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The constant quest for a technological edge

Submitted for your approval, as Rod Serling used to say:

Technology that can identify a person by the minute fluctuations and unique characteristics of his iris.

A device that can stop a speeding car by disabling its electrical system.

These and other advances that still sound like special effects from an Arnold Schwarzenegger film have arrived  not necessarily on our shores, however, and some not yet out of the pilot stage.

Still, police across the nation are taking part with increasing frequency in programs that will change the way speeders are caught, pursuits are conducted, and security and privacy issues are handled.

Some of the measures currently being tested or deployed were originally designed for the military and are now being reconfigured for civilian use. One such project would enable police officers to send out an electromagnetic pulse that disables a vehicle’s electronic systems. The engine shuts off, and the car coasts to a safe, controlled stop.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California announced in August that a $500,000 field test of the technology, which was developed during the Cold War, is being conducted by the Army and the National Institute of Justice.

If successful, the “car stoppers” device could end the high-speed chase as it is now known. Long a source of controversy and distress to police agencies, the hot pursuit has become increasingly regulated as to when it can be initiated. For instance, of the 1,237 chases reported by New Jersey law enforcement agencies to the State Attorney General’s office in 1995, 315 resulted in accidents that left 8 people dead and 243 injured.

Similar technology to that being tested by the Army is already being marketed, albeit at prices out of the reach of most law enforcement agencies.

For those who agencies that do pursue criminals at high speeds, they won’t be doing it much longer in the Ford Crown Victoria. The Crown Vic, a full-size, rear-wheel-drive vehicle beloved by law enforcement, is being put out to pasture by Ford. The general public, it appears, does not share the same feeling for the car. It will increasingly be replaced by the Chevy Lumina.

But don’t expect anything other than gasoline to be used in those cruisers. While police cars powered by compressed natural gas are being touted as the wave of the future, less than half a dozen agencies nationwide have opted to switch to the cheaper, cleaner-burning alternative fuel.

The Wixom, Mich., Police Department is the first police agency in the state to use CNG in its patrol vehicles, after three of the gas-powered cars were acquired at a cost of $24,000 each.

Despite minor problems, Chief Lawrence Holland said he is satisfied with the cars’ performance. The biggest concern is the number of times the car has to be refueled. “In the old days,” he said. “you might be able to go two shifts before having to fill it up. Now it must be filled up every shift.”

Even more innovations are on the way for the squad car. Dashboard video units are gaining popularity throughout the country, especially in Nebraska where several agencies have already installed the systems. In addition to aiding the prosecution of drunken-driving cases and other kinds of traffic stops, the devices are proving to be an excellent training tool. Some of the Lincoln Police Department’s in-car tapes have been edited into a 30-minute training presentation that will continually be updated.

During the 1996 fiscal year, 29 agencies were able to purchase 62 cameras with funds provided by the Nebraska Office of Highway Safety. Twenty in-car units were purchased for the Omaha Police Department with funds raised by a foundation set up in memory of James B. Wilson Jr., a young Omaha police officer shot to death during a traffic stop.

Of all the technological advances entering the law enforcement arena this year, the most unusual  or certainly the one that most recalls a science-fiction film  is the optical scanner. Used by banks in Japan, the high-tech device is still in the trial stage in this country, being used by only a handful of banks in the Midwest. The scanner matches the iris of a customer’s eye against a photo of it in a data base, rendering an identification that is faster and more accurate than fingerprinting. Of 1,995 subjects in one field test, the scanner missed just one: because the person was wearing dirty eyeglasses.

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Published in Law Enforcement News
Dec. 31, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.  [ Subscribe.]