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Back to Archives | Back to October 2004 Contents 

Practical Technology for Smaller Agencies

By Dwayne Orrick, Chief of Police, Cordele, Georgia

ven under the best of economic conditions, conscientious public officials recognize that the department's budget and its ability to spend public funds represent an important trust from the citizens of their communities. Those officials also hold the police chief accountable for wise use of these funds. Today, the chief needs to identify the best use of the available resources to meet growing demands on police services. To accomplish this, many chiefs look for technology that will enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of their department's operations.

Among smaller agencies the need for technology to enhance policing is real. A June 2004 report from the National Institute of Justice indicated that small and rural law enforcement agencies use-and are well trained in the use of-computers and communications-related technologies. But they are not making full use of other specialized technologies that could help them perform their law enforcement functions.1

Many police leaders are finding that much of the technological equipment that is available for law enforcement agencies has been adopted from other disciplines and is not practical or is too expensive for use in smaller departments. This fact is important, because 74.2 percent of the police agencies in the United States serve communities with fewer than 10,000 inhabitants.2 Smaller rural communities that are not located near an economic center or a metropolitan area are often the first to feel the squeeze of tight fiscal periods and the last to enjoy the periods of relief. Yet residents and business owners in these communities expect and deserve good service from their police department just like their counterparts more affluent communities.

Compounding this service expectation issue is the misconception by some that an agency with more technological gadgets is providing a better level of service to its community. Experienced police leaders know that technology is only a tool to enhance an officer's abilities, not replace them.

This article will explore factors for police administrators to consider when purchasing technology; highlight several kinds of equipment that have made officers' jobs in smaller agencies safer, easier, or more effective; and identify ways to justify and fund the purchase of technology.

Factors to Consider when Purchasing Technology
Cost-effectiveness: The first consideration before making a purchase of a new piece of equipment is the frequency of use by the officers. Will the technology be deployed daily and will the officers use the equipment often enough to justify its purchase? Although there are exceptions to be considered, as a general rule it is usually not cost-effective to purchase equipment that is seldom used.

Staff training and development: Regardless of the equipment, some staff training is necessary before officially deploying the equipment. With some technology this training is quick and free. However, operating procedures for some high-tech items are difficult to understand, and it can be expensive to train staff in their use. Because of this cost, the operation of the equipment may require a high level of specialization many agencies cannot afford to attain or maintain. For every piece of new technology, the training element, regardless of how nominal, needs to be factored into the decision-making process. In addition, it is important to officially record that the officers were trained in the use of the technology.

Service and maintenance requirements: The ability of the department to service and maintain the new equipment must also be considered. A hidden cost associated with technology is the operating maintenance cost and maintenance agreements. Most equipment has a warranty period during which the manufacturer will repair any malfunctions at no cost. When this period expires, the department must pay the entire repair cost, or have it covered under a maintenance agreement.

If equipment needs repairs and the agency has a limited budget and cannot afford to make repairs, the equipment will be useless. In most instances vendors offer and recommend a service agreement to maintain the technology. Although it is recommended to maintain these agreements most of the time, in some cases they can be cost-prohibitive. Because of this, the costs of the maintenance agreement should be identified and the yearly budget impact understood before the purchase is made.

Operational needs: Technology should be purchased that is designed to meet the needs of the department and make the jobs for officers safer, easier, or more effective. A danger in purchasing new technology is becoming a slave to the technology instead of its master. When officials allow their equipment to drive the department's operations, the agency's focus becomes the equipment instead of police service. If the technology cannot seamlessly enhance the police operation, then the department is better off not acquiring the technology.

Technology for Police Operations
Advancements in recent years have been made in all aspects of the police operations including, investigations, patrol, traffic, administration, training, and communications. The list of areas reviewed below is not exhaustive, but it highlights areas from the author's experience that police administrators should consider.

