2001 — the year in review:
Giant techno leaps in small packages
As if making up for lost time, law enforcement agencies last year took one giant step forward by outfitting officers and their vehicles with the latest high-tech computer equipment applicable to police needs. These included palm-sized computers, a laser gun that can disable a runaway car, and software linking officers to an expanded array of criminal justice and other data bases.
Police departments in New York City, Charleston, S.C., and Franklin County, Ohio, were among those that have begun testing Palm Pilot-style minicomputers. New York was the first in the nation to have its officers use the devices during routine street patrol. Worn on gun belts, the tiny keyboards can be used to input license numbers, names and other data. Their effectiveness was validated when officers confronted a man drinking beer on a Harlem stoop and found after entering his name that he was wanted for a triple homicide in St. Louis.
Detectives in Franklin County were able to access a wireless modem through their minicomputers that linked them to the state Law Enforcement Automated Data System and the National Crime Information Center. In Charleston, 25 palm devices were handed out to traffic officers last year as part of a 60-day trial.
A new device unveiled at a police conference, called HALT 2000, for High-speed Avoidance Using Laser Technology, caught the attention of an Atlanta City Councilman in April. The device allows police to disable cars with a laser gun. The only caveat is that the vehicle would have to have a corresponding laser chip installed. When activated, the laser causes a computer chip to reduce the car’s speed to 15 miles per hour and chokes off the fuel. The car’s power steering and brakes would remain active so that the driver could come to a controlled stop. The product’s creator, Charles Gabbard, said that he was lobbying the California Legislature to require automakers to install the chip. Councilman C.T. Martin said he wanted local police to investigate ways to avoid high-speed chases in the aftermath of a pursuit that left a 32-year-old father of three dead.
In a number of jurisdictions, funds were allocated for the upgrading of systems that would link public safety agencies to a variety of databases.
In Multnomah County, Ore., and the city of Portland, a $4-million grant and matching funds were earmarked in January for the installation of a new touch computer systems in municipal police cars. The system will allow officers to access information including drivers’ names, registrations and addresses using fewer keystrokes. Police will eventually be able to use it to pull up mug shots and file reports electronically.
A $700,000 overhaul of computer systems in the Dubuque Law Enforcement Center began coming online in October. The upgrade of software, hardware, modules and training will replace the separate systems of the Dubuque Police Department, 911 dispatch, jail and sheriff’s offices. A new interface will allow officers to communicate with dispatchers via vehicle laptops.
In Amherst, N.Y., a $135,000 grant will purchase 15 new cruiser laptops, but will be put mainly towards developing software that will link local police agencies with crime records at Erie County Central Police Services. Officers will be able to access mug shots, outstanding warrants and criminal histories.
Elsewhere around the country, law enforcement agencies were taking advantage of new technology that saved officers valuable time.
New York State troopers and local police in Warren County were equipped last year with wand-like devices that can read bar codes off of registration stickers and computers that can generate and print tickets, transferring the summons data electronically to a court and the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
The Roanoke, Va., Police Department said in May it would be getting a new computer that would allow it to link pictures of missing children to a national data base. The system is part of a program called the “Amber alert” designed to notify the public quickly in the case of a child abduction.
Seventy Cedar Rapids, Iowa patrol vehicles were outfitted in May with mobile global positioning system units.
The Hinesburg, Vt., Police Department launched an e-mail bulletin program in February that gets the word out to residents about robberies and other crimes committed in the community.
Investigators in San Francisco got a match to an unsolved hit-and-run in October after entering just four palm prints into the police department’s new $2.5-million palm-print data base. The data base, called the Palmprint AFIS, has 400,000 entries and is now the largest in the country. It is also the first to be developed by a major-city department. In Dayton, Ohio, police in March arrested a 17-year-old Harrison Township boy, Andre Reine, for home invasion based on palm prints found at the scene. The data base used by the agency and the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office holds 120,000 entries. Reine was one of 96 suspects identified by the Miami Valley Regional Crime Lab since 2000, according to officials.
Other advances in crime-scene forensics this year included:
The FBI and Scotland Yard are said to be reviewing a new fingerprint-lifting method developed by a former crime scene investigator for the Manatee County, Fla., sheriff’s department. Pro-Lift, created by Mike Massimo, contains a sticky piece of laminate over a pre-cut 4 x 2-inch card. Investigators peel the layer off, smooth it over an area dusted with carbon, and stick the sheet back on the card. “Officers who haven’t been in this business long just can’t appreciate how much easier it is to lift fingerprints,” said Officer Jason Joel of the Palmetto Police Department. Massino received his first patent approval last April.
Britain’s Forensic Science Service said in February that a hand-held DNA testing kit that could be operated by a patrol officer is just a few years away from being developed. Samples collected at the crime scene could be analyzed nearly instantaneously, they said.
There were advances on the tactical front as well, as more police departments last year upgraded or expanded their arsenals of nonlethal weapons:
The New York City Police Department tried out the PepperBall Launcher, a device that does not require an officer to actually hit the subject with the plastic ball filled with pepper dust. Simply hitting around the area will release a cloud of the substance. The weapon will only be used on emotionally disturbed people, said Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik.
The Omaha Police Department purchased 19 PepperBall Launchers for $20,000 last year. The money came from seized drug assets.
Some $5,268 was added to the Cromwell, Conn., Police Department budget in March by Chief Anthony Salvatore to pay for six Taser stun guns, enough to equip the maximum number of officers on any shift.
One hundred Tasers were purchased by the Oklahoma City Police Department in June.