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Clever Technology That’s Helping Solve Crimes


Procedural crime dramas like CSI and NCIS have us convinced hackers are on staff at most law enforcement agencies and ballistic experts look like models. Movies franchises like James Bond and Mission: Impossible have left us salivating for new technology. While some of these story elements are far-fetched there are technological advancements helping to solve crimes. But is there room for James Bond style tech in local law enforcement? 

There are a few dilemmas about introducing advanced technology into local law enforcement. The first is who is flipping the bill? Many of these technological advancements can be quite expensive. Does it come down to taxpayer money to introduce costly, yet cool, tech? Also, some of this technology can cause concerns for the privacy, safety, and overall well-being of by-standers. What are the legal ramifications of GPS tracking darts? What are the potential side effects of scanners that detect gunshots? While there’s a ton of technical advancements on the horizon it may be awhile before they’re widely utilized. 

Here’s a list of some of the best and brightest technology that has helped solve crimes. 

NASA Rover Solves Cold Case

In 1991, Dawn Sanchez went missing after last being seen with her boyfriend, Bernardo Bass. After two attempts by law enforcement to charge Bass, insufficient evidence allowed her killer to walk free. A tip to local San Mateo law enforcement said evidence from her murder might be buried in a vacant lot of the small California town of Alviso. Searching the entire area would have been too expensive. But luckily the NASA Payload Directed Flight research team working with the US Geological Survey offered their services. Using magnetic surveys of the lot collected by a NASA Rover outfitted with magnetic and ground-penetrating radar sensors, they found the evidence. Car parts matching Bass’s 1979 Pontiac Grand Prix provided evidence to convict him of manslaughter. 

Social Media Solving Crimes 

You may not want to imagine beat cops scrolling through Instagram or starting verbal battles on Twitter. But, the popularity of social media has changed the way law enforcement investigates. In Bradley v. State, an armed robbery victim identified his attackers using Facebook photos.  These photos served as evidence and were used in a lineup so the victim could identify the assailants.  A member of the Texas appellate court said: “Vast online photo databases [like Facebook photos used in the trial] and relatively easy access to them will undoubtedly play an ever-increasing role in identifying and prosecuting suspects.”

It’s not just photos. Social media conversations are public so some deep diving can reveal wrongdoing. Members of the hacktivist group “Anonymous” were using Twitter to communicate with one another and coordinate attacks. Law enforcement was able to monitor Twitter and connect the dots and place those criminals under arrest. 

A Plate of Faro

Farro is an Italian wheat dish. Faro is a city in Portugal. And FARO is a focus laser 3-dimensional scanner that maps out the details of a crime scene. It can take investigators days to process a crime scene. In tagging and collecting evidence at a crime scene, investigators can interfere with evidence which can throw off a case or conviction. Using the FARO, they can process a crime scene in hours. A two-dimensional model of the crime scene is available with little to no interference. Colorado’s Arvada Police Department began testing the FARO in 2013. Detective Matt Archuleta, who has been training law enforcement in FARO, says, “Crimes are always flowing and to understand how people move in a space and the sequence that occurred could help solve a crime.” Using FARO, the Arvada Police were able to find evidence to indict two caretakers for a fire that killed three people, including a 4-year-old child. Their cigarettes caused the fire. Imagine how easy it is to lose cigarette butts when you have multiple investigators walking through a crime scene.

Game of Throwbots 

Walking into a crime scene can be dangerous. But what if you could just throw a robot instead? The Recon Throwbot is an affordable robot with a camera that can be tossed into active crime scenes. Police can toss these portable devices to explore remote areas from a safe distance. Sometimes police send dogs into dangerous areas or to scout for bombs. But as Sgt. Carter Staaf of the Eden Prairie Minnesota Police Department so eloquently puts it, “That’s a $20,000 dog and there’s an emotional attachment to it if something happens to it.” Staaf says, “There’s zero emotional attachment if something happens to the robotic camera. If it gets shot, picked up or smashed by an assailant, then at least you know that the bad guy is there.” It begs the question, will they release Rock’em Sock’em Throwbots anytime soon?

GPS Darts Shot From Police Cars

This is right out of a James Bond film. The StarChase Pursuit Management System shoots out a GPS tracking dart that adheres to vehicles during car chases. Now police officers can live their secret agent fantasy, by actually shooting tracking devices during high-speed chases. This technology can reduce damage and dangers caused by chases. Police can safely shoot the dart while driving and keep a safe distance to follow up later. Also, the GPS tracking of officers can aid with dispatch. From a legal perspective, United States v. Jones, declared it is illegal for the government to attach a GPS device to someone’s vehicle for long-term tracking without a search warrant. But this technology can still allow for quick resolutions to dangerous chases. 

ShotSpotter is a Shot Caller

ShotSpotter is a gunshot detection system. Carefully placed electronic sensors installed throughout a neighborhood help pinpoint the sources of gunfire. The Nassau County Police Department, based in Mineola, New York, has been using the service. ShotSpotter offers subscription-based hosting services, ranging from $40,000 to $60,000 per square mile per year. The information is available to officers on their computers so they can track gunshots while out in the field. The system helped the police department stop a potential gang war. Deputy Commissioner William Flanagan shares that the system combined with his team’s efforts has decreased gunshots in the area. He says, “In 2010, the system recorded 337 gunshot incidents. In 2011, the number of incidents had fallen to 77, an almost 80% decrease.” Clearly, it is safer when ShotSpotter is calling the shots. 

Playing Cards

This next case isn’t exactly high-tech but deserves points for creativity. 

Cold Case Homicide Playing Cards, introduced to Florida jails in 2007, have actually helped solve a few cases. Gretl Plessinger, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said, “We have two murder investigations that have been solved as a result of tips we received from Florida inmates. It’s kind of like interviewing 93,000 inmates for new leads and it has worked wonders.” Thomas Wayne Grammer was a murder victim and the details of his 2004 murder was used on the 3 of Spades. A tip from an inmate lead to the indictment of two men for his murder. 

These are just a few of the technological advancements changing law enforcement. While they aren’t everywhere they are helping shape the future of crime-stopping. Plus, there’s no telling what changes the future may bring. How long before we have robotic officers? And then our inevitably Terminator-style war with machines? Either way, it’s clear that even your local beat cop can use a little secret agent tech to help make your neighborhood a safer place.

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