Handheld ultraviolet lights: About the size of a flashlight, handheld ultraviolet lights and filters enable officers to easily locate, secure, and collect trace evidence that is not visible to the naked eye, such as fingerprints, blood, fibers, and hair. They may also be useful in locating various fluids including saliva, semen, urine, and accelerants. This device makes the smaller agency's crime scene processing contemporary. Prices for handheld ultraviolet lights range from $100 for small flashlight models to $700 for spotlight models.

Digital cameras: Digital cameras have many uses in law enforcement ranging from booking arrested suspects to recording vehicle crashes and crime scenes. In recent years, the availability of affordable digital cameras has increased and many of the concerns about photograph integrity have been resolved and courts are accepting properly documented digital images as evidence. For example, Sirchie has assembled a digital camera package for crime scene fingerprinting designed to ensure that an original, permanent record is created when taking digital evidence photographs. While unacceptable images can be deleted, the compact disc- recordable (CD-R) media protects originality and authenticity. The photographs cannot be overwritten.3 Digital cameras allow greater versatility for electronically transferring photographs to other agencies as well as closer examination of the photograph's contents. Critical issues to consider when purchasing a digital camera are the pixel resolution and the memory capacity.

It should be noted that some agencies print digital photos on regular paper with ink jet or laser printers. The quality of the printer and paper are often overlooked as a primary reason for photo quality degradation. Because of this, when high-quality prints are needed, the department should consider investing in a digital photo printer.4 In the long run, digital cameras save the organization money in purchase and development costs of film.

Most of the equipment patrol officers use today is not high tech. But product research has found officers are more likely to use equipment if it is comfortable and lightweight. This is critical, because the best products and equipment in the world are of no use if the officer does not have them when they are needed. As a result, advancements in product development and design have allowed the manufacture of flashlights, bullet-resistant vests, and duty belts that are smaller, lighter, and more reliable. Similarly, improvements in uniform, footwear, and outer gear designs and materials have resulted in products that are more durable, comfortable, and effective. This is particularly true in coats and rain gear. Without question, officers today can carry more gear that is more effective and more comfortable than at any time in history.

Handheld thermal imaging devices: Because these devices detect heat, not light, thermal imaging devices are versatile tools that can be used at night or day. Thermal imaging devices help law enforcement officers find disturbed surfaces and hidden compartments, identify structure profiles, maintain perimeter security, and conduct search-and-rescue operations, covert surveillance of suspects, and traffic investigations, among other police tasks.5 Prices for thermal imaging devices range from around $7,500 to $12,000. The Law Enforcement Thermographer's Association can help law enforcement agencies identify innovative ways to use thermal imaging devices.6

Tasers: This less-than-lethal weapon, available in several models, uses an 18- to 26-watt electrical signal to completely override a suspect's ability to control their physical reaction. The Taser systems allow officers to control violent suspects, reduce injuries to officers and suspects, and minimize liability exposure. Upon firing, compressed nitrogen projects two advance Taser probes 15 to 21 feet (depending on cartridge) at a speed of 180 feet per second. The probes are connected by thin insulated wire back to the handheld device. An electrical signal transmits throughout the region where the probes make contact with the body or clothing. The result is an instant loss of the attacker's neuromuscular control and ability to perform coordinated action. The advanced Taser model does not depend upon impact or body penetration to achieve its effect. Its pulsating electrical output interferes with communication between the brain and the muscular system, resulting in loss of control.7 Tasers are considered by many to be an excellent less-than-lethal tool. Fully operational models range from $600 to $800 each.

While the press has covered a case where the autopsy specifically listed the electric shock from a Taser device as a contributing factor in a death, that factor has been questioned. This claim is similar to the claim made soon after law enforcement began using pepper spray (oleoresin capsicum) and a few deaths occurred. Autopsies were reporting that pepper spray was a factor in causing the deaths, but further medical review of the incidents did not substantiate the charge that pepper spray caused the deaths. Soon afterward, the less-than-lethal weapon became standard-issue equipment for police officers.8

Traffic problems and enforcement probably bring the police officer into contact with community residents more than any other aspect of policing. It has been reported that "the loss of life and money from automobile accidents [collisions] each year is greater than all other losses the police are charged with preventing."9 There are two technologies that smaller agencies will find extremely valuable with their traffic efforts.

