The duties of law enforcement haven’t changed much throughout the centuries – protect and serve by stifling crime and fostering a sense of safety.
But the means of achieving and maintaining safe communities has become more of a balancing act as law enforcement agencies across the country work to keep up with advances in technology – which comes at a cost. Technology often supports law enforcement – think radios or GPS – but it can, at times, create more of a burden than it alleviates, said Durango Police Chief Bob Brammer.
Law enforcement officers aren’t the only ones with access, either, he said.
“Bad guys are innovative,” he said. “It’s financially tough to keep up.”
Take transportation, for example. Law enforcement started using horses in 1758 in London, the first recorded mounted police force, according to a Christian Science Monitor article posted in 2000. Cities like Boston and New York picked up the practice in the early 1870s and, in 1873, Canada founded what would later become the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Horses made getting around faster and more efficient for law enforcement, but caring for the animals comes with a cost – both in time and money. And less than 50 years after mounted officers came to the United States, the Ford Motor Co. released the Model T, making motorized vehicles more commonplace and revolutionizing travel worldwide.
Law enforcement was forced to adapt.
“It’s the same game, just different tools,” said Deputy Chief Brice Current.
The cost of progressMany of the innovations in law enforcement technology in recent decades involve advances in communication and attempts at transparency.
The interconnectivity offered with the advent of personal computers and the internet has offered law enforcement ever more efficient means of communicating with one another. Dispatchers can connect with law enforcement in different jurisdictions to coordinate region, state, nation or even worldwide searches for suspects or victims.
But the same market forces that provide law enforcement with new gear are fueling consumer markets, often leaving law enforcement agencies at a loss for the latest and greatest technology, Brammer said. The process of purchasing anything with public dollars almost always takes longer than it would for a private person to buy a product that uses the same technology.
“It’s expensive, it’s ever-evolving, and you kind of need a crystal ball,” Brammer said. “Is something we buy now going to last five years?”
Take video recording, for example. Law enforcement officers for decades have used cameras at crime scenes to preserve evidence without touching it – images prosecutors and defense attorneys may later use to prove the guilt or innocence of an individual.
But the same was done with a video of Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney King with batons in 1991 – recorded by a private resident from a nearby balcony. Four police officers were acquitted in the case, which sparked the infamous 1992 Los Angeles riots.
Law enforcement in the United States have used in-car cameras – also known as “dash-cams” – since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until the mid-2010s when body cameras became best practice for law enforcement. The Durango Police Department outfitted each of its officers with body cameras earlier this year at a cost of $96,000 for the first year and $89,000 for subsequent years.
But body cameras and dash cameras are recording all the time, and staff time is needed to classify and archive each contact.
“Technology actually creates work,” Brammer said. “It decreases work for some, but increases work for others.”
More harm than help?Southwest Colorado has just two people trained in cracking encrypted devices, Brammer said – and the backlog of phones and computers needing attention by forensic detectives is measured in months.
“Most crimes these days include phones or some sort of communication technology,” Brammer said.
Some technology is available to U.S. law enforcement through the federal government and the 1033 Program, which authorizes the transfer of excess military equipment to civilian law enforcement agencies. Both the Durango Police Department and the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office have taken advantage of the program, but doing so comes with the risk of militarizing police, Current said.
“There’s a community expectation not to look like the military,” he said.
Computer learning is becoming more popular in surveillance, Current said. Officers can set digital boundaries on physical areas at special events, which would alert law enforcement when someone is walking where they shouldn’t.
But at the same time, “the community doesn’t want Big Brother,” Brammer said, referencing a character at the top of a totalitarian, omnipresent and ever-watching state in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”
“We want to solve and prevent crime,” he said. “But we don’t want people to be scared of the police.”