Going to war against crime

7 min read

New technology for the police is a big issue in the UK. But does our development process match up to the different approach of the US? Julia Pierce reports.

This Week’s backing by Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair for identity cards equipped with biometrics systems underlined the hopes UK law enforcement agencies are pinning on advanced technologies of all types.

With sophisticated organised crime on the increase, and the perceived threat from global terrorism, police forces are stretched as never before. Police both here and overseas are therefore calling increasingly on the kind of technology more usually associated with hi-tech military operations to monitor, tag, track and apprehend criminals.

Last month Cambridgeshire and Hampshire police forces began trialling a marking material that is expected to make it easier for air support police to tell the difference between the pursuer and the pursued (The Engineer 11 March).

Designed to be used alongside thermal imaging cameras, the material was adapted by Qinetiq from stealth technology used in military applications.

But while the demand for law-enforcement technology is soaring, methods of finding, developing and deploying it varies widely from country to country: a difference in approach that’s perhaps at its most marked when considering the US and the UK.

In the UK each of the 43 police forces has its own technology budget. This is controlled by the Police Scientific Development Branch (PSDB), in St Albans, which evaluates and approves innovations. In reality, unless a system has PSDB approval it is unlikely to be selected for use. ‘The PSDB is very highly thought of internationally by organisations such as the FBI,’ said Alasdair Rose, manager of the EPSRC’s £6m Technology for Crime Prevention and Detection Programme. ‘The Home Office now works very closely with us. There is a greater desire to develop systems and a greater interest in the use of technologies to combat crime.’

The EPSRC aims to encourage engineers and scientists to apply their expertise to developing systems to protect the UK public, sponsoring projects in fields ranging from electronic tagging and tracking systems to fingerprint analysis. Most are based within universities and aim to fund basic research that can later be developed into working systems.

To be awarded funding each researcher must collaborate with a user organisation that puts resources into the project. The partner then helps to shape the research so that it can be used as the basis for a useful technology, though it is not allowed to dictate the direction of the study. The programme is only in its second year, but previous EPSRC schemes have produced effective technologies including a scanning system now used at a major UK airport.

A change of crime-fighting methodology is certainly needed. In the past decade organised drug, people and weapons smuggling has grown in frequency, often with links to sophisticated international syndicates or terrorist organisations.

Meanwhile, offence rates for crimes such as burglary are falling. ‘The new environment of terrorism means that the old way of doing things may need to be changed,’ said Neil Fisher, Qinetiq’s director of security solutions. Stealth rather than a direct show of force is now the best option, he explained. ‘After 9/11 there was a lot of emphasis on guns, gates and guards, but this in unsustainable.’

Police are now calling upon stealth technologies to make arrests. Cambridgeshire and Hampshire forces have been trialling a marking material, for example, that should make it easier for them to differentiate between their own vehicles and those of criminals in a car chase.

In response Qinetiq is developing systems including methods for stopping vehicles in a non-lethal manner — its XNet system has been bought by the US military for use in Iraq — and screening systems that allow suicide bombers and weapons to be detected without their carrier knowing they are being observed.

Qinetiq is also developing next-generation digital CCTV technologies that stabilise images so operators can concentrate on them for longer. This will be coupled with psychological testing to allow firms to select individuals who are mentally suitable for such jobs, where the ability to concentrate for long periods is essential. ‘We have built highly motivated teams with a high staff retention level,’ said Fisher.

While the PSDB is reluctant to publicly identify technologies that are about to come into use, fearing that this may allow its opponents to develop countermeasures, police forces in the US take a different approach. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD) runs a technology exploration programme, headed by ex-Marine Commander Charles ‘Sid’ Heal. This was set up to provide a single gateway with a single point of contact for those offering innovations to the police. By working with technology firms during the product development stage, Heal aims to gain access to systems tailored to the needs of his force and directed to suitable departments.

‘In a lot of police departments they look at technology in a function-specific way. For instance, just the crime lab or police training may assess it. In one case we were looking at using a laser as a less than lethal device for apprehending suspects but it wasn’t that effective. However, it fluoresced body fluids such as blood or semen so we passed it to the crime lab. It means they can search a house for evidence without having to rip it all up.’

Heal said that his department rarely accepts classified information, meaning that it can share information on new devices freely with other police departments and law enforcement agencies, both within the US and abroad.

‘Every year the LASD encounters around 45 incidents where we must use lethal force. We want to find some kind of alternative to this, even if it does have side effects. The fact that we are trying to do something to reduce the number of fatalities has attracted government attention.’

