November 8, 2007 By Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor
"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.
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.
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
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