"Law enforcement has definitely become a profession where the officers have to be a lot more tech proficient than your standard citizen," said Sergeant Craig Eicher of the Pleasanton Police Department.
From responding to calls to searching for suspects to solving cases, officers have a new, high-tech tool for everything. The Pleasanton Police Department especially tries to stay on the cutting edge of technology, said Officer Julie Fragomeli, who has been with the department for the past year after working in Mountain View for nine.
"I love being in Pleasanton because here we have so much more as far as tech goes," Fragomeli said.
One of the biggest changes for the officers is the touch screen computers outfitted in every patrol car. With the touch of the screen, an officer can check all pending calls around town and see what has already received a response.
"With the list of pending calls, an officer can pull up to a street, see there is a call at that area and head up to the call before it's even been dispatched," said Detective Daly Harnish. "That way the call time is decreased."
The computers are also connected to the Internet, which give officers access to several state and federal databases that help them identify and apprehend suspects.
"If we want to check somebody to see if they have warrants, we can do a name inquiry," Fragomeli said. By pulling up a state Web site and inputting a name, any officer can find out a person's personal information, such as driver's license number, weight, height, address, previous address and driving record, as well as--and perhaps most importantly--any warrants. Officers can do a similar search on license plate numbers, finding out who a vehicle is registered to, then take that name and do the previous search. Cal Photo, a Driver of Motor Vehicles Web site, provides further help by giving them access to a person's driver's license information, photo, fingerprint and signature. The system also provides mug shots of suspects.
"We can do all this with the touch of a finger while we're sitting at a red light," Fragomeli said. "When we're not actively on a call or out with the public, we're really doing a lot of things inside our car."
However, that doesn't mean the computer can be used on every call.
"One thing we really emphasize is don't rely on your computer to sacrifice officer safety," Harnish said. "If you're not sure about somebody, don't turn your back to use the computer, radio it in."
One of the newest technologies that the department added to the police vehicles a few months ago is the thermal imaging lights. These lights can detect a heat source, something that is helpful for night patrols.
"Say someone saw a car speed into a parking lot and the lot is full of parked cars, so you don't know where this person could be. You can drive through the lot and find all the cars that are still warm. It would be a good indication that that's the suspect," Fragomeli explained. It can also help officers find people hiding under bushes or lurking outside of homes, she added.
Only the supervisor cars and two patrol vehicles are currently outfitted with these lights, but the department has plans to add more and train officers how to use them. As Fragomeli explained, having the technology isn't enough--the officers need to know how to use it in order to be effective.
Changes in technology are not limited to the officers' patrol vehicles, but also extend to the officers themselves. Looking at any officer's belt, there are many items that weren't there even five years ago.
"If they come up with any more gizmos, I'm not sure where I'll be able to put them all on my belt," Fragomeli joked.
One of the most notable additions is the TASER, an electronic device that officers can shoot at a suspect from up to 21 feet away delivering a shock that overrides the central nervous system and incapacitates the suspect. In order to stick to the suspect, there are tiny darts stuck at the end of an insulated metal wire that are shot out of the device.
The way people react to the TASER can vary, with some going stiff as a board and others wriggling around, but the effect is to stop the suspect, without causing serious injuries. The shock releases high voltage, but low amperage, meaning it causes little pain and after a few seconds the suspect recovers. The only injury is the marks left by the darts, which Eicher said are equivalent to the marks left by mosquito bites.
"Our intention is not to harm the suspect, but to gain compliance," said Detective Dana Stout, who was the first to advocate for the department to start using the TASER. Stout transferred to Pleasanton in 2003 from a department in Southern California where she saw the TASERS in use and found them very effective, meaning suspects were apprehended without harm.
Prior to the TASER, officers would use batons or pepper spray in the same situation, Stout said. The drawbacks to those methods are that both cause more harm to the suspect. Baton use can result in serious injuries, such as broken bones, and pepper spray can take 45 minutes to an hour to recover from. They also could be ineffective tools, with the baton rendered useless in tight spaces and pepper spray floating in the air, potentially incapacitating nearby officers.
That is not to say pepper spray and batons are no longer on officer belts. Both items are still used, but even they have changed a little. Instead of the wooden batons of the past, officers now have a lighter, titanium baton that extends when swung and retracts with the push of a button.
Of course, a registered gun and handcuffs are still staples of the police officers' belt, but one thing that is new is the Nextel phones issued to every officer. Nextel is the only company that provides both radio and phone capability, which is why the department chose it, Eicher said.
Beyond work in the field, technology has had a huge effect on the way police investigate crimes and search for suspects. Those in the public may already be familiar with the computerized suspect composites the department puts out to the media when a suspect is on the loose. Using a program called e-Fit, officers can craft the face of a suspect based on a victim's description where before they relied on a box filled with different facial components that they would overlay on each other. The process was inexact compared to the computerized composites where officers have many different variations of facial features to choose from, and even if none of those fit, they can make modifications. The major benefit is that from interview to composite, the whole process takes about two hours and the police can get a more exact description out to the public in a timely manner.
The investigations department makes great use of the Internet, as well, using NIBIN and CODIS, two databases housed by the U.S. Department of Justice. NIBIN contains information on the ballistic history of any weapon collected at a crime scene in the country. Because every gun is unique, if the police collect a gun and bullet shells at a crime scene, they can run its characteristics through the Web site and see if it is linked to any past crimes. Although Pleasanton police have not had any hits, Hayward police were able to solve several homicide cases from information they found on the site, Eicher said.
CODIS houses DNA information from all suspects arrested for felonies. Before a person is released from jail or prison, they now have to submit a DNA sample that is catalogued by the Department of Justice. When police gather DNA evidence from a crime scene, they can run the information through CODIS and try to find a match. The use of DNA in crime investigation has been one of the greatest leaps in technology, providing police with the ability to find suspects they may not have caught before, but that does not mean the system is not without drawbacks. Many people do not realize that DNA evidence is analyzed off site and that it can take at least a month to get it back from the lab, Eicher said. With popular TV shows like "CSI," the public expects cases involving forensic analysis to be closed in under an hour, and that's just not realistic, Harnish added.
And while technology can help solve many cases, without witnesses or physical evidence some cases, such as the 2004 arson at Foothill High School and the more recent vandalism at Callippe Golf Course, cannot be solved. In some respects, technology has even made police work more difficult as it has created a new kind of crime: Identity theft.
"It's a double-edge sword," Harnish said. "The increase of technology has brought the increase of a different kind of crime that makes it harder to investigate. Probably 80 percent of identity theft and fraud is done using computers. So technology has helped us in some ways, but in other ways we're trying to constantly keep up with it."