The Future Is Here: Technology in Police Departments

By Paul D. Schultz, Chief of Police, Lafayatte, Colorado

A Police Chief article from November 2004, "Practical Technolgy for Smaller Agencies," by Chief Dwayne Orrick, identified technological advancements in police questions, Four years later, technology has taken another leap forward, and technology only dreamed about is now common place in police departments.

The rate of technological change in recent years is so fast that one could reasonably suggest that the top 10 jobs 10 years from now might not even exist today. Technology is changing the way police departments operate, how grants requests are formatted, and what is requested in the local operating budget. Technologies funded today were not even common knowledge just a few years ago.

It is essential for law enforcement executives to stay current with ongoing technological developments. Today’s executives need not only to be cognizant of developing technology but also to have a working knowledge of what this technology can do for their agencies. Executives must be skilled in acquiring technology through a variety of funding sources.

This article outlines several new technologies, most of which are used currently by the Lafayette, Colorado, Police Department. These technologies were obtained through a series of funding options, including grants from the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center (NLECTC). These technologies function as force multipliers that improve efficiency, effectiveness, and officer safety in a variety of ways. An additional benefit is that department personnel enjoy working with state-of-the-art equipment, which can boost morale.

Crime Lights

Crime scenes do not always happen in convenient places. Now, with the arrival of a number of flashlights—each with a different preset wavelength designed to detect hair, fibers, and body fluids at crime scenes—these lights allow a crime scene to be processed faster and more thoroughly than ever before. Sites previously unreachable for powerful fluorescence examination are now accessible. The portability of today’s crime scene examination light sources makes the remotest of rural locations or the top floor of a city building highly accessible for search.

In-Car Camera Systems

The in-car camera system has become a valued tool to confirm and ensure a high degree of officer professionalism. The ability to record video footage of events involving the public from a patrol car perspective has proven invaluable in such matters as traffic stops, criminal investigations and arrests, internal affairs, and training. These systems are constantly improving and becoming more cost effective. (See the article by Joni Eddy and Joe Martin on pages 26–27 for more information on this technology.)

From the time the first in-car cameras were installed to document roadside impaired-driving sobriety tests, the cameras have captured both intended and unintended video footage that has established their value. Most video recordings have resulted in convictions; many provide an expedited means to resolve citizen complaints, exonerate officers from accusations, and serve as police training videos. Occasionally, a video ends up on the evening news, as a humorous excerpt on other television programs, or (illegally) on such Web sites as YouTube or MySpace.

The greatest value of the in-car camera system is that of a silent witness: the film is able to speak for officers when officers cannot speak for themselves.

Photo Enforcement Systems

Photo enforcement systems automatically generate red light violations and/or speeding summons and as a result greatly improve safety for the motoring public. There are a number of reputable vendors of photo enforcement systems available to communities.

The IACP first endorsed the use of photo enforcement systems a decade ago.1 The essentials for establishing a photo enforcement system include good engineering practices, public education, community involvement, and program management.2

Graffiti Cameras

Systems exist today that can take photographs of suspects who are vandalizing property and even notify law enforcement agencies that vandalism is in progress. There are also “talking” surveillance cameras warning intruders that it is illegal to spray graffiti, commanding the intruders to leave the area and informing them that their photograph has been taken for prosecution. In some jurisdictions the number of graffiti incidents has dramatically dropped as a result of these cameras.

Graffiti is often a by-product of gang life, serving to tag a given gang’s turf. By deterring gang-related graffiti, a gang communication mechanism is disrupted and gang activities can therefore be reduced.

These cameras can also be used to monitor illegal dumping areas as well as to prevent loitering and deter other crimes. Modern graffiti cameras are wireless and solar powered. They can easily be moved to new locations, increasing the effectiveness of the cameras’ deployment.

Thermal Imaging

Devices are available that produce images of radiated or reflected surface energy in the thermal portion of the electromagnetic spectrum through the use of a nonintrusive electronic device. These devices have numerous uses for the law enforcement community. They can locate a fleeing fugitive or a missing child in a field in a matter of minutes instead of hours. Easy to use, easy to store, and easy to maintain, these imagers can literally mean the difference between life and death for a wandering senior citizen or a child in a snowstorm. Different styles are available for different applications, including a roof-mounted model, a handheld model, and a model that fits into a spotlight, with a monitor inside a patrol car.

