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Back to Archives | Back to October 2008 Contents 

NLECTC–Communications Technologies Center of Excellence: Serving Law Enforcement Today, Planning for Tomorrow

By Rick Mulvihill, Director, NLECTC–Communications Technologies Center of Excellence, Camden, New Jersey

very day, thousands of law enforcement officers report to work. It is hoped that they are provided with a full array of tools with which to perform their important roles. Few of those tools will be used most every day—except for communications systems, the one type of tool that officers use every single day. What is the state of these systems today? What will they look like tomorrow? What communications tools do officers need now? What will they need five or ten years from now?

The National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center (NLECTC) Communications Technologies Center of Excellence (COE) is a newly created program of the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice (NIJ) designed not only to assist in answering those questions but also to engage the law enforcement community fully in improving communications and developing the tools that it needs.

What the COE Does

The Communications Technologies COE serves law enforcement in many ways.

Identifying Technology Requirements: The COE works with the law enforcement community to identify technology requirements. The COE encourages input from law enforcement practitioners by attending many law enforcement events, such as the annual IACP conference, as well as by hosting, supporting, and recruiting members of the Communications Technology Working Group (TWG), an advisory board to the NIJ’s CommTech Program.

Supporting NIJ Research and Development Projects: The COE tracks the research and development of communications technologies and products in both the academic community and the private sector, as well as research and development efforts funded by the NIJ.

Testing, Evaluating, and Developing Communications Technologies: The COE conducts tests and evaluations of cutting-edge communications technologies as they apply to the law enforcement profession. The COE takes these new technologies and products from the development laboratories and places them in the hands of law enforcement officers for their feedback. The COE also acts as an honest broker between vendors and law enforcement agencies to facilitate testing and evaluation by officers in the field. This gives these officers access to technologies that they might not otherwise have an opportunity to use while providing the vendors a live test bed. The NIJ takes funding seriously and does not fund research simply for research’s sake; the technology whose research it funds must get into the hands of law enforcement practitioners as quickly as possible. The COE also works with the private sector and defense contractors to explore how their work could be utilized in the law enforcement field. There appear to be many technologies developed by the U.S. Department of Defense that could be adapted for use in the law enforcement community, and the COE is investigating these possibilities.

Developing Communications Guidelines and Standards: The COE assists in the development of standards by providing insight and feedback that will improve the law enforcement community’s access to available communications technologies that are affordable, reliable, and interoperable. The COE also assists the law enforcement community in the development of technology guidelines that enable it to better manage and govern these new tools.

Providing Technology Assistance and Outreach: The COE will, upon request, provide assistance with any specialized communications problems a law enforcement agency experiences. The COE will also assist law enforcement agencies planning to improve or replace their communications systems by providing unbiased information on issues related to communications technology.

Focus Areas

In general the Communications Technology COE sets its sights on four main technology focus areas.

Next-Generation Interoperable Voice Communications: The COE’s interest in voice communications focuses on software-defined radio (SDR) technologies, related components (such as antennas), cognitive radio technologies, APCO Project 25 (P25) technologies, and Internet Protocol (IP) solutions, including Voice over IP (VoIP).

APCO Project 25

Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials–International (APCO) Project 25 (P25) was established in 1989 to address the need for common digital public safety radio communications standards for first responders. P25 has developed standards for digital radio communications for public safety agencies in North America so that they can communicate with other agencies and mutual aid response teams in emergencies. In this regard, P25 fills the same role as the European Tetra protocol, although it is not interoperable with it.

Copies of a CD-ROM containing the 30 published documents pertaining to P25 are available to all federal, state, and local government personnel free of charge by contacting the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) standards coordinator at 703-907-7961.

For more information about P25, readers can visit the APCO Web site at

For many years the radios carried by law enforcement officers have not evolved all that much, but that is beginning to change, and many more changes are just around the corner. P25 radios are now readily available. After many years of development, there are now numerous manufacturers providing radios that can “talk” to one another regardless of which manufacturers produced them. As law enforcement agencies investigate replacing radio systems or individual radios, they are encouraged to give P25-capable radios serious consideration. New technologies currently under development and scheduled to be piloted in the near future appear to allow the creation of a P25 environment utilizing existing radio equipment and could become a cost-effective migration path to P25 digital radios from the conventional analog radios that most agencies are using today.

SDRs are another technology about to be piloted. Unlike conventional radio equipment, SDR equipment can communicate in multiple radio bands and in multiple modes. These radios would allow officers from one agency to communicate with the other agencies with which they may need to work, regardless of the band in which they are operating. These radios, now being adapted and tested for public safety use, were originally developed for military operations. The NIJ is currently funding the research and development of new SDRs in the laboratories of various universities. These new radios show great promise, and it is hoped that some of these radios will be piloted in law enforcement agencies within the next year.

SDRs bring forth the possibility of cognition. Cognition is the ability of radios to “sense” the operational environment and adjust themselves accordingly.

