Police Technology

black Image of scales on white background with the words, "calibrate the scales" overlaid. As with any set of scales, the scales of justice must, from time to time, be recalibrated. Total balance is never achieved, but all in the criminal justice and legal systems must strive for it as much as possible.

By C. J. Oakes

Technology has played a key role in policing almost from the start. The apprehension of criminals has always been a core element of criminal justice organizations. The ability of police in criminal apprehension is changes almost daily with the introduction of new technology. Yet, technology is never without its drawbacks. Police will always be faced with the need to acquire useful technology in their line of work while adapting to the challenges posed both by the tech itself and society.

The Future of Criminal Apprehension and Fingerprinting

One of the earliest methods for collecting data to be used in apprehending suspected criminals has been the use of fingerprints as unique identifiers.  Fingerprinting is among the earliest technological advances police detectives had to understand and learn to properly use. In recent years however, researchers and inventors have taken this concept to levels previously reserved for science fiction.  Because of Automatic Fingerprint Identification Scans (AFIS), DNA typing, Iris scans, and Facial Recognition software, criminal identification and apprehension are becoming highly technical and accurate.  An examination of a couple of these systems will demonstrate this point.

AFIS – Automated Fingerprint Identification System

“The use of technology in human expert domains: challenges and risks arising from the use of automated fingerprint identification systems in forensic science” (Dror & Mnookin, 2010, 1);

“AFIS is a technology that pays off” (Orleans City Business, 1999, 1)

“Research and Markets: Global Biometric Forecast to 2012 – One of the Fastest Emerging Markets As Governments Adopt Biometric Technologies to Strengthen National Security” (Business Wire, 2011, 1).

These are just a few of the headlines that both sensationalize new police technology but still present a true impression of fingerprints today.  The truth is AFIS is excellent technology, but remains just that:  A nonhuman (machine) performing a human function.

English: Fingerprint
English: Fingerprint (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is how AFIS works.  According to NEC Corporation, one of the leading suppliers of the emerging technology, the system increases

  • the speed
  • accuracy, and
  • flexibility of fingerprint searches

This is in response to increasing demand for such systems.  The NEC alone operates in over 30 countries (NEC, 2011).  King County Sheriff’s Department in Seattle, Washington uses a combination of both AFIS and Livescan.

Prior to AFIS technology, fingerprint searches were restricted to days and weeks, known suspects only, and the physical tediousness of gaining the prints.  Today these processes are handled within seconds–make that milliseconds.

AFIS technology has improved communications between agencies worldwide.  If the prints are on file, the system will find them, quickly, when they need to be found.  However, there is another emerging system that has made headlines recently in relation to the social networking giant, Facebook.

Facial Recognition Software in Law Enforcement

Facial recognition software systems are not new.  Most current systems began as projects in the 1970s.  In 2011, riots broke out first in London and later spread to several other cities throughout the United Kingdom.  Police used images retrieved from various sources, especially local businesses and used the new systems to identify rioting and looting suspects (Rose, 2011).  Prior to this, researchers and police teamed up in Tampa, Florida to create a research city (Gates, 2010).  As of 2007, privacy advocates were questioning the legality of such systems (Harvard Law Review, 2007; Hill, 2011) and by 2011 the concerns appeared warranted when Facebook began to face serious problems related to the misuse of their facial recognition software by pedophiles (Albanesius, 2011).

Because of the legal and social ramifications regarding facial recognition software, privacy versus security systems, is certain to be a topic of much conversation, controversy, and research for years.  As for law enforcement, efforts to improve the systems above the already excellent results are underway (Security Director’s Report, 2011).

Disadvantages to Such Technology in Law Enforcement

Aside from the obvious privacy concerns, there are other disadvantages to consider.

English: Face recognition system processing fl...
English: Face recognition system processing flow Español: Proceso de un sistema de reconocimiento facial (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some simply do not want police agencies to have the power to randomly search for suspects in public whereas others do not understand the concern.  For instance, if Iris Scanning became the norm, some fear that society could become like something out of 1984 or Minority Report.  One recent article online offered its list of five places a person may be tracked by facial recognition systems (Business Insider, 2011).  Heading the list was

  1. “on the streets,” but coming in second,  as could be expected was
  2. at the DMV; closing out the list comes
  3. casinos,
  4. Kraft, and Adidas stores, a strange enough combination, and naturally,
  5. bars.

Then remember the concerns in the 1980s with the Japanese beating America in everything from textiles to automobiles; the entire nation of Japan is wired and surveyed.  Once again Japan is beating America in something, but this time it may not be something Americans would care to reach for.

Only time and experience will ever resolve the debate over liberty versus security.  America’s founding fathers held opposing views on the subject, though some were more honest than others. American’s today are no less divided over the issue of liberty versus security.

