Technology and Law Enforcement


Technology has not had a game-changing impact on policing in terms of dramatically altering the philosophies and strategies used for preventing crime, responding to crime, or improving public safety.

Technology in law enforcement and corrections was supposed to change our world. The thought was that an array of technological strategies would reduce crime and make the lives of criminal justice personnel easier.

From my own experiences, that simply hasn’t happened.

RTI International and the Police Executive Research Forum was funded by the National Institute of Justice to examine the types of technology that U.S. law enforcement agencies (LEAs) are acquiring and implementing, and the degree to which the use of technology is linked to strategy development and larger organizational change within police organizations, National Institute of Justice.

The report is summarized below.

Like many in criminal justice, I can’t watch crime-related television shows. They offer endless examples of computerization where an investigator (with endless time) almost instantly discovers data on the most intricate of details about a suspect’s life. The findings are never wrong; they are never incomplete.

The portrayal of immediate access to accurate records is often fiction.

Drones aren’t following stolen or speeding cars or responding to violent incidents. Less than lethal technologies aren’t. Paperwork via computers remains slow and cumbersome. Predictive technologies are filled with false positives.

What really drives me crazy are the endless articles suggesting that law enforcement agencies are acquiring technologies that will spy on your cell phone data, crack your social media accounts and access every part of your digital life. While there is no doubt that these technologies exist, they are rarely employed by the average law enforcement agency.

Technology means people are available to collect and analyze evidence and data, share it, and to come to reasonable conclusions. That’s a lot harder than most people think even if we had all the people we need.

I wrote an article suggesting that police and parole and probation agents staff a command center where the majority of released prison inmates would be on GPS surveillance. Research indicates that GPS tracking of offenders may be the most promising strategy we have to reduce violations of offenders while sending fewer back to prison.

At the same time, we are aware that when offenders recidivate, they do so fairly soon after release, thus placing them at or near crime scenes would be an immense help to law enforcement. It could also prevent crimes from happening based on access to official and social media records (i.e., an offender seeking revenge for the shooting of his cousin by breaking his GPS imposed curfew and examining his social media accounts).

While this is an evidence-based approach that will, in all likelihood reduce crime and returns to prison, no one has the resources to implement a combined 24-365 law enforcement-parole and probation command center and even if they did, the data points from that number of offenders being on GPS could overwhelm the capacity of the system to process all the information.

The bottom line of technology? It’s very labor intensive for it to be effective.

We can’t keep up with the current systems we have in place via the Texas mass shooting (he illegally purchased firearms) and the fact that millions of records are not entered into criminal justice databases.

And don’t get me started on rape kits sitting on the desks of evidence rooms going unanalyzed or the unprocessed crime scenes because they are not priority cases.

In my mind, technology in law enforcement and corrections is in its infancy. Yes, we have car and body-mounted cameras but storage and retrieval can be almost insurmountable. Yes, we have license plate readers; do we have sufficient personnel to follow-up? Yes, we predict where the next string of robberies will occur, but we can do that without a computer. Yes, we use social media, but so does every 14 year old.

We have DNA databases plus the ability to take and analyze fingerprints via computers and match them to unsolved crimes or warrants. But that depends on fingerprints taken and warrants entered into NCIC.

I believe that, someday, we will be as sophisticated as the TV shows make us out to be.

But that will mean that we have a fully structured corps of technologists who can take endless mounds of data, find the needle in a haystack, and provide firm direction. That will also mean that we have the personnel available who can follow up on those leads while simultaneously provide the patrol and response functions normally found in any law enforcement or correctional agency.

It also means that we have the personnel to enter warrants and to update criminal records as the offender progresses through the criminal justice system.

So civil libertarians, you can sleep easily. We’re not the National Security Agency or the CIA. We’re not even close.

From the standpoint of technology, I’m not sure we are on an even keel with most offenders with encrypted e-mail, the dark web, and smartphones that can’t be unlocked.

