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Back to Archives | Back to January 2011 Contents 

Technology Talk

Technology Is Playing an Expanding Role in Policing

By David J. Roberts, Senior Program Manager, IACP Technology Center

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Editor’s note: This column is the first of two columns about technology’s role in policing. The second column, which will examine role of technology in building and sustaining community engagement with law enforcement and also assess the impact of technology on policing, will appear in the February 2011 issue of Police Chief magazine. The source for the figure and the table appearing in this column is Brian A. Reaves, Local Police Departments, 2007, NCJ 23117, Bureau of Justice Statistics (December 2010).

echnology, in a very real sense, is transforming policing in fundamental respects. New and emerging technologies are playing an increasingly crucial role in the daily work of frontline police officers, equipping them with enforcement and investigative tools that have the potential to make them better informed and more effective.

Law enforcement use of computer technology has expanded substantially over the past two decades. Given the increasing power and diminishing costs of technology, the extensive growth in mobile communications infrastructure, and the expansion of innovative applications available, computer usage continues to increase in law enforcement agencies throughout the United States.

According to the 2007 LEMAS survey recently released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice,1 local police departments report using computers for a variety of law enforcement functions, including records management (79 percent), crime investigation (60 percent), information sharing (50 percent), and dispatch (49 percent). All larger police departments (that is, those serving populations of 250,000 or more) reported using computers for crime analysis and crime mapping (100 percent), and these functions were also automated in a vast majority of midsized agencies (that is, those serving populations of 25,000–249,999).

More than 90 percent of agencies serving populations of 25,000 or more reported having access to automated fingerprint identification systems (AFIS) and using infield computers (for example, mobile digital computers, terminals, and laptops) (see figure 1). In addition to the broad availability of infield computers, officers also had access to an expanding array of information including vehicle records (88 percent); driving records (81 percent); warrants (81 percent); protection orders (66 percent); interagency information sharing (60 percent); calls-for-service history (60 percent); and criminal history records (50 percent) (see table 1). Police departments of all sizes were much more likely to use electronic methods to transmit criminal incident reports to headquarters, with 60 percent of all agencies in 2007, compared to just 38 percent in 2003. Automating the transmission of incident reports is a critical element in building timely, accurate information and information-sharing capabilities.

In addition to infield computers, two-thirds of police departments throughout the nation reported regularly using video cameras, and well over half (61 percent) reported using video cameras in patrol cars. The deployment of in-car video cameras has increased markedly since the year 2000 in agencies of all sizes.

Technology and the Law Enforcement Officer

Police patrol cars throughout the United States are among the most technologically sophisticated and well-equipped vehicles on the road today. Configured with laptop computers or mobile digital terminals/computers, in-car cameras, automated license plate readers, multiband radios, RADAR/LIDAR devices, automated vehicle location, emergency lights, sirens, and much more, the cockpit of the typical police car might appear to the uninitiated to be nearly as complicated as that of a jet airplane and every bit as crowded.

The technology of the police vehicle is further augmented by that which is often carried or worn personally by the officer. Increasingly officers are wearing or carrying a variety of new technologies, including a smartphone,2 a less-lethal weapon, and perhaps a body-worn video camera,3 in addition to the standard complement of a firearm, handcuffs, extra ammunition, a baton, a flashlight, and other items.

Technology has empowered officers in the field by giving them the ability to initiate queries of multiple justice-related databases. Officers are also increasingly able to access and query an expanding array of databases that can greatly assist in determining the identity of the person with whom they are dealing; that person’s legal status (for example, wanted, on probation, on parole or on pre-trial release); as well as historical information regarding the address to which officers are dispatched and whether there are any warnings regarding the location or its occupants.

The result is a much more “wired” officer. The technology is designed to make the officer more efficient, more effective, more knowledgeable, and better able to spend time on patrol interfacing with the community by improving reporting capabilities and eliminating the need to return to headquarters to complete and submit reports.4 Moreover, infield computers and other mobile technologies also help improve the quality of data by building edits into data entry systems to ensure accuracy and completeness of reports and by building mobile interfaces to enable more timely completion and submission. Mobile technology implementations among police forces throughout the United Kingdom have also demonstrated substantial benefits, including improvements in efficiency and effectiveness of police officers, enabling greater visibility within the community, broader access to local and national databases, and more accurate data collection and time savings.5

Technology and the Law Enforcement Agency

Beyond the impact of technology on the individual officer patrolling the street, technology is also having a transformative impact on law enforcement agencies. Contemporary law enforcement agencies have implemented a host of technologies to enable expanded communication with officers in the field, to expedite and improve crime reporting and analysis, and to better manage the tactical deployment of forces and the strategic utilization of resources.