Speed signs and trailers: Approach radar systems provide a digital display of oncoming vehicles' speed and influence the driving behavior of inattentive motorists who allow their speed to creep up. The use of the speed trailers and signs serve as a cost-effective alternative over increased patrols by creating driver awareness of their inattention and succeed in reducing vehicle collisions. The system is also a good public relations tool to satisfy neighborhood complaints and obtain speed compliance from the motorists without enforcement action. Mounted on a trailer, the radar system can be easily transported to any location where speeding creates a safety risk. Combined with a department's ongoing enforcement efforts, the use of the system can have significant impact in the community. Various models of the signs are available, beginning around $1,900, and permanent posted models can be purchased for $2,790. Basic trailers start at range from around $3,000 to $6,950.

Some agencies have begun to add data acquisition packages to their speed trailers that collect traffic count information such as the number, size, and speed of vehicles. This information can be easily downloaded into department computers for analysis and reports. This data can prove very useful when determining areas for selective speed enforcement and for applying for traffic safety grants. The traffic data acquisition packages cost about $1,400.

Crash data retrieval systems: In recent years, automotive manufacturers have begun to install onboard computer modules that store the vehicle's activity for five seconds before and after the airbag's deployment, including, speed, acceleration, braking, seat belt usage, RPM, and use of lights. Using a crash data retrieval system, the pre- and post-crash data can be downloaded from the vehicle airbag module into the investigator's laptop and provide critical information to accurately reconstruct the accident.10 These systems are available from the Vetronix Corporation for $2,495 dollars

Probably the most influential technological advancement in law enforcement has been and will continue to be the use of the computer. The last 10 years have seen the introduction of personal computers, laptops, and servers in small agencies nationwide. As prices fall and capabilities improve, field deployment of computer-based systems will continue with patrol, traffic, and investigative units.

Work that used to take days or weeks a few years ago can now be done in seconds. The increased use of the Internet and e-mail allows officers in the smallest of agencies to access networks such as IACP Net as well as other bulletin boards to research issues and exchange information. Line officers and detectives can quickly identify the status and obtain photographs of an inmate in state correctional facilities or persons on probation or parole.

To capitalize on the ability of the computer and streamline the report writing process, computerized report management systems have become common in most agencies. Report management systems function as a force multiplier and allow for faster completion of reporting and retrieval of relevant information. These systems also allow for fast statistical compilation of mandatory reporting requirements of the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) and the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). There are a number of vendors that are specializing in providing computerized reporting systems for smaller agencies.

Because of their compact size and reduced costs, some agencies have begun to use personal digital assistants (PDAs), such as Palm Pilots, in the place of laptops. However, it should be noted that some computer software conversion might be necessary to make use of these devices possible. In addition, there are a number of inexpensive, off-the-shelf software packages available to assist administrators with data analysis, scheduling, and budgeting.

Firearms training video system: Effective simulation training is available from several companies manufacturing firearms training video systems (FTVS).

For example, using miniature cameras and screens attached to goggles that are worn by an officer, the FTVS system from IES Interactive Training eliminates the guesswork from analyzing an officer's shooting skills. Different configurations of the equipment exist that allow instructors to simultaneously view what the officer is seeing as he or she fires their weapon. In addition, other attachments are available to help the officer develop better trigger squeeze techniques.11 Since the instructor sees exactly what the student is doing, the goggles are extremely helpful in teaching officers how to develop and maintain proper sight picture and trigger squeeze.

By recording the training session on a videocassette recorder, the system allows the student's performance to be critiqued later to reinforce good performance and make suggestions to correct errors. When used often enough, the equipment can help to develop a conditioned response in officers as they obtain their sight picture and alignment. This response may be critical in the first split-second of a deadly force situation. One agency recently allowed veteran officers to practice with the FTVS and found on average their qualification scores increased by as much as 20 percent.

