiveness of technology allow closer and more refined surveillance of society, and herein lies a major concern: are citizens comfortable sharing more personal information with law enforcement authorities? How much authority and capability do we want law enforcement to have and do safeguards exist to protect citizens’ freedoms and liberties? The educational environment, traditionally viewed as a safe haven, is often uncomfortable with law enforcement and associated technology having free reign. We all want safe schools, but how best to use technology to achieve it, is subjective. The US Constitution’s 4th, 5th and 14th Amendments provide privacy and due process protections against unreasonable search. With few exceptions, court cases allow citizens to use technology to photograph police doing their jobs. As technology provides more information to police and prosecutors, it becomes more likely that some of the information will be exculpatory, and courts mandate prosecutors share exculpatory information with defense attorneys, who also can use technologies to defend their clients. Finally, department general orders and independent and transparent complaint processes and procedures ensure internal departmental excesses are promptly and fairly addressed; civil and criminal litigation also protect citizens from technology-based invasions of privacy.
Technology will continue to enhance law enforcement. However, technology is no panacea and cannot be evaluated apart from the totality in which it exists. Improved technologies raise issues concerning citizen liberty and freedom, financial and cultural challenges to existing law enforcement organizations, and the rise of new mechanisms to identify, implement and manage these technologies. In a monolithic society unified by widely held values, perspectives and experiences, the development of a broadly embraced strategy and prescriptions needed to manage technology is feasible. In a society deeply divided between competing ideologies, languages, cultures and perspectives, managing the on-going incorporation of technology in law enforcement will be more difficult and contentious.