Technology is also changing the structure and operation of law enforcement agencies, enabling administrators to more efficiently manage and deploy resources, monitor crime trends with greater precision, and target intervention and investigative assets with greater effectiveness. Technology is facilitating closer and more collaborative relationships between law enforcement and the community. The explosive growth and technological sophistication of smartphones and the surging popularity of social networking sites have empowered the general public and raised expectations regarding the transparency of the law enforcement organization, the services provided, and the public’s ability to communicate with the police.6

The integration of public safety, intelligence, and other governmental information transcends the day-to-day operational needs and priorities of justice agencies and becomes, particularly in light of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a national and international security imperative. Enterprise-wide information sharing is needed to prepare for, prevent, respond to, and recover from terrorist incidents. Information sharing capabilities are also needed to address all crimes, provide effective major incident response and management, and support the critical day-to-day operations of justice and public safety officials at all levels of government.

In response to a variety of federal and national programs designed to increase information sharing and intelligence fusion capabilities nationwide, state and local law enforcement agencies are expanding, extending, and retooling their information systems and contributing staff and resources to state or regional fusion centers.7 The raw data that are the natural product of law enforcement operations at state and local levels (for example, incident reports, arrest reports, and field interviews) are the fundamental currency that drives much of the intelligence fusion and information sharing efforts nationwide. The National Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) Initiative, for example, relies on information contributed by state and local law enforcement agencies as well as private industry and the general public.8 Similarly, the Law Enforcement National Data Exchange (N-DEx) program,9 operated by the FBI, collects incident and case reports, booking and incarceration data, and parole and probation information from law enforcement agencies throughout the nation to provide a central, national repository of critical information and analytic capabilities for state and local agencies.

Technological advances in science have greatly expanded agencies’ ability to establish and verify the identity of persons with biometric precision. The emergence of the AFIS and live-scan fingerprint capture devices have revolutionized latent fingerprint processing and enabled law enforcement to positively identify suspects and close cases that would have remained open and unsolved. Moreover, this technology is becoming more mobile, enabling officers to capture digital fingerprint impressions in the field to establish or verify the identity of the person with whom they are dealing.10 Breakthroughs in DNA typing have similarly enabled police to identify (and also eliminate) suspects and solve open cases from the past.11 Facial recognition, voice recognition, retinal and iris scanning, hand geometry, gait analysis, and a host of other biometric measures have also proven effective in establishing and verifying the identity of subjects.■


1Brian A. Reaves, Local Police Departments, 2007, NCJ 23117, Bureau of Justice Statistics (December 2010), (accessed December 6, 2010). The Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics (LEMAS) survey is conducted every 3–4 years by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.
2Generally speaking, a “smartphone” is a device that operates as a cellular telephone, but also provides the user with additional functionality, such as e-mail, messaging, access to agency applications, and mapping through Wi-Fi and mobile broadband networks. The devices increasingly enable officers to access such databases as mug shots, wants and warrants, and driver’s license files. For examples of law enforcement smartphone use, see and (accessed December 6, 2010).
3Body-worn video (BWV) cameras are beginning to be adopted by law enforcement agencies in the United States; see David Griffith, “Turning Cops into Cameras,” Police (June 2009), (accessed December 6, 2010). BWV has been more extensively deployed in the United Kingdom, beginning with pilot tests in 2005. The Home Office has issued guidance for the use of body-worn video by law enforcement; see Police and Crime Standards Directorate, Guidance for the Police Use of Body-Worn Video Devices (London, England: Home Office, July 2007).
4The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and Community Oriented Policing Services, The Impact of Video Evidence on Modern Policing (Alexandria, Va.: IACP, 2004), (accessed December 6, 2010); and Jeffrey A. Roth and Joseph F. Ryan, “The COPS Program after 4 Years—National Evaluation,” Research in Brief, NCJ 183644, National Institute of Justice (August 2000), (accessed December 6, 2010).
5“Mobile Information,” National Policing Improvement Agency, (accessed December 6, 2010).
6For more detailed information regarding law enforcement and social media, please visit (accessed December 6, 2010).
7National efforts to build information and intelligence sharing capabilities have largely been guided by National Strategy for Information Sharing: Successes and Challenges in Improving Terrorism-Related Information Sharing (Washington, D.C.: White House, October 2007). The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has supported the development of state and local fusion centers in order to collect, share, analyze, and act on information and intelligence. A total of 72 fusion centers were operational July 2009. For more information, see (accessed December 6, 2010) and (accessed December 6, 2010).
8For more information about the National SAR Initiative, see (accessed December 6, 2010).
9For more information about the N-DEx program, see (accessed December 6, 2010).
10National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA), MIDAS & Lantern Mobile Fingerprinting Projects: Equality Impact Assessment (London, England: NPIA, June 2010), (accessed December 7, 2010).
11John Butler, Fundamentals of Forensic DNA Typing (London, England: Elsevier, 2010). For a cost-effectiveness analysis of expanding the use of DNA collection and typing to other high-volume crimes such as burglary, see John K Roman et. al., The DNA Field Experiment: Cost-Effectiveness Analysis of the Use of DNA in the Investigation of High-Volume Crimes, NCJ 222318, Urban Institute Justice Policy Center, U.S. Department of Justice (April 2008), (accessed December 6, 2010).

Please cite as:

David J. Roberts, "Technology Is Playing an Expanding Role in Policing," Technology Talk, The Police Chief 78 (January 2011): 72–73, (insert access date).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 1, January 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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