Tapping Into the Internet of Things Will Help Police Departments Turn Smart Cities into Safe Cities

Technology has given police departments the opportunity to use the same advanced technology that is helping to create Smart Cities — adding new levels of connectivity that allow every level of government to be more responsive and efficient — to take a great leap forward in how they respond to public safety threats. These tools that were once just part of fictional spy stories have the potential to remove some of the pressure on overtasked departments to add more “boots on the ground,” because departments will have the ability to focus their resources when needed instead of trying to outnumber the criminals. This will result in better, more efficient responses, and ultimately an increase in clearance rates.

Many cities have “smart” or “Internet of Things” (IoT) tools installed in public works departments – everything from monitoring when a water pipe has sprung a leak to GPS tracking of where snow plows have cleared the street.1 But many police departments have not yet adopted truly integrated systems that can be a great tool for an officer – providing reliable information to an officer in a patrol car before a citizen even calls 9-1-1.

Sometimes police work – like a house-to-house search — is just inherently inefficient, but better options have not been available before now. With advanced technology, departments can use the manpower they have in a smarter way. Safe Cities technology gives departments the ability to be at the right place at the right time and with the right knowledge.

Technologies that can be used for Safe Cities applications are varied and limited only by the imagination and needs of the department—along with the skill of the implementer. For example, most Smart Cities are proud of the fact that street lights “know” when they have experienced a malfunction and notify the maintenance teams for action.2 However, that same system can be coupled with gunshot detection equipment such as ShotSpotter so that lights get just a bit brighter upon activation. If this capability is then added to this system’s video surveillance, license plate readers and recorders, and the ability to readily push this information to police command, control, and responding emergency workers is also included, then the system would have infinite value in the detection; determination; and, ultimately, deterrence of criminal activity.

Moreover, the value of Safe Cities technologies is not limited merely to traditional law enforcement activities. Additional sensors such as seismic detectors, air quality (sensors or detectors), wind shear and a host of other tools and equipment can all be added to assist first responders and city managers in knowing the situation on the ground without having to deploy human assets. This could also help officials know what human assets are necessary for a situation and how to respond accordingly.

 The Advantages of an Integrated Approach

At its heart, Safe Cities is all about taking disparate technologies, integrating them using IoT connectedness, and using the resulting system to make citizens more secure in the public environment.

In the non-integrated approach, police might respond to a ShotSpotter alert with no indication that anyone was actually wounded or what the situation on the ground truly is. Further, upon arrival, if there is a victim, police then have to begin the traditional process of looking for witnesses, perhaps canvassing the neighborhood and, generally, expending a lot of manpower in an attempt to determine a pattern for the event. Further, even after that determination, police would still need to look for suspects, persons of interests, etc., with little to go on, except often unreliable eyewitness testimony.

In an identical situation with a Safe Cities integrated technology approach, upon discharge of a firearm, the streetlights in the area (assuming it’s dark at the time) would immediately be brought to higher brightness. Video surveillance equipment in the area would be activated and turned in the direction of the gunfire and license plate readers would be activated to capture license plates in the area. The video would be captured and transmitted to the command and control facility and could then be relayed to the responding officers.

This action would provide a tremendous tactical advantage, since officers would know if additional units or additional emergency medical service personnel will be required. Moreover, having the ultimate, incorruptible witness of both video and license plate reader technology will serve officers well as they determine what vehicles were in the area at the time.

An example where a Safe Cities approach would have made a major difference is the Washington, D.C., sniper case in the fall of 2002. Over the course of a two-week period, the entire region was paralyzed with fear as John Allen Mohammed and Lee Boyd Malvo murdered 10 people and critically wounded three with seemingly random sniper fire.

The two had built a sniper platform in the back of a blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice. But the type of vehicle reported most often by witnesses in the area of the shootings was a white van. Even more disheartening is the fact that, after the blue Caprice was determined to have been involved, a check of police records indicated that the vehicle had not only been seen in the vicinity of several of the shootings, but had actually been checked in multiple jurisdictions.3 Since officers were looking for a white van, the lead was discarded.

