Mobile Crime-fighters
By Joachim Bamrud, Thu Sep 06 00:00:00 GMT 2001

RoboCop-style applications are no longer science fiction, but part of human law enforcement

An infamous terrorist is apprehended in New York after a police officer wearing a wireless computer and camera matches his image with a national data bank. In Minnesota, police arrest a fugitive wanted for three murders after finger-printing him at an unrelated crime scene by using a mobile handheld device.

In California, undercover police are able to identify four stolen cars after discreetly running down their license plates and vehicle identification numbers through a Palm Vx. Meanwhile, Dallas police find a kidnapped child shortly after seeing her image on their Motorola pager.

No, these are not scenes from a science fiction movie, but examples of the latest technology being used to fight crime.

"Wireless technology and the use of it in the law enforcement and public safety arena is becoming an almost indispensable tool," says Harlin McEwen, a former deputy assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations who chairs the communications and technology committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "It's revolutionizing law enforcement, no question about it."

The RoboCop example described in the first scenario has been developed by New Jersey-based Visionics and Minnesota-based ViA Inc. Visionics, which specializes in biometrics, has developed a software that provides facial recognition, FaceIt. ViA specializes in wearable computers.

Through a camera linked to a wearable computer, a police officer can capture an image of an individual. That image is then sent wirelessly to a central database for a potential match.

The technology was recently tested by the U.S. Army Military Police (which used it for checkpoint operations at Fort Polk, Louisiana) and the U.S. Navy. "It's an exceptional law enforcement tool," said Henry Girolamo, who heads up the US Army MP's efforts to identify useful technology.

Mobile fingerprinting

Visionics is also behind IBIS, a mobile technology that enables officers to use a handheld device to fingerprint and photograph a suspect. The prints and/or photo are then sent wirelessly to the central IBIS server and from there to California-based Cogent Systems' Automated Palm & Fingerprint Identification System (APFIS) with data from the FBI or a state equivalent.

If the suspect has outstanding arrest warrants, the officer will immediately be notified. If there is no match, however, the prints and photo are deleted from the system.

The system will help reduce false arrests, improve response time, and eliminate the inconvenience of transporting suspects to the police station for fingerprinting, according to Chief Lloyd Scharf of the Ontario Police Department in California, which started using the system in June after testing it on a limited basis.

The ability of having fingerprint scanning in patrol cars was a goal for NCIC 2000, the FBI information system that in July 1999 replaced the National Crime Information Center's computer system that had been in place since 1967. But implementation has been limited so far, says McEwen, who was intimately involved in the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS).

"That hasn't been widely used [and the] reason is [that] technology for fingerprint scanners [hasn't been] well advanced," he says.

Another product, PocketBlue, lets police officers use wireless devices to access data from the NCIC, National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System and Department of Motor Vehicles. The product, developed by Maryland-based Aether Systems, can be used through Palm Vx handhelds, RIM's BlackBerry 950 and 957 pagers and Symbol's SPT 1733 handheld computer.

The advantage of the new product is that police are no longer confined to their patrol cars or headquarters and can access the data while patrolling on foot, bike or otherwise mobile.

Several police departments in the United States, including Lake County in Florida and Los Angeles County in California, are testing the technology. In the latter case, the auto theft task force (TRAP) is using Palm handhelds during stakeouts and when checking junkyards and auto repair yards for stolen cars.

"Unlike PCs, laptops and radios, the handhelds drop into the officer's pocket or under the seat for quick and inconspicuous access to critical information, which is particularly useful when an officer is undercover," Sheriff George E. Knupp, Jr. of the Lake County, Florida, said when PocketBlue was formally launched in June.

Faster and better

Aether is also behind PacketCluster Patrol, a technology that provides wireless and silent communication between laptops in the patrol cars and headquarters or other relevant data banks on vehicles or arrest warrants. The software can run over CDPD networks or conventional radio frequencies.

The technology is seen as useful for two reasons: 1) Officers requesting the information don't have to wait for busy dispatchers, like they do on two-way radio calls and 2) they can silently (and thus discreetly) access information or ask for back-up, useful in certain situations where they would not want to tip off a suspect.

In Flint, Michigan, police say they have doubled the number of warrant arrests in a twelve-month period after deploying the PacketCluster Patrol in March 2000. Before deploying PacketCluster, Flint voice dispatch networks would jam with routine calls for service and traffic incidents, causing delays of 10 to 15 minutes before officers got the necessary information.

"The ability to instantly gather and share critical data with fellow officers, without tipping off suspects, has given us a better idea of what we are walking into and enables us to handle incidents more safely and swiftly," Sgt. Al Edwards, of the Flint police department, said in connection with the arrest-increase announcement.

Last year, more than 750,000 children were reported missing in the United States, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. A new technology, developed by Georgia-based ChoicePoint, enables images and vital statistics of missing children to be distributed to police and other public safety agents through Motorola interactive pagers.

The system, named after Adam Walsh (the kidnapped and murdered son of America's Most Wanted host Jack Walsh), also distributes the images through fax and regular Internet and has helped find thirteen missing children since it was launched in November.

In the future, common citizens may also use wireless data to help apprehend fugitives and criminals. With next-generation mobile devices that can access color photos and video images, consumers could access images from programs such as America's Most Wanted and then notify police using a phone number listed on the screen and that can be quickly dialed. Such an application could potentially revolutionize apprehension of fugitives, the same way the TV program has.


Not everyone is enthusiastic about the new technologies. Civil libertarians in the United States have criticized the Tampa Police Department for using a version of Visionic's FaceIt to identify potential suspects in the city's entertainment district.

Some critics are also concerned about handheld fingerprint technology being abused by the bad guys, for example to obtain fingerprints from bank customers in order to penetrate fingerprint-dependent security.

Yet, there is no doubt that the latest inventions using wireless data will help reduce crime, current and former police officials say.

"This will be the way things [are going to] be in the future," says McEwen. "You'll see more and more of this."

Joachim Bamrud is an award-winning journalist with 17 years experience as a writer and editor in the United States, Europe and Latin America. Bamrud has worked for various print, broadcast and online media, including Latin Trade, Reuters and UPI.