By Ken Denney
On cop shows, police are always able to solve crimes between commercial breaks. Sometimes it’s due to plot twists and coincidences beyond belief, but usually it’s because of some gee-whiz piece of technology. Of course, much of the tech you see on TV is just as fake as the downtown car chases fictional cops seem to get into each week. Your local police do not have a room filled with “Minority Report”-type computer screens; they can’t use government satellites to spy on abandoned warehouses; they can’t instantly identify a suspect from a single strand of hair.
But actual police technology is nevertheless impressive. A 21st century police vehicle is a rolling computer station, bristling with cameras and cellular links to computer systems. Police who investigate crime scenes can record every detail of the location and literally put jurors inside a 3D reconstruction. And a criminal’s smartphone is a virtual treasure trove for police, allowing officers to trace a miscreant’s every move and to read their every Tweet.
No, police still cannot solve a crime in the time it takes to sell you an acne cream – but they can do a lot more than you might think. In a world in which criminals themselves are increasingly using technology, police are in an escalating arms race to keep ahead.
Inside the Carrollton Police Department, two large LCD screens are divided into smaller squares, each representing one of dozens of traffic and other cameras scattered across the city. Most of them are there to record accidents that could take place at intersections.
Elsewhere in the building, detectives hover over a computer monitor, scrolling through a bank of information extracted from a cell phone. They can easily read a suspect’s emails, text messages and Facebook posts (yes, even criminals are on Facebook.) And thanks to the fact that smartphones have GPS technology, cops can track the owner’ every movement through the string of breadcrumbs created each time the phone pings a cell tower.
Outside, police cruise the streets in patrol cars kitted out with laptops, dash cams and portable devices that can record fingerprints. And some of the cars are equipped with a series of cameras that can literally read a license plate, telling the officer whether the tag could belong to someone with expired car insurance – or maybe even wanted somewhere for murder.
None of this Star Wars tech replaces the need and instincts of a police officer, but it does save time.
Sgt. Brandon Wilson said the in-car laptop allows police to do all the paperwork associated with their job, including questionnaires for suspicious persons, incident reports and other things that police used to have to take down by hand, then re-type into a computer back at the office, duplicating work.
“For accident reports, we can have most of the report done while we’re waiting on a tow truck for the vehicle,” he said.
Wilson and his partner ride around in a specially equipped SUV that has four cameras mounted on the outside. They are pointed in such a way as to be able to record the license plates of the vehicles around them.
The system is known as Automatic License Plate Reader, and it does just what it says: it records the numbers on the plate and checks them against an online database over a cellular network. If the numbers it reads bring back a response, then police have probable cause to pull the car over.
But a positive response doesn’t mean a ticket – or more – for the driver. For all its sophistication, the system isn’t perfect; sometimes it misreads the license plate. The officer is supposed to double check the plate against info stored with the Georgia Crime Information Center (GCIC), a high-tech group that maintains computerized records linked to law enforcement agencies across the state. There’s also a National Crime Information Center, and the license number is checked against it as well.
Also inside the car, mounted overhead, is a small screen and controls for two other cameras; a dash camera that can record an officer’s activities outside the vehicle, and one that allows officers to watch a suspect in the backseat, or cage, of the vehicle. In a console between the seats is a bank of switches for emergency lights and the siren, as well as a police radio.
In short, the interior of a modern police car looks like the cockpit of the space shuttle. But ultimately, these gizmos and gadgets are just tools. They can’t replace a person in a uniform.
Crimes and police detection are two things that haven’t changed in this technological age. A theft is a theft, whether it is someone grabbing a purse from someone on the street, or taking someone’s personal information and stealing his or her identity.
In the old days, criminals and others who might know of crimes would pass information about those wrongdoings in conversations that might take place in person, at a bar, or any other venue. But now those same conversations take place on social media.
“Can you think of any kind of crime that you can’t either use a computer or a cellphone to commit the crime or talk about the crime?” asks Sgt. Blake Hitchcock. “There’s not.”