According to Heal, the UK is ahead of the US in its use of surveillance cameras such as CCTV, as well as smaller devices such as those that can be mounted on dogs. This February Northumbria Police announced it was using such a system, nicknamed Fido, to kit out its firearms dogs.

Unlike the UK, local law enforcement agencies in the US have no money earmarked just for R&D. ‘The collateral that we offer is in the form of expertise and exposure. We have experts in their field providing us with information for free, as long as they can make us a device. If they get rich on the back of this, then that’s OK, but the finished product must be made available to the LASD and other law enforcement agencies.’

The rewards for having an endorsement from such a high-profile organisation mean that companies are clamouring to offer their technologies and systems. ‘We have a worldwide reputation,’ he explained. ‘We speak to two or three members of the US press each week and another three or four from around the world each month. This is exposure that is worth millions of dollars in advertising. We do not endorse products, but it is a de facto endorsement if we say a product has proved successful for us. Therefore, we get the best of the best technologies to work with.’

The LASD looks at systems within three categories: obsolete technologies with new applications, cutting-edge devices and emerging fields that can produce a prototype within five years.

Technologies being studied include Bola Balls, which consist of several orbs the size of tennis balls attached to lines. These are whirled around the head and thrown at a suspect, wrapping around them to prevent escape. ‘It’s not looking good for them as we can’t entangle the person enough to stop them,’ said Heal.

There is also a prisoner-monitoring device currently in the prototype stage. This detects the sound of prisoners’ breathing and looks to be useful in monitoring suicidal or self-harming detainees. ‘We have the largest jail in the “free” world under our jurisdiction, with 20,000 inmates,’ said Heal. ‘Monitoring a number of people every 15 minutes is hard and also expensive, so detainees sometimes manage to commit suicide. The monitor sets a threshold, and if breathing stops for a set number of seconds then an alarm is sounded and a guard can go in. It is almost indestructible, like a big baby monitor.’

LASD’s success stories include anti-traction granules that can be used to stop offenders escaping. Another is LED incapacitation. This works using a pulsating light of a frequency and brightness that is specially designed to make anyone viewing it disoriented and unwell. ‘It’s better than a laser - when it’s shone at a wall and reflected back it is enough to make you dizzy,’ said Heal.

The device is close to coming to market, but not all technologies are so suitable. Recent rejects include a hostage rescue device based around a projectile system. On impacting the individual, this was supposed to kill someone without passing through the body while leaving the hostage unharmed. ‘There were problems,’ explains Heal. ‘It didn’t tolerate intermediate objects such as glass or curtains and it was hard to keep ballistic stability in the air. We have mothballed it. One day it might work.’

Many areas of research look likely to deliver products that could be sold worldwide. ‘We need handcuffs that can’t be picked, broken, are easy to apply and won’t harm the suspect,’ said Heal. ‘But ones that are hard to get off are hard to get on. Some criminals can pick modern locks as quickly as you could open them with a key.’

The search for the perfect handcuffs is still on: some criminals can pick a lock as quickly as it would take to use a key, but the problem for the police is that cuffs that are hard to unlock are also hard to put on.

Tweaking existing innovations for new applications is also within their remit. Odor Killer, which can mask the stench of a dead body, was designed by a former engineer for the US Navy. ‘The smells made in that lab would gag a maggot,’ said Heal. ‘What we wanted was something to make a dead body not smell. It’s the worst smell ever and it can be almost impossible to go in the room. They came up with a chemical that blocks nasal sensors. It has a faint vanilla odour to tell if it’s wearing off.’

Finding an alternative to lethal force is always Heal’s ultimate objective, though the crimes that preoccupy his time are remarkably similar to the new priorities of the Home Office. ‘The big three for us are increasing our ability to respond to disasters and terrorism, stopping vehicles and detecting contraband,’ he explained. ‘We spend about 90 per cent of our time on these.’

But Qinetiq’s Fisher is doubtful as to whether the more open and experimental US approach would work within the UK. ‘If we offered something up for trial we would want to keep a lot of control over it to make sure it was being used in the right way so it could be properly evaluated,’ he said.

National security issues are also a barrier, and while less openness may prevent firms from spotting a gap in the market, it is ultimately a protective measure that may prevent national enemies from finding weaknesses. ‘Successful systems are deployed in a quiet way so that criminals don’t know they are there,’ said the EPSRC’s Rose. ‘If a system fails, this creates a security gap and if people know, they can exploit this.

‘Criminals are becoming more hi-tech, especially at the organised level. Given all this, you can therefore understand a certain level of coyness by the police and Home Office.’