Personnel Location: Another area of interest to the COE focuses on developing new and evaluating existing technologies to determine the location and status of law enforcement personnel.

Officer safety is of the utmost importance. Many technologies have been developed in the location technology field. It is not uncommon now for Global Positioning System (GPS) devices to be able to tell drivers where they are and how to get to where they are going. Some agencies have installed GPS-linked devices to their vehicles and radio systems to respond in a rapid and coordinated fashion when an officer is in trouble. The problem is that law enforcement officers are not always in their vehicles. The advent of community-oriented policing has put many more officers on foot, on bicycles, or on other nontraditional modes of transportation. Even officers who are assigned a vehicle leave it to walk into such facilities as schools, malls, or apartment complexes, and their communications centers have no idea where they are when trouble strikes. Current GPS technology requires that location devices have a “line of sight” to the orbiting GPS satellites to function properly. These devices are of limited or no use when they are removed from an open environment, because the satellites cannot “see” them. Is it technologically possible to ascertain the position of all officers when needed, wherever they are? Can this be accomplished without weighing officers down with another heavy device on their belts? For now, the answer is maybe, soon. There are many projects working on this issue, using various technologies, with the goal of being able to find officers wherever they are in trouble. Beyond that, researchers are working on the possibility of locating persons who are not carrying any devices, such as burglars in buildings or barricaded suspects.

Convergent Data/Radio Frequency Interoperability: A third area of focus for the COE is evaluating wireless technologies (such as 700 MHz, 802.X, and services in licensed and unlicensed frequency bands) for interoperable first responder applications; researching existing and new technologies, including airborne and satellite, for mobile response, temporary deployment, and supplemental or alternative communications; and investigating potential solutions for alternative, backbone interconnectivity for radio systems.

Although the ability of officers to talk to one another is very important, it is also important in this age of endless information to have the ability to send data from various databases to officers on the street. Data should not be limited to text about the validity of a person’s driver’s license; officers should be able to see photos and any other information relevant to a suspect or a case. Furthermore, the path of data transmission should not be only one-way. Officers should be able to take photos and video footage in the field and transmit them back to the communications center. This includes real-time video, which would enable the department to provide maximum officer support for whatever is happening in the field. At the same time, there are still agencies without reliable voice communications due to the geography of their jurisdiction. They cannot afford the cost of establishing communications sites in remote areas because they lack the ability to connect the remote location to the rest of the system for a reasonable fee. Investigations are under way to develop and identify technologies that would enable this “backhaul,” as it is called. Solutions might include the use of technologies such as 4.9-MHz radio and satellites.

Communications Technology Tools: The final COE focus area involves technology and techniques used to detect, classify, control, legally isolate, and legally defeat wireless communication devices; the development of a comprehensive technology guide book for criminal justice practitioners regarding alternative power; and the development and maintenance of the Computer Assisted Pre-coordination Resource and Database system (CAPRAD). The COE also provides administrative support for the NLECTC regional planning committees via the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas.

Although improving technology for the benefit of the law enforcement community is important, it is equally necessary to give law enforcement agencies the tools to deal with their own technology, that used by the general public, and that employed by criminals to facilitate their crimes. Major work is currently under way to assist agencies in dealing with cellular telephones and wireless devices that can be used in the commission of crimes or during hostage/barricade situations. As mentioned earlier, there are still agencies without reliable voice communications because of the geography of their jurisdictions and the lack of commercial utilities to power communications sites. An investigation of power requirements and ways to meet those requirements is being conducted to help protect officers in need of timely communication.

How to Help

The COE focuses its work and priorities based on input from the law enforcement community. There are several ways that members of the law enforcement community can help us help them.

Technology Working Group: The NIJ Communications TWG is a group of law enforcement practitioners and technologists who come together twice a year to provide input to the CommTech program. These practitioners and technologists are also a resource to the COE on a regular basis as the center goes about its work. Full-time employees of law enforcement agencies who have responsibilities in communications technologies and would be interested in serving on the TWG should e-mail the author for consideration.

Contacting the Center: The Comm-Tech COE always welcomes input from the law enforcement community. Anyone with ideas, concerns, or information about which the COE should be aware should contact the center.

Hosting a Pilot: When working with vendors, the COE tries to deploy new technologies directly to law enforcement agencies to evaluate the equipment as it pertains to and affects agencies directly. The center is always looking for agencies willing to invest the time and effort involved in piloting new technology; interested agencies should contact the COE to express their interest.

The law enforcement community is entering a very exciting time for communications. Very soon it should realize the same type of technology revolution that has taken place in the consumer electronics arena. In the end, officers on the street should have a small, robust electronic partner that they can count on out there.

For more information on the NLECTC–Communications Technology COE, readers can contact the author at 267-415-4761 or via e-mail at ■

Rick Mulvihill has 34 years of experience in the law enforcement profession, including serving as chief of the Absecon City, New Jersey, Police Department and as the director of public safety for Atlantic County, New Jersey. He is a life member of the IACP.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXV, no. 10, October 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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