Hitchcock works with the department’s criminal investigations division, inside a specialized part of that unit that deals with computer data, whether it is on a desktop, a laptop, a tablet – or even a smartphone.
Most people cannot live without their cellphone – they contain photos of loved ones, messages from friends, emails from co-workers and the phone number of just about everyone they know. But criminals are people too, and that means they live on their phones just as much as everyone else.
Smartphones can be a treasure trove of information for law officers. When officers need to get into a cellphone and extract that data, they have sophisticated tools that will get everything: including passwords, chats on social media, and even a timeline of places anyone has visited, built on the GPS signals recorded by the phone every time it pings out a signal.
Such access worries some people, and for good reason. The same technology that can be used in the lawful pursuit of crime can be used for nefarious purposes as well. Hitchcock says police searches of cellphones are done only if the owner consents to a search, or as the result of a court order.
Last year, FBI agents were temporarily stymied when trying to open an iPhone that had been taken from the body of a terrorist involved in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. The manufacturer, Apple, had made the phone difficult to break into in response to their customers’ concerns over privacy. For a while, Apple and the Federal government were at a standoff over law enforcements’ needs versus the company’s responsibilities to its customers.
In the end, however, the FBI found someone who could break into the phone and the information was given up. No technology, it seems, is totally secure.
Hitchcock can pull the same kinds of information from computer disk drives, doing so in such a way that the contents of the drive are not altered and the police can obtain a perfect copy of what’s on the computer hardware.
Beyond that, local police do not deal much with other types of computer crime. But in the Peach State, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation has a unit that is constantly monitoring the internet for those trafficking in the sexual exploitation of children.
The GBI, like the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is an agency that has the kinds of investigative resources that most cities in the state don’t have, and they can deploy their arsenal of high-tech resources anywhere it is needed.
Steve Foster is a crime scene specialist with the GBI office in Thomson, in McDuffie County. There are 15 regional offices across the state, and at least one crime scene specialist is stationed at each one.
Each office is also equipped with a truck loaded with everything those specialists might need to investigate a crime.
“Our crime scene unit is a one-stop shop,” he said. “Each crime scene investigator basically can do every aspect of an investigation, and that includes such things as the documentation and photography.”
But it’s not just taking pictures. GBI agents can use a 3D scanning device that uses a laser beam and sophisticated software to record every detail of a crime scene. For example, if a crime takes place inside the room of a house, every detail of that room can be recorded – from bric-a-brac to throw pillows.
Once recorded, investigators can “return” to the crime scene over and over, even if the room is changed or the whole building torn down. With each detail perfectly recorded, police can still look over the evidence inside to see if they missed anything. And, the recording has the additional advantage of being able to present a crime scene to a jury, so that the jurors can see exactly what investigators saw when they first arrived.
In short, investigators can collect an amazing amount of information at the scene of a crime. But information, or raw data, is useless unless it can be interpreted.
“A key piece of our equipment is the mind of the crime scene investigator, because he has to figure out where to look and know what he’s looking for,” Foster said. Otherwise, important evidence could be overlooked.
For example, GBI agents have the ability to do DNA analysis using only a few skin cells. But that ability depends on the agents actually finding that evidence, and doing so requires the skill of examining a scene correctly.
“For example, if you have someone that’s shot and killed, and their pockets are turned inside out and their billfold is on the ground, we have to be able to recognize that the suspect probably reached into the pocket and if they did, there’s a good chance we’ll get skin cells.”
The advantage of police technology, Foster said, is that it helps investigators discover clues that they might not otherwise find. Fingerprints, he said, sometimes don’t show up well using the old dusting techniques – but they might show when put under ultraviolet or infrared light source, or scanned with other advanced equipment.
The amazing amount of data that police can extract from a crime scene can be compared to a large haystack. Somewhere in that haystack is the one piece of evidence that can link a person to a crime. And that – not the technology – is what police who use high tech tools must always remember, Foster said.
“I do think we get so overwhelmed with the technology that we can easily forget why we’re there, which is to put a name with the crime.”