In the past, turnover expenditures have been considered a cost of doing business. Since these costs do not appear as a line item, little attention has been given to the cost of losing an employee. The cost of losing a new officer because he or she cannot meet the department's firearms qualification requirements may cost the organization tens of thousands of dollars. With veteran officers, this cost could easily exceed $200,000. While the firearms training video system may be too costly for some agencies, the potential savings in reduced turnover may potentially offset this cost.12

Most small communities cannot afford to fund an enhanced-911 center. However, many communities are entering into intergovernmental agreements to functionally consolidate their dispatch operations and enhance their service delivery system.12 With advancements in telephone and radio technology, dispatchers do not have to be located in same community as the complainants to receive calls and dispatch officers. Today, agencies in adjoining communities and counties have begun to merge their dispatch operations, cut staffing levels, and improve the quality of service. In addition, some agencies are starting to use GPS technology in cellular phones to track the location of the caller at the time it was made. In order to fund this equipment, some communities are using a monthly assessment on phone bills.

Justifying and Funding Purchases
The purchase of technology equipment is often difficult for administrators to include in the department's operating budget. In the majority of agencies, the like-to-have-it and it-would-be-nice-to-have-it arguments are not enough to justify the purchase of high-tech equipment. Too often chiefs appeal to funders' fears of liability exposure or worst-case scenarios as justification for equipment.

Ultimately, the chief should be able to articulate how the technology will help the organization achieve its strategic goals. By rationally analyzing the needs of the community and the department, a strategic plan can be developed to fulfill those needs. This strategic plan can be used to identify the technology that will be needed to effectively address the problems and justify their purchase.

Technology can also be a force multiplier that increases the efficiency of the department. Essentially, officers can do more with less by working differently. Since these purchases usually represent a one-time expenditure, grants or asset forfeiture funds provide an excellent funding source. Replacement components will need to be scheduled in the department's future operating budget.

Finally, once the new equipment is in place it should be inventoried and issued to officers who have been properly trained in its use. Failure to maintain proper inventory controls may result in the equipment being lost or broken with no one to hold accountable. In addition, operational procedures should be provided to ensure the equipment is used in accordance with current legal standards. This is particularly true for weapons and surveillance systems.

Police suppliers will continue to develop equipment designed to help officers perform their duties easier, faster, and more effectively. When purchasing this equipment, administrators must consider the usefulness, operational costs, and life expectancy. By strategically planning for the community and department's needs, the proper equipment can be acquired to meet those needs by even the smallest agency. ■

1 U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, "Law Enforcement Technology: Are Small and Rural Agencies Equipped and Trained?," a Research for Practice report (June 2004); available at (, August 25, 2004.
2 U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Local police departments and full-time personnel" (table 1.30), in Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 2002, edited by Kathleen Maguire and Ann L. Pastore: 44; available at (, August 25, 2004.
3 Sirchie Finger Print Laboratories Inc., "2003/2004 Product Catalog," (Youngsville, N.C.): 178; available at (, August 25, 2004.
4 David Witzke, "The New Digital Mantra: Resolution, Resolution, Resolution," Law Enforcement Technology (June 2004): 38-48.
5 See (, August 25, 2004.
6 The Law Enforcement Thermographer's Association, (, August 25, 2004.
7 Taser International Inc., (, August 25, 2004.
8 International Association of Chiefs of Police, "Pepper Spray Evaluation Project" (June 22, 1995); available at (, August 25, 2004.
9 James J. Fyfe, Jack R. Greene, William F. Walsh, O. W. Wilson, Roy McLaren, and Roy Clinton, Police Administration, 5th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997), 562.
10 Vetronix Corporation, (, August 25, 2004.
11 IES Interactive Training, (, August 25, 2004. See also Todd R. Brown, "Effective Simulation Training," Law and Order (July 2004): 36-38.
12 Dwayne Orrick, "Calculating the Cost of Turnover," The Police Chief 69 (October 2002): 100-103.
13 International Association of Chiefs of Police, "Consolidating Police Services: An IACP Planning Approach" (May 2003): 1; available at (



From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 10, October 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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