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Technology Talk

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

By Eddie Reyes, Deputy Chief, Alexandria, Virginia, Police Department; and George Ake, Major (Retired), North Carolina Highway Patrol

Today, many law enforcement officers have a limited ability to exchange images of wanted persons, missing children, and other critical information. For most agencies, these exchanges are now in radio broadcasts or in text format with no accompanying images. If officers had access to image-based data, they would have better chances of visually identifying suspects and determining if they have the correct individuals in custody or have had contact with a missing child. With the current state of voice- and text-based data exchange, officers often lack the tools to identify people on the street and are often left to guess if someone is telling the truth.

Real-time, automatic access to electronic images is crucial to law enforcement and public safety personnel. Timely access to accurate subject identification, status, and location can sometimes mean the difference between life and death to law enforcement officers and the public. Image-sharing technology also enhances the delivery of essential public safety notifications and alert messages, such as all-points bulletins, be-on-the-lookout notices, and Amber Alerts. While this technology is used heavily by today’s generation with the proliferation of smartphones, unfortunately, most law enforcement agencies lack the technical capability to transmit basic photos in a real-time, mobile environment.

Images have long been recognized as an important tool in the recovery of missing and abducted children and in identifying suspects and vehicles involved in crime. For example, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) routinely prepares posters including pertinent information about the case, photos of the missing child and persons of interest, and of other visual objects, such as a suspect’s vehicle. The poster information is disseminated to law enforcement as well as to the public by fax to alert them to report any sightings or suspicious activity. This method has been a tried and proven way to recover victims. However, these posters and color photos often sit on desktop computers waiting for personnel to log in.

In 2006, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate gave the International Justice and Public Safety Network (Nlets) funds to implement driver’s license image sharing between the states. Nlets is a nonprofit organization owned by the 50 states that has connections to every federal, state, local, and military law enforcement agency in the United States. If an agency’s technical capabilities allow, officers can query state driver’s license databases from a mobile or a desktop device and obtain an image in a manner of seconds. Today, more than 25 states have implemented this technology and are providing law enforcement images. In the next year, at least 12 more states will implement this technology. For some time now, officers have been able to retrieve images through a mobile device while on the street to help identify individuals.

A recent case highlights how images can be effective for officers needing to identify people quickly. A driver of a vehicle that seemed suspicious gave a North Carolina State Highway Patrol trooper his alleged name, which the officer used to verify the driver’s identification on the officer’s mobile workstation. The trooper was able to quickly pull up a driver’s license image of the person’s name given and determined that it did not match the person standing before him. After advising the driver the name was fictitious, the driver jumped and ran. The trooper apprehended the driver following a short foot chase. After obtaining the driver’s true identity via imaging on his mobile data computer, the trooper learned that the individual was wanted on several warrants and had been on the run for the past five years. The suspect advised that he had been stopped numerous times by different law enforcement officers and always got away by giving the fictitious name.1

Building on the technology developed, the lessons learned, and funding from the DHS S&T and NIJ, Nlets added state correctional facilities images access to their network in 2008. Today, seven states provide their corrections information and images to law enforcement. In the next year, several more states will implement this query. For the first time, officers can get images, probation status, history, and special warnings in the field from state corrections agencies. This project is forging a new partnership between corrections, probation, and law enforcement officials.

Nlets and DHS S&T have been working to expand the use of images in public safety. A new DHS/Nlets project called Targeted Interstate Photo Sharing (TIPS) builds on Nlets’s earlier, successful efforts. TIPS will enhance the delivery of critical images via targeted alert messages to support justice and public safety. The new capabilities will include wanted persons, missing children, vehicles, identifying scars, marks and tattoos, video frames, and other critical images to officers on the street. All border crossings have connectivity to Nlets so this information also will be available to officers on the border. Officers will have a more robust opportunity to receive real-time digital images on mobile devices. The DHS S&T has funded the IACP Technology Center to provide a practitioner group to advise Nlets on operational issues. These experienced practitioners will provide input on how this technology can be used in the field.

Today, video and camera technology on cellphones and in the hands of everyday citizens have helped to identify criminal suspects, vehicles, and crime scene information; this sort of video frame content, if shared with law enforcement in a timely manner, could greatly improve public safety. NCMEC, the DHS Law Enforcement Information Sharing Service Network, and law enforcement agencies plan to use this capability to share these critical images. For example, the Homeland Security Child Exploitation Investigations Unit will share endangered children images and information with law enforcement across the country and at the border crossings. Using this system, Nlets will be able to share international warrant images from INTERPOL with law enforcement and border crossing officers.

American citizens expect law enforcement to use state-of-the-art tools for protection. Crime scene investigation shows are all over television and the movies, and viewers assume that these fantasy systems reflect reality in law enforcement systems today. However, the truth is that law enforcement interstate sharing of wanted persons, missing children, and other alerts is still mostly in voice and text form. Officers often receive text descriptions and information on their mobile computers, on their handheld devices, and in communications centers, and, unfortunately, images are often not included in these messages. Officers must rely on broad descriptions of individuals, vehicles, and property. In the age of technology, law enforcement must make a paradigm shift to embrace this new technology. The public deserves the best protection and service that law enforcement can provide. Officers need this access to images to protect themselves and their colleagues, to carry out their duties, and to protect the public. They have to identify and determine if they have the correct individual in custody or had contact with a missing child. The technology and the capability are here. It is time to review our governance and provide all the available tools to protect our citizens and communities. For more information, email Bonnie Locke at Nlets at ♦

1Lieutenant Colonel Wellington Scott, Deputy Commander, North Carolina Highway Patrol, email communication with author, September 12, 2010.

LEIM 2013

Mark your calendars now and plan to attend the 37th Annual LEIM Training Conference and Technology Exposition, May 21–23, 2013, in Scottsdale, Arizona. Visit in the coming months for more information.

Please cite as:

Eddie Reyes and George Ake, "A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words," Technology Talk, The Police Chief 79 (November 2012): 62–63.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXIX, no. , November 2012. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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