Next Generation Police Tools: NMA E-Newsletter #462

Traffic enforcement continues to go high tech beyond just the newest drone technology.

Here are three recent examples of how police are using federal and state funding – some from assets seized from citizenry – to patrol motorists.

Police Body Cameras

In late October, results from a large study on police body cameras was released with both police and researchers surprised by the results. For seven months, just over 1000 Washington, D.C. officers were randomly assigned body cameras and another 1000 were not. Researchers tracked both groups in various categories such as use-of-force, complaints filed, etc. to see if the body cameras changed officer behavior.

On every metric, the effects were too small to be statistically significant. Researchers David Yokum and Anita Ravishankar concluded, “These results suggest we should recalibrate our expectations of cameras to make a large-scale behavioral change in policing, particularly in contexts similar to Washington, D.C.”

Smaller studies have been conducted in the past and in those researchers came up with a different conclusion. Studies in California, Florida and elsewhere have found that the body cams have substantially reduced the use of force by police and departments saw less civilian complaints.

At least $40 million dollars has been spent by the federal government in grants to local police departments which then add local or state funds in the hopes the body cameras will help with department transparency and community policing efforts.

The biggest cost of body cameras though is data storage. In Washington, D.C., officers collect 1000 hours of footage per day with 40 percent of it deleted within 90 days. The rest of the footage is kept depending on the crime’s statute of limitations. Departments, obviously need to hire additional personnel to handle the volume of footage.

Despite the results of the study, Metro (D.C.) Police Chief Peter Newsham said, “I am a little concerned that people might misconstrue the information (of this study) and suggest that the body-worn cameras have no value. I don’t think that this study suggests that at all.”

Portable Breath Tests

Indiana recently announced that over 1,700 next generation portable breath test devices have been purchased and will be delivered to 150 law enforcement agencies across the state. For example, 28 police departments in Northwest Indiana will receive 346 of these quick test devices. City of Dyer Police Chief Dave Hein said his department will receive 20 devices which enables each of his 20 officers to use one every time on patrol.

The Indiana Criminal Justice Institute funded the $700,000 worth of devices through a grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Apparently, this is a probable cause tool—the device will be deployed by an officer when he or she thinks alcohol might be involved and then the accused can be hauled to the police station or hospital to make absolutely sure the driver is DUI. If used after a field sobriety test, the results of these quick tests can also be used in court. This next generation device allows officers to text vapors of a liquid to determine if they are alcoholic or not.

Portable X-Ray Scanners

Nebraska law enforcement now has use of portable x-ray scanners that can give officers an easier chance at spotting large amounts of cash or drugs during traffic stops or checkpoints/roadblocks. Seward County Sheriff’s Department Sergeant Michael Vance said that the scanner has saved his department time and helped officers avoid tearing cars apart in search of contraband that is not there.

Lancaster County Sheriff’s Sergeant Jason Mayo added, “You don’t want to do something that goes too far, and you want to be sure about what you’re doing.” Mayo also said that bad searches can wreck cars and could put the county on the hook for tort claims.

Both Sergeants have strict instructions for use of the x-ray scanner:

  • Must have consent to search the vehicle or
  • Probable cause to search the vehicle from a drug dog alert.

The scanner for the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office cost $42,000 and was paid for by the department’s take in civil asset forfeiture funds.

Police departments across the country are using new tools every day. Perhaps the more important but certainly less media-friendly tool that police need is ongoing training in situational de-escalation, unbiased policing, mental health intervention measures and ongoing officer/citizen safety.

On-going training and the purchase tools come out of different funding pots. Unfortunately, it is difficult to ascertain the ratio between tech and training funding and how departments plan for both.

As enforcement technologies such as these continue to advance and be deployed, it is clear that protections of citizen’s rights must progress in kind.


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