Contemporary innovations in policing

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Technology has revolutionized many aspects of our society – including the way the law is enforced.


Police officers today have a variety of technological tools available to them that their predecessors may never have dreamed of.

As Chuck Wexler wrote in the introduction to a report by the Police Executive Research Forum, “I don’t think I’m guilty of overstatement in saying that policing in the United States has undergone a fundamental transformation in just the last 30 or 40 years. Policing today bears very little resemblance to the policing of the 1970s. For those of us who have been watching this happen day by day, the differences are simply stunning.”

To succeed today, law enforcement professionals, as well as criminal justice students, need to understand the advancements of tomorrow.

To start, take a look at several important modern innovations in policing that are changing – and will continue to change – the shape of law enforcement in the U.S.:

Location-responsive apps

The combination of GPS capability and internet-provided data has transformed how people drive across the city, search for a new restaurant to eat or plan a road trip. By looking at a map on their smartphones or mobile devices, individuals can also view ratings on a nearby eatery or check out what landmarks are in the vicinity.

However, map-based apps aren’t ┬ájust for an evening out – they’re also being used in dynamic new ways to help improve police officers’ situational awareness, according to GovTech. While police patrol the streets, this mobile app tips them off to the locations of nearby criminals.

“Officers can drive down the street, and have a smartphone or a tablet device, and have the map app open,” said David Roberts, senior program manager for the technology center at the International Association of Chiefs of Police, in an interview with the site. “The app can tell them the addresses of a person wanted for a crime, known incidents of felonies in the area, someone who is a registered sex offender. It provides situational awareness that is integrated with records management and emergency call systems.”

By bringing together detailed digital information and analytics data with advanced GPS tracking technology and real-time updates, law enforcement officers can improve their crime-mapping efforts.

With a more intensive picture of crime patterns in their communities, departments can design more strategic patrol routes and potentially respond to and even anticipate crime more effectively.

Facial recognition technology

Advanced camera and sensor technology is now available that can support police officers in their investigations. As PoliceOne explained, facial recognition technology works by identifying the detailed facial measurements of an individual, capturing details in just a fraction of a second. Then, this information is compared to other scanned facial data in a database to check for matches.

Facial recognition is still a young technology, and there is much conversation about its use, not just in a policing setting, but in other environments as well – retail stores, amusements parks, city streets, etc. As the use, ethics and applications of the tool are still being further developed, not all departments currently use facial recognition technology. A report published in April by the Center for Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law found that “police departments in nearly half the states can use facial-recognition software to compare surveillance images with databases of ID photos of mugshots.”

However, as the technology advances, becomes less of a cost-barrier and is subject to more uniform regulation, its use is likely to grow in the criminal justice field.

Wireless video streaming

A major factor in the success of criminal investigations or response action is speed. If an officer is on patrol who responds to a crime needs to call for backup, just a few seconds’ delay can make a huge difference in outcome. Now that advances in wireless broadband capacity, WiFi coverage and data streaming have been made, communicating details – and videos – about crime can happen faster than ever before.

There are many uses for wireless video streaming in policing, as the Executive Police Research Forum report noted. In a survey, PERF found that 46 percent of agencies said they use wireless video streaming in some capacity.

As for the reasons, these were:

  • 26 percent use it for investigative purposes.

  • 23 percent use it during traffic stops.

  • 23 percent use it to stream video from surveillance cameras to police vehicles.

  • 21 percent use it to help ensure officer safety.

  • 19 percent use it in responding to calls for service.

  • 16 percent use it to provide officer accountability.

  • 11 percent used it for other reasons, including to monitor event crowds or remotely located critical infrastructure, or for use in robotic cameras in bombing or hostage situations.

By increasing visibility, video streaming can help protect lives by improving and increasing the speed of communication between officers, departments and other involved agencies, and in turn, quickening response times.

To accompany the growing use of video streaming in policing, many industry experts are calling for a nationwide broadband network – called the “D-block spectrum” – that would offer the breadth and speed needed to support a high volume of video streaming activity, the PERF noted, as commercials channels can be tied up with other users, especially during emergencies.

“We need to guarantee that we will be able to take advantage of all the new technology we have at our disposal when we need it most, and legislation allocating the D-block to public safety will provide us with the necessary resources for this task,” said Harlin McEwen, principal at the Public Safety Spectrum Trust, according to PERF.

Supported by a comprehensive broadband network, police could be able to expand their use of video streaming and discover additional important applications for such technology.

Be the future

These three innovations are already changing the way policing is done in the U.S. – and the potential is great for future improvement and further applications. With intuitive tools that support police activity, law enforcement officers can help protect and serve a more peaceful, safer society.

Any individual interested in beginning or advancing a career in criminal justice should be aware of the many technological changes affecting modern law enforcement. The Master of Science in Criminal Justice online degree program at the University of Cincinnati will expose students to the innovations and changes in the field.

Recommended Readings:

What a criminal justice degree from the University of Cincinnati can do for you

4 inventions that changed the face of criminal justice