Searching for Individuals: Thermal imaging devices are commonly deployed for search and rescue missions where fields and other terrain can be scanned quickly. Of particular value is the search of dense brush or wooded areas where conventional searches can be difficult. Similarly, imagers can be used to search dark buildings or other areas for suspects who are hiding or attempting to elude apprehension. The device can also pick up a heat signature on the ground where a suspect was previously hiding.

Imagers prevent officers from exposing themselves to dangers in searching such awkward places as under buildings or in crawl spaces or attics. Unlike when officers use a mirror and a flashlight, suspects remain unaware of officers’ exact location even after the officers determine the fugitives’ location.

Thermal imagers can also be used to scan driveways, parking lots, fields, and roadways for signatures of a hidden vehicle lost in a pursuit.

Evidence and Deterrence: Crime scene investigations are also aided by these systems in scanning for physical evidence. Imagers can detect disturbed surfaces for graves or other areas that have been dug up in an attempt to conceal bodies, evidence, and objects. The device can also scan roadways for tire tracks or other marks that are not visible to the naked eye.

Proactive imager surveillance enables officers to scan public parks, public streets, alleys and parking lots, public buildings, transportation corridors, and other areas where individuals do not have an expectation of privacy.

Marijuana Investigations: Indoor marijuana growing operations can also be uncovered by thermal imagers, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Kyllo v. United States that law enforcement officers must obtain a search warrant before examining a private dwelling with thermal imaging technology.3 An application for a search warrant for indoor marijuana cultivation can be supported by any of the following:

Information that the person residing at the suspected location has a past history of marijuana cultivation

Information that the suspects have purchased indoor lighting devices or other equipment or supplies necessary for indoor plant growth

Records of utility use that indicate unusually high consumption of power or water when compared to similar structures in the immediate area

Possession of electricity-generating equipment without an identifiable need or purpose

Information from local retail gas suppliers or welding supply outlets that suspects have purchased containers of carbon dioxide or other gases that have the effect of increasing plant growth, without another apparent reason for the need

Detection of the odor of marijuana or marijuana clippings in the immediate vicinity of the suspected dwelling

After obtaining a search warrant, officers can use thermal imaging technology to monitor the length of time that grow lights are in operation and then infer the age of the marijuana plants. In most jurisdictions, it is important to conduct the raid only after the plants reach maturity.

The trend over the last decade for outdoor marijuana growers has been to use smaller and well-concealed sites. Using a thermal imager from an aerial platform during daylight, officers can locate marijuana plants. It is common for these plants to be grown among weeds, tall grass, and tree saplings in an overgrown field. Imagers can pick out the marijuana plants because the ground around them is turned during planting and the vegetation around the immediate base of the plants is generally trimmed away to allow water and nutrients to penetrate the soil. The cleared ground cover and the turned soil cause the sun’s heat to be absorbed at a higher rate than the rest of the surrounding ground. This change in heat absorption causes the areas around the plants to emit much higher heat, which thermal imagers are designed to detect.

Criminal Investigations Records Systems

Newly available records systems designed to aid in criminal investigations extract relevant data from disparate records systems with the intent to match suspects to crimes in ways that otherwise would have never been identified. Partial names, monikers, physical descriptions, and vehicle descriptions are but some of the information that these systems pull out from other participating records systems to identify suspects.

Electronic White Boards

Many meetings use dry-erase boards to take notes, but to keep such notes for future reference, they must be copied. Electronic white boards scan notes kept on them and automate copying. These boards allow the production of multiple copies of information for field distribution as well as the downloading of information to a computer for analysis and/or storage.


Communication systems are critical equipment in the law enforcement profession. Tremendous advances in wireless and digital capabilities have made this tool more valuable than ever. Today officers can share pictures of suspects, criminal records, bulletins, fingerprints, blueprints, and surveillance video footage across thousands of miles in minutes or even seconds.

Among the many important issues of communication systems is the interoperability issue. Interoperability is the ability to share information in a secure, real-time environment. Of primary importance is that the systems and officers can actually talk to each other, regardless of the operating architecture. Several models currently exist that allow communications from different radio bandwidths to be synthesized into one system. This year, a new radio system is scheduled to be released that allows a single handheld radio to work on all radio frequencies.