As in the hypothetical example above, a Safe Cities integrated policing approach might have allowed officers to know immediately not only that a shooting had taken place, but also the direction of the shots and an indication of the vehicles present at the time, complete with license plates. This would have given officers an indication of what they were looking for, but also an ability to alert the public to the presence of this menace and improve the number of eyes on the lookout – thereby bringing these killings to a halt much quicker.

When considering the relatively low clearance rates for homicides in the U.S., it’s clear that police departments need whatever tools they can to help solve crimes. These tools would also provide the deterrence needed to make cities safer.

Sharing Information

The other way that Safe Cities tools can help improve clearance rates and improve public safety is by providing connections between departments and other agencies. Police officers all understand the advantages of sharing information. Unfortunately, issues such as incompatibility, difficulty in implementation, or, frankly, concern over the security of data, often cause sharing to be spotty at best. Safe Cities, digitized records and case management solutions could be used to tremendous advantage in this area. Add in robust analytics that allow officers to quickly make the collected or shared data useful, and the system would prove to be even more valuable.

Smart cities often share data across agencies, so the next logical step is to include all public safety and justice workflows in the same system. All public safety systems should feed into one searchable intelligence framework that allows everyone from beat cops to judges to probation officers to see all the information that can help keep the public safe.

A significant problem that police departments deal with is reoffenders. If police departments had better integration with prisons and jails, and parole departments, then officers can be made aware when an individual with a recidivism issue has been released.

 Risk Analysis and Public Engagement

Finally, risk analysis and crime trend analysis software can identify times and places where crime trends occur, allowing police departments to move out of reactive mode and become proactive.

ShotSpotter, as mentioned above, is just one kind of environmental sensor. Other sensor programs like PredPol or Palantir can be used to identify patterns and even predict when and where crimes are most likely to occur.4 These tools can register and report early indicators of an emergency or crime, or help department gather information about underreported crimes. According to CBS News, when police started using ShotSpotter in Camden, New Jersey, they found that 38 percent of gunshots in one neighborhood were not being reported.5 Once that problem is identified, then that neighborhood can be monitored more closely, potentially preventing gun violence.

Systems that monitor and map citizens’ information from social media can also be useful in situations where the suspect is on the move, in a sense gathering witness statements from several people across a wide geographic area. Alternatively, citizens can also be alerted quickly with programs that push out important information to mobile devices of people in a particular area.

No police department in the U.S. has yet installed a Safe Cities system to this extent. Some departments have begun the process. For example, Oakland has ShotSpotter, so its officers can tell when shot has been discharged.6 But it doesn’t have integrated video or a license recognition system. New York City officers can access live video surveillance footage when they are responding to a 9-1-1 call, but they don’t have the ability to improve the lighting in that area.7

Police departments should be working to install and effectively use every type of data-sharing technology available in order to enhance the safety of all citizens. They deserve nothing less than that.


1 Max Meyers, Claire Niech, and William D. Eggers, “Anticipate, Sense, and Respond: Connected Government and the Internet of Things,” The Internet of Things in Government (August 28, 2015).

2 Kelly Hill, “Schenectady, New York, Sees Potential in IoT: City Explores Smart Technologies and Deployments,” RCR Wireless News, Oct. 11, 2016.

3 “Sniper Investigation Timeline,” ABCnews.com, Oct. 24, 2002, http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=91109&page=1

4 “Orange County Sheriff’s Office technology helps predict, prevent crime,” Orlando Sentinel, Oct. 8, 2016, http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/crime/os-predpol-ocso-crime-tech-20161008-story.html ; “Why Palantir is Silicon Valley’s most questionable unicorn,” VentureBeat, Oct. 5, 2016, http://venturebeat.com/2016/10/05/why-palantir-is-silicon-valleys-most-questionable-unicorn

5 “‘Shotspotter’ Technology Helps Cops In Camden Zero-In On Gunshots When They Happen,” CBSnews.com, Jan. 12, 2015, http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2015/01/12/shotspotter-technology-helps-cops-in-camden-zero-in-on-gunshots-when-they-happen/

6 “ShotSpotter Coming to a Streetlight Near You?” Next City, Oct. 7, 2015,  https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/shotspotter-installed-in-city-streetlights-ge

7 “Can Analytics Help Curb Violence?” Government Technology, May 28, 2014, http://www.govtech.com/data/can-analytics-help-curb-violence.html