Twenty-five percent of Americans state that they or another member of their household had data stolen from their computers. Another sixteen percent say that they or their household were victims of identity theft in the last twelve months, Gallup. That outstrips all other forms of crime.

Are we in criminal justice ready to assist them?

Findings from the Report (slightly edited and rearranged for readability)

Technology and policing have been interconnected for decades, dating back to the advent of the telephone, the automobile, and the two-way radio. Today, technology seems to be advancing at an ever-accelerating pace, as seen through the propagation of mobile and wireless technology, high-powered computing, visual and audio technology, advanced analytics, and other technological advancements.

Many departments are implementing these and other technologies to increase efficiency and to improve outcomes, especially in times of diminished resources and enhanced public attention to and scrutiny of law enforcement tactics and outcomes. However, much remains unknown about the prevalence and utility of technology among the nation’s law enforcement agencies (LEAs) and the factors that influence its selection and implementation.

To address these issues, we need to build the knowledge base of why and how police select, implement and integrate new technology; how that technology is being used; and whether new technology improves policing in a meaningful way for both the agency and the community. RTI International (RTI) and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) were funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) to examine more closely the types of technology that U.S.

LEAs are acquiring and implementing, and the degree to which the use of technology is linked to strategy development and larger organizational change within policing organizations. Three objectives were specifically examined.

The first objective was the prevalence of police technology on a nationally representative level; the second objective examined a group of selected high-technology implementer and mixed-technology implementer agencies.

The combined findings from the national- and site-level data were used to develop the final objective: a research-based framework to guide police agencies in future selection, implementation, and use of technology.


This project was conducted in three phases.

First, an expert panel was convened to identify key policing technology and to ensure that the survey captured critical indicators of technology performance. Second, a nationally representative survey was administered to more than 1,200 state and local LEAs. The survey explored policing strategies and activities, and technology acquisition, use, and challenges. Results from this survey were used to identify agencies that would be well suited for the final research phase: in-depth site visits. Site-visit locations were stratified so that visits were conducted with both municipal and sheriff agencies of various sizes (small, medium, and large) and experiences with technology.

Key Findings

The following sections summarize key findings from the study and their implications.

Technology prevalence

Today’s state and local LEAs are heavily involved in technology. Ninety-six percent had implemented one or more of the 18 core technologies of interest, most commonly car cameras (70% of agencies), information-sharing platforms (68%), and social media (68%).

One-third of agencies had body-worn cameras (BWCs), geographic information system technology (GIS), cell phone tracking software, or investigative case management software.

Notable among large agencies (250 or more sworn officers) was the prevalence of analytical and visual-based technology. About 81% of large agencies reported using GIS (compared with 31% overall) and 70% were using license plate readers (LPRs; compared with 20% overall).

Use of predictive analytics software was reported by 28% of large agencies.

Technologies expected to increase in use

Results demonstrate that technology use is expected to increase not only among the largest agencies but across most U.S. LEAs. The technologies expected to increase most sharply were predictive analytics software (15% of all agencies and 22% of large agencies have plans to obtain and use within 2 years), BWCs (15% and 17%, respectively), and in-car electronic ticketing (11% and 38%, respectively).

Also notable were the intentions to acquire next-generation 9-1-1 (14% and 11%, respectively) or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) (7% and 9%, respectively).

Links between policing strategies and technological adoption

Nationally, we found little relationship between the policing strategies that agencies most closely adhere to and the number of technologies used. The exception was zero-tolerance policing; greater emphasis on zero-tolerance was associated with less technology use. However, among large agencies (250 or more officers), there were stronger connections between strategy and technology adoption.

Agencies aligned most closely with community policing, intelligence-led policing, or hot-spot policing philosophies implemented and used more technology. In contrast, agencies that emphasized professional policing, problem-oriented policing, or zero tolerance policing implemented and used less technology.

Policing activities and strategies and technology selection

Nationally, LEAs are generally not making technology decisions based on their dominant policing philosophies. An exception were agencies that emphasized community policing which were more likely to use social media. In addition, agencies that emphasized predictive policing were more likely to use LPRs than those that did not.

