Sunday, April 18, 2004

Police reach for the skies in tech wave


Satellite trackers join crime-busting arsenal

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Police officers in Springfield Township couldn't see the bank robbery suspects Monday morning, but they knew exactly where they were.

They tracked the getaway car as it slowed down and sped up, when it turned onto another street, and officers could see where police cruisers could intercept it. Within minutes of the robbery, they arrested all three suspects.

The officers' secret weapon: A Global Positioning System satellite that locked on to a beacon in the suspects' bag of money.

The chase was not only a victory for the pursuing officers, but also proof of how high-tech gadgetry is changing the way police do their jobs.

From Tasers that zap criminals with 50,000 volts of electricity to thermal imaging cameras that detect the body heat of fleeing suspects, police are arming themselves with tools once found only in the military or in James Bond movies.

"Technology has been huge for us," said Cincinnati Police spokesman Kurt Byrd. "All the way around, it has made a big difference."

Byrd said advances in technology have made officers safer and more efficient, giving them almost constant access to radios, computers, cell phones and other equipment that helps them with their daily work.

But the brave new world of law enforcement also has created some new problems.

Financially strapped police departments are struggling to keep up with criminals who sometimes use the same technology. And courts are trying to set constitutional limits on how police can use technology that gives them unprecedented access to personal information.

Military trickle-down

Those concerns, though, have done little to slow the pace of technological advances or to discourage police from acquiring new equipment.

Some of the greatest advances have come in the past few decades, as military know-how has trickled down to local law enforcement.

"In the military setting, you often have the kind of need and resources to develop technology that we'd never develop for police departments," said Randall Guynes, a research associate for the non-profit Institute for Law and Justice in Virginia. "We don't have the time or money."

The Global Positioning System (GPS) used last week to catch a suspected bank robber in Springfield Township is a case in point. Originally developed for use in missile guidance systems, GPS gave officers up-to-the-second reports on the getaway car's location.

That's a far cry from the way the chase would have played out a few decades ago, before police cruisers were equipped with car radios, let alone GPS systems.

Back then, police would have had to get out of their cars to use call boxes to check in with the station. And if they got into trouble, the only ways they could call for help would be to shout or bang their nightsticks on the pavement.

"The nightsticks made a distinctive sound," Byrd said. "And officers came looking for you."

Now, police are equipped with personal radios, car radios and mobile data terminals that give them access to a nationwide database of criminal records.

More change is on the way. In the coming years, Guynes said, officers will be issued "wearable computers" that offer the power of a personal computer in a compact, voice-activated device they can wear on their uniform.

Other advances include electromagnetic scanning equipment that can detect a firearm in a crowd, and facial recognition scans that can tell authorities if a person caught on film is wanted in a crime.

But the technology is expensive - Cincinnati Police recently paid $799 apiece to equip every officer with a Taser stun gun - and it could be years before the most advanced gear is in regular use.

And as impressive as some of the equipment is, it is not the exclusive domain of law enforcement.

"The bad guys are able to communicate and hide because of technology and the good guys are able to detect and ferret out because of technology," said Harold J. Krent, dean of Chicago-Kent College of Law.

"There's always adaptations by wrongdoers and by law enforcement."

Big boon or Big Brother?

While the technological arms race grows, concern about its impact on the privacy of average citizens also is on the rise.

Lawmakers and courts have wrestled for years with the constitutional implications of technology that allows police to eavesdrop on conversations, to read private e-mails and to monitor keystrokes on a computer. The debate has intensified as technology has advanced.

A Mob suspect in New Jersey recently claimed the FBI violated his rights when agents used a keyboard monitor to access his password and decrypt records. And the U.S. Supreme Court ruled three years ago that police violated a drug suspect's rights when they used thermal imaging to detect heat in his house from lamps used to grow marijuana.

One of the most intense debates is over the FBI's powerful e-mail monitoring system, known as Carnivore.

The system allows the FBI to access e-mails that include key words or phrases, such as "bomb" and "bin Laden."

Krent, who served on the government committee that advised the FBI on Carnivore, said such a search may seem at first like a reasonable idea but it is actually so broad it would be ineffective and inappropriate. He said the search would expose thousands of personal e-mails to FBI scrutiny and would subject thousands of innocent people to continued monitoring simply because they got caught discussing current events.

"It's appropriate for law enforcement to continue investing in and developing new technology," Krent said. "But innocent people can be caught in the web."

He said technology like Carnivore has its place if it is properly used. But even when that happens, new technology can lead to some unintended consequences.

Records from GPS systems in cars, for example, have been used in civil court cases to show that someone wasn't where they claimed to be. Krent said divorce attorneys have used GPS records to catch cheating husbands.

"Do you really want all these other people - businesses, employers, insurance companies, spouses - to have so much information about you?" Krent said. "Even if you don't have anything to hide, the answer is usually no."




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