Inspector Gadget

A Los Angeles County Sheriff's program serves as a gateway for technology of the future.

by / November 8, 2007

"The Earth curves at 6.5 feet per mile," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's (LASD) Commander Sid Heal when showcasing one of the many new technologies he introduces to law enforcement agencies worldwide. Heal logs many hours on the road demonstrating such technologies and spitting out that seemingly atypical sheriff speak.

As the point man for the Technology Exploration Program (TEP), Heal is clearly enamored by his job, which lets him showcase new technologies to law enforcement agencies worldwide. TEP is a test bed for new and developing technologies with the potential to alter how law enforcement does its job.

"Some things you find will make what you do better," he said. "Some things will make what you do obsolete."

Consider the Magnetic Acoustic Device, a loudspeaker on steroids -- and more.  Heal calls it a noncollaboration communication system, because you can broadcast a voice message up to 1,000 feet, then flip a switch and hear -- from that far away -- a voice response from someone stranded in the wilderness, trapped in a collapsed building or who is otherwise lost.

"It replaces conventional hailing devices like bullhorns," Heal said.

It can also artificially re-create and broadcast creepy sounds like fingers on a chalkboard in superloud frequencies, which could, theoretically, be used to flush perpetrators out of hiding by driving them, well ... mad.

New Phenomenon
Making technology available to officers is a relatively new phenomenon, which the events of 9/11 made more feasible, because after the World Trade Center attacks, law enforcement's obligations grew to include homeland security concerns.

Those particular concerns brought attention to local law enforcement agencies and their need for additional tools to fight crime and terrorism. This opened the door for the federal government and private vendors to consider the nation's law enforcement agencies as viable customers.

Still, it's difficult for defense contractors to market technologies to local law enforcement because the market is fragmented, Heal said. "There are 17,800 local law enforcement agencies, and 50 percent of them have fewer than 24 employees. Defense contractors don't want to deal with selling one item 1,000 times."

For that reason, the best options for local law enforcement aren't giant IT firms, but smaller vendors who put their heart and soul -- and wallets -- into their projects.

The LASD encourages small vendors to test their prized technologies with TEP for possible future use by law enforcement. Hundreds of technologies pass through TEP and most are rejected, Heal said. "When they bring it to us, we expose it. We get in early and make sure it's viable before they market it," he said, adding that, "You can't spend money just on what's available -- it has to be good."

That's important, Heal said, because if a vendor rushes a technology to market and it's flawed, it's likely to stay flawed and never be of value to law enforcement. "They're not going to be willing to change it if it doesn't work," he said.

Sleeper Technology
Some of the technologies with the best chance to be developed for law enforcement use are those that detect contraband, stop fleeing vehicles and help officers intervene with less lethal force. Products that combine multiple technologies also may have potential. One such device is the Cobra StunLight, a flashlight that also shoots a stream of pepper spray. "This one is a sleeper," Heal said.

LASD deputies test the new gadgets in the field under live conditions, and file real-time reports on the results. Heal can view information on how new technologies are performing without paging through a stack of reports. "Everything we do is paperless," he said.

Heal is quick to point out that deploying technology without adopting corresponding procedures on how

to use it is a waste of time. "You have to focus on function, not technology," he said. "You can get wrapped around an axle if you're focused on the technology. We have to have the mindset that we won't have the technology, so we have to adopt procedures. Technology is always in a supporting role."

That's partly because there isn't much money for experimental technology in the law enforcement realm, and there's the danger of investing in a technology that will be obsolete soon after it hits the field. "You have to be careful you're not trying to solve yesterday's crime," Heal said.

For instance, trends in criminal behavior point to less street crime because people are carrying less cash. "You need to focus on what the future is going to look like."

Boxers or Briefs?
Ancillary policy issues, as Heal calls them, can also play a role in whether a technology is marketed. One of those is privacy. For example, 3-D scanners would let prison officials detect contraband on inmates and visitors, but is it too intrusive?

"It shows everything," Heal said. "Is it too revealing? Is it a search? Developers worry about that."

There are many obstacles to clear before new technology gets deployed. "For every gateway to the future," he said, "there are a thousand guardians of the past."

Hundreds of technologies keep Heal and his staff busy tinkering and collaborating with law enforcement worldwide on what works and what doesn't, some of which we've featured. Though the odds are long, one of these technologies might just make a current tool go the way of the dinosaur.

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor