By Scott Harris, Freelance Writer
|Note: Police Chief magazine, from time-to-time, offers feature-length articles on products and services that are useful to law enforcement administrators. This article features new technologies.|
ention the CSI effect in a room full of law enforcement, then watch the eyes roll, the shoulders slump. The mind-boggling technologies that the CSI TV series depicts as standard tools of the law enforcement trade are anything but in the real world. As a result, the public has in many cases (including courts of law) developed unrealistic expectations for the kinds of evidence a typical police department is capable of generating.
But the CSI effect may have a silver lining. A wide variety of vendors and companies are working to make available technologies that seemed to exist only in a Hollywood director’s mind. And while new technologies are sometimes viewed with skepticism because of their potential to “dehumanize” law enforcement, it may be quite the opposite. Vendors are literally putting new products in the hands of police and public safety professionals that are in many cases making police work easier and more efficient—a godsend as agencies struggle to make do with an evaporating pool of resources.
“All the TV shows out there have made police work more difficult, because everyone expects you to have those technologies,” said Alex Kottoor, co-founder and CEO of Siamese Systems, a Canadian tech company that recently released MobileCSI, a software solution for law enforcement. “At the same time, everyone is trying to do more with less. And more and more people are seeing technology as the enabler to achieving that.”1
MobileCSI is an app that works on smartphones or tablets and helps officers to document incident scenes more quickly and efficiently. The easily configurable software allows law enforcement to take, annotate, and store photos and videos and easily create crime scene maps, among other capabilities. According to Kottoor, MobileCSI can reduce the time it takes to document a crime scene by 85 percent.
“We were trying to take skill sets and processes that are usually the domain of specialized teams and make them available on the front line,” Kottoor said. “It helps reduce the number of officers who need to respond to a scene.”
Technology evolution means not only an increase of capabilities, but a greater degree of user-friendliness. Comprehensive training for MobileCSI is provided to each customer, as is a 60- or 90-day pilot period during which agencies and officers can test the product and suggest specific changes that are applicable to their local situation.
“We made our interface extremely intuitive,” Kottoor said. “It doesn’t inherently change the process they’ve used for 100 years. It flows the same, it’s just easier. It standardizes and streamlines the process. With MobileCSI, you might need just one or two officers to respond to a given incident, instead of five or six. It repurposes resources.”
That goal goes for hardware as well as software. According to Marc Costa, a New Jersey police officer with nearly two decades of experience on the job, technologies can, no matter how flashy, fail when combined in incompatible ways. This is especially true around communications software.
“The biggest frustration is with communications,” said Costa, who is chief operating officer of New Jersey-based MIR Systems. “It doesn’t do what it needs to do. Why? A lot of it has to do with the way our agencies buy products. We buy computers from a vendor who doesn’t know or care about software. Then, we buy software from another vendor. We throw them together and expect it to work, and it often doesn’t.”2
That is where MIR Systems comes in. The company has blended hardware and software to create a tablet that is ready, right out of the box, to help police officers do their jobs better.
“Government and law enforcement tend to lag 5 or 10 years behind the private sector,” Costa said. “This would help them jump ahead. We want to make them more mobile. Officers won’t be tied to cars or buildings anymore. There will be a lot more efficiency.”
What, exactly, does the MIR Systems tablet do? The better question might be what does it not do.
“Officers won’t be tied to a PC. They are outside with tablets,” Costa said. “They can run plates, run people through the National Crime Information Center database, take hi-def pictures or videos that attach themselves to a report and classify themselves. We have live talk, like Skype, so that chiefs can contact an officer who’s miles away in the field, and you can show the chief what’s going on so he can direct resources accordingly.”
But a feature that may be most immediately intriguing to any officer who spends days filling out paperwork is the tablet’s voice recognition software, which Costa estimated could reduce a police department’s average time spent on reports by 70 percent.
“Officers spend most of their time with reports, especially when you have fewer officers than five years ago,” Costa said. “With our voice-recognition software, you can do a report in 10 minutes. Time saved equals dollars.”
Costa also said the tablets were cost-effective when compared with personal computers. While a Panasonic Toughbook laptop costs around $4,000, the MIR tablet checks in at around $2,500. Connecting monitors at the office runs about $1,500. The CSI effect, however, may have no bigger impact than it does in the world of DNA testing. That is where Bode Technology, a Virginia-based private laboratory, is hoping to make a difference. Bode is making more DNA testing available—and affordable—for rank-and-file agencies. Specifically, their focus is on the less-major, high-volume crimes for which DNA testing has historically not been feasible.
“Most laboratories aren’t used to processing property crimes or other high-volume crimes for DNA,” said Andrew Singer, Bode’s vice president for sales and marketing. “Studies show high recidivism rates for the people committing these crimes. Public labs are focused on major crimes, especially with decreased funding and an increase in demand.”3
According to Singer, police departments working with Bode experience dramatic increases in clearance rates for property crimes and similar offenses. And it is available to law enforcement for around $100 a sample.
One example of the technology in action came from Bensalem Township Police Department in Pennsylvania. Officers used this technology after finding 38 vials of crack cocaine and five suspects in a van. All suspects denied possession of the drugs but agreed to give DNA samples. One came up as a positive match with samples taken from the vials. In a separate incident, a stolen vehicle used in a hit and run was tested for DNA. After the incident, the suspect fled on foot. Officers found the car and did some testing.
“They found the abandoned vehicle, found some blood droplets, processed and matched the DNA with a previous disorderly conduct convict,” Singer said. “A traditional crime lab wouldn’t have processed it or wouldn’t have found the person in the national database.”
Officers need no special training beyond the use of email to take advantage of the service.
“It is cost-effective, everything is done electronically,” Singer said. “The agency logs the sample, sends to Bode, and we take it from there. We send an email back with the results.”
Other companies offering innovation solutions for officers in the field and in the office include North Carolina imaging company 3rdTech; Montana-based Clarity Aerial Sensing; California-based anti-vandalism technology firm GraffitiTech; and Intermec, a Washington state company focused on information management hardware for professionals working in the field.
But new technologies are not limited to the field. The 9-1-1 call center is, in many places, getting a facelift. That is thanks to Smart911, a service that is now operating in more than 400 jurisdictions nationwide.
“Smart 911 allows citizens to go into an online national database and enter their information,” said Todd Piett, chief product officer for Rave Mobile Safety, the Massachusetts firm that created Smart911. “If you ever call 9-1-1, that information magically appears on the screen of the telecommunicator.”4
Piett said the information is used only in the event the individual calls 9-1-1, so privacy is secured. Centers using Smart911 include Washington, D.C., Seattle, and Atlanta.
Recently, Piett said, when an Arkansas girl went missing, officers were able to begin the search earlier because she was registered with Smart911, which includes a picture. Having that picture immediately available shaved 30 minutes off a response for an action for which each second is valuable.
Another effect of Hollywood is an assumption that all 9-1-1 calls are traced; when in fact, in 80 percent of calls, the 9-1-1 center does not automatically get the location. Language barriers can also be a problem. Smart911 solves those problems—and does so with a product that only requires about an hour’s worth of training for call center staffers, Piett said.♦
1Alex Kottoor, phone interview with the author, August 27, 2013.
2Marc Costa, phone interview with the author, August 28, 2013.
3Andrew Singer, phone interview with the author, August 27, 2013.
4TTodd Piett, phone interview with the author, August 29, 2013.
Please cite as:
Scott Harris, "New Technologies Bring Hollywood to Life," Product Feature, The Police Chief 80 (October 2013): 92–94.