One device can immediately target the precise location of a gunshot on a city street. Another prevents a police officer's weapon from being fired by anyone other than the officer.
Then there's the hand-held electronic gizmo that can detect even tiny amounts of cocaine, heroin or gunpowder residue.These high-tech tools represent the dawn of a new world in fighting crime. Until now, most police in America have relied on equipment not much more advanced from the frontier era, according to National Institute of Justice official David Boyd.
"Today, police still have essentially the equipment Wyatt Earp had," Boyd told a conference on law enforcement technology this week.
But as the United States scales back its military spending, contractors are seeking other applications for the defense technology developed over the past several decades. The war on crime looks like their next logical market.
"With the drawdown of defense spending and a greatly enhanced focus on technology transfer by both the (Pentagon) and the intelligence community to pressing national social needs, we have an extraordinary window of opportunity to leapfrog law enforcement well into the 21st century," said Boyd, director of science and technology at the institute, a research division of the Justice Department.
Some of the new technology is in the first phase of development. Others still have major bugs to work out.
And a shortage of federal research money, as well as strapped police procurement budgets, mean it could be years, if ever, before the new tools appear on the street.
But Boyd, whose agency both conducts research and hands out federal grants, contends that investment in high-tech police equipment can bring enormous benefits.
"Technology can enhance productivity, extend budgets, limit the consequences of poor judgment (by officers), modernize the image and, most importantly, save lives," Boyd said.
Some of the technology in the works:
- The "Night Enforcer," a hand-held night vision viewer that allows an officer to watch suspicious activities or conduct surveillance in near-total darkness. The device was developed from equipment used for night operations during Operation Desert Storm.
- The "Modus Operandi Registrant Computer," a system that allows detectives to quickly retrieve case reports, photographs and sketches, as well as allow them to compare details of their case with others in a national database. This system is currently in use on an experimental basis at the San Jose, Calif., police department.
- The "Remote Consultation Information System," which uses a miniature TV camera to transmit pictures from an officer on the street back to his precinct, as well as a wristwatch monitor that can keep track of an officer's vital signs - and thus provide an indication if he or she is in trouble. The device also can use a satellite to beam the officer's precise location to supervisors.
- An acoustic sensing device, placed at every intersection in a crime-ridden section of town, that could immediately isolate the location of gunshots and allow officers to get to the scene more quickly. The system, which reportedly is unable to pick up speech, will be tested in a 10-block area of Washington, D.C.
- A flash generator that can be used to disorient an unruly subject by flashing light at high speeds. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is involved in its development. Another crowd control concept being developed is the use of low-frequency acoustical beams.
- A device using electromagnetic pulses that could distinguish a concealed weapon from other metal items on a person, such as belt buckles, keys and change.
- A "safe gun" that only the officer would be able to fire. As many as one in four of all police officers killed each year is shot with his own weapon. One idea being pursued is to have the gun owner wear a special ring that the gun must touch before it can fire.
- An air-bag similar to those in automobiles that could be used in the backseats of patrol cars to control violent or out of control suspects. The same concept could be adapted to jail cells as a means of quieting disturbances. For the unruly, "it's a lot like fighting with the bottom of a rubber raft," Boyd said.
- A sticky foam that entangles a subject in taffy-like layers and keeps him from moving. A dispenser for the foam, which is being developed by Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, will be available for testing in prisons this year. It also could be used to stop fleeing felons and help quell riots.
- A bubbly foam that similarly coats a subject, and also interferes with vision and hearing.