New Technology always yields serious concerns and fears.  Never forget however, that there is always another side to every coin.

Advantages of Technology in Law Enforcement

AFIS makes the jobs of investigators easier; this yields safer neighborhoods at lower costs to the public.  Facial Recognition allows police agents the ability to apprehend fugitives with minimal disruption to society.  With such advantages, it is difficult to imagine that any population would want to be without AFIS technology.

Still, there are those who believe that the disadvantages trump the advantages, if advantages exist.  There is an understood skepticism from this camp.  They have heard the stories about how we must make Washington better, or listen, or whatever.  Some people simply need stronger evidence to turn their opinion.

Do Not Try This At Home

The big lesson we arrive at from the recent blow regarding Facebook is that anyone can know anything about anyone or anything at any time if one knows where to look and how to enter to technology portal to the information.  Did you get all that?  The point is that we have become so transparent, it is becoming difficult to even see the line, much less know if we have crossed it.  My apologies for crossing the invisible line dividing third-person writing and first-person, but I did it for a reason.  Can you see from this exercise how easy it is to blur the line between what is right and what is clearly wrong?

For this reason, it would be wise for society to avoid doing anything that might cross this line.  The tools at the disposal of society are better than ever in written history.  If society does not squander these tools but keep them safe, such technology will be useful for many generations.  If not, they are sure to become obsolete soon anyway. In other words, if we abuse technology, we lose it, but if law enforcement uses technology responsibly, that technology will remain in use.

A good example of this is the Lie Detector test. In the 1970s, the Lie Detector test technology was often abused. Many false positives were recorded with overly-agressive investigators and prosecutors running hard with a prosecution based entirely on that evidence, despite any conflicting evidence collected. As a result, Supreme Court rulings were eventually delivered banning the use of Lie Detector technology in the courtroom without very special circumstances. During the 1990s, some were concerned that DNA technology would follow the same path, but thus far, that has not been the case.


The technology available to criminal justice system professionals today vastly outstrip earlier technologies.  Technology has the potential to greatly enhance the future of criminal apprehension. Police can retrieve information on suspects and situations within seconds, not hours or days.  In most crimes, the sooner the correct suspect is identified, the sooner that citizen can be removed from the streets to stand trial.  This is generally considered a good thing to do, so given the ability of new technology to accomplish these goals, expect to see further advancements in these fields. The only caveat is that as criminal justice system professionals continue to use advanced technology to solve crimes and prosecute offenders, care must be taken to not become overly dependent on technology. As one police detective put it,

“Nothing takes the place of good old fashioned police work.”

In this set of pages, we will consider the role of technology in law enforcement. From identification systems to communications to transportation, weaponry, and apprehension, police around the world must grapple with new technologies as they are made available.

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  • AFIS is a technology that pays off. (6/14/99). New Orleans City Business, 19(50), 36.
  • Albanesius, C. (2011, July). Privacy Groups Request FTC Probe of Facebook Facial Recognition Tech. PC Magazine, 30(7), 1-1.
  • Not Dead Yet? Maybe Face Recognition Just Needs Re-Purposing. (2011 June). Security Directors Report, 11(6), 2-5.
  • Rose, B. (8/15/2011). Police Used Facial Recognition Software to ID Suspects in UK Riots. Retrieved from http://Gizmodo.com
  • Business Insider. (Sept. 3, 2011). Here are 5 places where you can be identified with Facial Recognition Software. Retrieved from http://articles.businessinsider.com/2011-09-03/tech/30128944_1_iphone-app-facial-recognition-dmv-branches
  • Business Wire. (3/15/2011). Research and Markets: Global Biometric Forecast to 2012 – One of the FAstest Emerging Markets As Governments Adopt Biometric Technologies to Strengthen National Security. Retrieved from http://researchandmarkets.com/research/21c351/global
  • Dror, I., & Mnookin, J. (2010, April). The use of technology in human expert domains: challenges and risks arising from the use of automated fingerprint identification systems in forensic science. Probability & Risk, 9(1), 47-67.
  • Gates, K. (2010). The Tampa “Smart CCTV” Experiment. Journal of Current Cultural Research, 2(1), 67-89.
  • Hill, K. (Sept. 9, 2011). Hello Stranger. Forbes, 188(4), 50-54.
  • In the Face of Danger: Facial Recognition and the Limits of Privacy Law. (2007, May). Harvard Law Review, 120(7), 1870-1891.
  • King County Sheriff. (11/1/10). Retrieved from http://kingcounty.gov/safety/sheriff/Enforcement/AFIS/Technology.aspx
  • NEC Corporation. (2011). NEC Corporation Home. Retrieved from http://necam.com/ids/afis/

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