Among large agencies, however, we found stronger connections between the policing philosophies agencies adopt and the technology choices they make. Agencies that emphasized hot-spot policing were more likely to have used BWCs. The use of GIS was positively associated with community policing, hot-spot policing, and offender targeting. LPR and social media use was positively associated with community policing and hot-spot policing.

Agency decision-making regarding technology acquisition and implementation

As a whole, our findings demonstrate that law enforcement technology adoption is often ad hoc and not based on longer-term planning.

The tendency to purchase technology without a clear, strategic plan can result in limited integration within the agency and a failure to recognize the primary or secondary benefits of the technology. These factors can lead to disillusionment and a lack of continued funding for maintaining or updating particular types of technology.

Impact of technology on policing activities. Perhaps not surprisingly automated records management systems (RMS) and computer-aided dispatch (CAD) were the technology credited with having the greatest impact on police agencies nationwide. This technology is central for carrying out the most fundamental professional policing activities, responding to calls for service and information management.

The RMS/CAD technology is also crucial for generating the data that other activities and technology applications rely on, such as GIS, hot-spot policing, and other location-based activities. Because of its highly flexible nature, GIS was reported to have the greatest impact on identifying and analyzing crime and disorder problems. Social media and data mining were both considered to successfully impact an agency’s ability to generate intelligence from the community (intelligence-based policing).

Among the agencies that identified tracking officer conduct as a key activity, the use of BWCs was seen as more critical than the use of car-mounted cameras.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Technology can produce various positive outcomes relative to improvements in policing practices and the establishment of trust and legitimacy with communities. The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (2015) summarizes these points and acknowledges that technology is changing at an increasingly rapid pace.

As the rate of technology adoption accelerates it becomes increasingly important for police agencies to consider how they select and implement technology and what strategic objectives these technologies will help them achieve.

Overall, our study found that technology is having a positive impact on U.S. law enforcement agencies in terms of increasing efficiency, providing communication, enhancing information-sharing practices, and improving informational and analytical capacities. As highlighted above, some of these impacts are greatest for particular types of technology.

Yet, the findings also demonstrate that, as a whole, technology has not had a game-changing impact on policing in terms of dramatically altering the philosophies and strategies used for preventing crime, responding to crime, or improving public safety.

Based on our finding, we determined that the adoption and impact of technology within an agency are often conditional upon three general types of factors: community, agency, and technology.

Community factors may include local community priorities, state laws, or national sentiment (e.g., the push for BWC use after a high-profile incident). At the agency level, organizational climate will influence how technology is approached and integrated into the department.

Finally, the factors intrinsic to the technology itself will influence success and adoption. For example, a certain technology may be more successful when it more closely parallels successful technology in the market (e.g., predictive analytics software can be seen as a natural extension of GIS use).

The following summarizes recommendations for developing a more successful national model for technology implementation in today’s law enforcement community. Evidence-based research is needed in policing technology. Our research suggests that there needs to be greater emphasis on evidence-based, informed decision-making about new technology.

Strategic planning should include technology considerations. The strategic planning process appears to be severely overlooked in many agencies despite being integral to the success or failure of a technology.

Decision makers and technology experts should better collaborate on technology decisions. Many technologies are not broadly deployed in an agency, which can result in diverse problems in terms of buy-in and organizational impact.

Past experience with technology contributes to future behavior. Each agency and its community context are unique and there is often heavy emphasis placed on each agency’s own historical performance of technology identification, acquisition, and implementation.

Strategic planning and pre-implementation should be emphasized when an agency planning to obtain a new technology.

Plans should be specific to an agency’s mission or preferred policing strategy, with clearly outlined goals. Specific personnel and knowledge requirements to reach those goals should be incorporated into the strategic plan.

Agencies should consider how to quantify success, while concurrently working with researchers who can evaluate the effectiveness of both processes and outcomes. Not only will this help agencies understand what needs to be changed but it will also inform the field of policing on how to increase sustainability and maximize the effects of their technology use.

Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. – Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Post-Masters’ Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University.

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