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Five things you didn't know about Law Enforcement

Editorial Staff

There's much about law enforcement around the world that is a far cry from the image presented in TV series, no matter how "authentic" the producers claim them to be. Here are five things you probably didn't know about the realties behind the stories.

Google Glass

In 2013, Google (later to be renamed Alphabet) released Google Glass for which read "glasses" because it was an enhanced form of spectacles. In 2015, the project was supposedly cancelled but there was a later version released under the brand Streye and there are now a number of product development companies. The interest from law enforcement in the original version was its ability to provide "information about the businesses, homes, and vehicles he looks at, while facial recognition software provides real-time information about the people he passes, letting him know if anyone matches BOLO descriptions or if someone he is near has an outstanding warrant," according to former policeman Timothy Roufa writing in The Balance Careers website. Or at least, that was the expectation. Later in the article, Roufa said that most of the software needed to provide these functions existed in one form or another, Google Glass was not capable of undertaking the various activities. So, for now at least, wearable surveillance transmitting data back to base for processing coupled with a messaging system is the only way to achieve the hoped for benefits. Oh, wait.. so the ludicrously expensive Google Glass would not have added any value anyway, then.

Even more interesting is that much of the promise of the original Glass is now built into the Android operating system for mobile phones, under the name "Lens." The limitation, experts say, is that the cameras themselves need to be "smarter" so that they identify, analyse and respond faster and more accurately to what they are seeing.

That sounds like a visual version of those boxes that listen to everything you say in the room and analyse it so that Amazon can automatically send, with a one hour delivery, a bottle of wine, some chocolates and a box of condoms when you take a date home.

Social Media - yours not theirs

When people put their lives online, they generate evidence that can be used to investigate and prosecute criminal conduct - and which can support convictions. Facebook Live has all the evidence needed to prosecute the man who murdered more than 50 people in Christchurch, New Zealand, last month. This week, the FBI in California has charged a man with terrorism related offences following his declaration of support for a terrorist group online. While material that is posted to private groups (such as a "friends"-only post on e.g. Facebook) will require either a production order (sometimes called a "warrant" or an administrate order from a competent authority, material that is posted publicly can be accessed and used without hindrance. Given the de facto position (if not the legal position) that such platforms are both publishers and vehicles for self-publishing, those engaged in criminal conduct for reasons of ideology or publicity are far more likely to make their posts public.

Of course, investigators can also create fake accounts to attract exactly the kind of people they want to prevent doing bad things.

Bean bag ammo is not harmless beans

A shot-gun shoots shot, usually lead shot. Shot is more akin to a shrapnel bomb than it is to a bullet: the idea is that hundreds of tiny pieces of metal are discharged from the muzzle at high speed. The concentration of those pieces depends on the length of the barrel: a short (sawn-off) shotgun distributes the shot over a wider area than a long barrel. The denser the concentration, the more destructive the force.

A bean-bag gun is a shotgun. But instead of the shot being loaded into a cartridge which propels individual balls through the barrel, it is loaded into a bag. When the bag hits its target, it does so with considerable force. The force is so great that some US police forces refer to it as "less lethal" rather than the public perception of "non-lethal."

The round has another name: the flexible baton round and some see it as a development of the rubber bullet which, because it self-absorbs some of the impact, causes less injury to the target.

There is a less harmful version: the jelly-bean bag. In this, the"bag" is a soft polyurethane baton. In 1998, UK newspaper The Independent reported that London's Metropolitan Police was to test both types of weapon in the light of a serious increased in knife crime. With the ability to knock down the target at a range of up to 80 metres (assuming some considerable accuracy on the part of the officer using the weapon), without actually shooting him (it's usually a "him"), the idea sounded great. Except that knife crime rarely happens right in front of officers, as the recent spate of such offences in the UK has shown demonstrating that for officers to be present at the scene, first you have to have officers on patrol, something that the UK has far too little of.

Vehicle identification cameras

It was called "The Ring of Steel" and it was designed to protect the City of London (the actual City, not the whole conurbation). Following a string of bomb attacks by the Irish Republican Army, many roads into "the Square Mile" were closed, others had a policebox in which an officer stood and stopped vehicles he wanted to check. Major roads were largely free for traffic. The advent of number-plate recognition systems changed all of that. Cameras appeared first on the top of the police boxes then elsewhere. The cameras scanned the registration number of every vehicle, sent that image to a data centre in Hendon in North London where it was converted with Optical Character Recognition Software and compared to data held there. If there was reason to be suspicious, the officer was told to stop the car. All of that took less than two seconds - and it happened in 1997 when the best comms was ADSL2, which operates at a fraction of the speed of today's internet using computers that were, in processing power and storage, pretty basic compared to desktop machines today.

That has moved on to the point where number plate recognition is used instead of a physical "tax disc" to show that a vehicle is currently licensed and for road pricing. But in the background there are other applications: does the same number plate show up in inconsistent times and places or on a vehicle of the wrong type?

While other technologies such as RFID, are used to track vehicles through toll booths in many countries, these are only of use to law enforcement if the card is registered to a person or vehicle or if there is a back-up imaging system to allow cross-referencing.

Those back-up systems are valuable even with number-plate recognition to establish who was driving the vehicle at a specific time: traffic cameras have long been used for this purpose.

Palm Prints are a thing

In 2013, the USA's FBI created the National Palm Print System. Content was drawn from local, state, tribal and federal law enforcement databases. Today, the NPPS (of course it has an acronym) contains more than 15 million "unique palm print identities" and "more than 29 million individual palm prints tied to those identities." That means that the register includes both palm prints of most of the people in the register. There have been convictions based on palm prints where no fingerprints were available.