Especially useful in an era when law enforcement agencies are concerned with the threat of terrorism, handheld laser spectroscopy devices are now available that can determine the chemical composition of a substance within seconds. If an officer needs to scan a suspicious powder, these devices will reveal the chemical makeup of that powder with 95 percent certainty.

Language Translators

Language barriers make it difficult to enforce the law. Translation services are available through the telephone and from local translators often affiliated with local colleges and universities, but these services are not the same as translation between an officer and a citizen on the spot. Today, handheld devices have speech recognition abilities. Developed for the U.S. military, these systems assist in communications through hundreds of preset law enforcement phrases loaded onto a device about the size of a television remote control. When officers need to communicate with someone who does not speak English, they simply determine the language needed and begin touching the phrases on the touch pad. Two-way translation is not that far away.

Also available are desktop systems that translate an officer’s speech into the desired language. Although this technology is not widely available now and the cost is high, within a few years the cost will come down. Another option is to use Internet translation services. Some sites offer limited free translations (such as; others are pay services that function similarly to telephone translation services, where an operator speaks the requested translated material.

Less-Lethal Technology

Unheard of a generation ago, lesslethal technologies are now available in a vast array of options. There is no reason why a modern law enforcement agency should not have several different types of less-lethal operating systems, such as electro-muscular disruption technology, specialty impact munitions, chemical agents, and projectile systems for chemical agents.

Diagramming Systems

Thanks to improvements in computer technology, crime scenes and collisions can now be diagrammed in a matter of minutes, as compared with hours just a few years ago. The systems that make this possible are highly accurate and easy to use, and they create extremely professional-looking images for use in court or for further analysis.

The high end of diagramming technology is the state-of-the-art forensic three-dimensional scanner that uses a high-speed laser and a built-in digital camera to photograph and measure rapidly a scene in the exact state in which the first responder secured it.

Crime Mapping

The ability to depict graphically where crime has occurred and to some extent predict future crime locations enables field commanders to direct patrols through intelligence-led policing. The days when officers patrolled random areas hoping to catch the bad guys are giving way to a new era in which agencies use crime maps of every patrol district to assign officers to patrols in a reasonable and logical manner.

Reducing Police Pursuits

New systems that integrate the ability to track a suspect vehicle through a Global Positioning System (GPS) device that attaches to the suspect vehicle are reducing the need for police pursuits. This technology enables officers to apprehend a dangerous suspect at a later date when the safety of the community can be maximized.

Cameras for K-9 Units

In the near future, agencies will be able to equip their K-9 units with cameras and two-way radio systems that will allow a K-9 handler to stay a safe distance from a dangerous event while at the same time providing command and control of a police dog. This technology will be useful for search-and-rescue operations as well as dangerous-building searches. Testing of a prototype system is supposed to begin this year.

Automatic License Plate Recognition

Technology now enables officers to check thousands of license plates per shift to determine if vehicles are stolen, if registered owners are wanted, or if there are restraints on registered owners’ driver’s licenses. The automatic license plate recognition (ALPR) system is an integrated camera-database technology. The system takes a picture of the car license plate and then processes the numbers and letters using optical character recognition software against a known database. Suspected “hits” are relayed to users either visually or verbally.

This technology can be deployed in a fixed position or as a mobile system. Mobile ALPR systems can be mounted in patrol vehicles and used while moving. Mobile systems are often used in vehicle theft interdiction, but as more databases are connected through ALPR systems, the data available from the systems will expand to include more information on vehicles and their owners.

Global Positioning System

GPS technology allows dispatch centers to know what patrol units are closest to respond to an emergency. Low-cost applications include equipping detective cars with portable units for improved efficiency.4


The technologies listed in this article are but a few of the current generation of technologies with which today’s executives should be familiar. Because these technologies are changing the way police operate, many chiefs are changing their purchasing priorities as well, dedicating funds either from grants or from their operating budgets to keep their agencies technologically up to date. All police chiefs are encouraged to stay current in the field of emerging technology, because these technologies are not for the next generation—they are for this one. The future is

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