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Inspector Gadget? The Role Of Tech For St. Louis-Area Police

(Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon)

The technology available to a police officer on the beat has come a long way from a pen and a notebook.

Thanks to in-car computers, police now have the internet and sophisticated databases at their fingertips. Cameras can find a specific license plate or reduce the need for eyewitnesses.

But the speed at which the changes are taking place has even those using the technology concerned.

As a narcotics officer in Jefferson County in the mid-1990s, Jeff Roorda was a rock star when he got a bag phone

Now, the officers he represents as the business manager of the St. Louis Police Officers' Association have a wealth of information at their fingertips.

"I don't think people realize how often police officers out on the street are playing the name game," Roorda said. "A lot of times you were very inventive in trying to figure out who was who. And now, somebody gives you a bogus name and you go back to the in-car computer and a lot of times you can pull up a picture and determine identity when you get back to the station. With AFIS, you get almost instant identification from fingerprints now."

Even something as ubiquitous as the cameras at banks and stores makes the job of officers like A.J. Soll, a property crimes detective in St. Louis County, much easier.

"It's a lot easier to identify your criminal," he said. "Eyewitness identifications are prone to (mistakes). It's hard to refute a videotape of the guy that's sitting in front of you in the courtroom."

Keeping It All Straight

The power of computers makes it much easier for departments to track all the evidence that comes in from the cameras and elsewhere. One local company is a leader in that field.

P.J. McIntyre says the idea for eTWIST came together at a family Christmas dinner about five years ago.

"My uncle is a detective sergeant in a local municipality," McIntyre said, and he asked if the family's company, Primary Marking Systems, had a way to make the job of investigators easier.

"Our company was built on data collection," McIntyre said. "That's what we do, we track products through warehouses all over the country." Primary Marking Systems helps Anheuser-Busch keep track of 14 billion lids a year, so it was no big deal to develop a program to track a couple hundred thousand pieces of evidence. 

Credit (photo courtesy of Primary Marking Systems, Inc.)
In addition to being a data processing system, eTWIST allows officers to start entering evidence in the field on a smartphone-like device.

eTWIST - Evidence Tracking With Information Solution Technologies - also includes a handheld device that allows officers to begin logging evidence in the field. 

"It makes people accountable for what they're doing," McIntrye says. "Chain of custody is started immediately at the scene of the crime as soon as they start logging in evidence. And officers are out on the streets as opposed to sitting behind a desk plugging in all this information."

So far, none of the three suburban departments using eTWIST is using the handheld tool. But Maplewood Police detective Adam Fite says it's been very useful as a data processing system.

"The department was in the dinosaur age," says Fite, the previous evidence custodian. "Everything was hand-written. All the evidence recording system was essentially done on evidence sheets and they were put into a box, and hopefully we never lost a box."

It's now much easier trying to track the evidence, Fite says, and you don't have to worry about trying to read an officer's handwriting.

Mixed Opinions 

But enthusiasm over the new technology available to police departments only goes so far.

The tools aren't the problem, says Jeffrey Mittman with the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. It's how they get used -- like for example the camera that can scan and recognize license plate numbers.

"I think we’d all agree that to have law enforcement going around automatically in real time looking for a specific vehicle, that is absolutely an appropriate use of technology," he said. "But that same license plate reader could be turned on and just kept on all the time, just 'gathering data.'"

Technology is getting ahead of the law, Mittman says, making it critical for state and local officials to set parameters for the collection and storage of data before the technology is used.

"Once we've lost the privacy, once we have lost the protections, it's very hard to get them back," he said.

Police officers make a very similar argument.

Roorda says St. Louis police are OK with being recorded by their in-car cameras -- to a point.

"Now you've got this video that becomes the ultimate witness, that now has all the credibility, and the police officer and other witnesses have no credibility," he said. The tunnel vision prevents the courts, prosecutors and internal investigators from getting the complete story, he says, and has cost good officers their jobs.

Keeping Up With The Joneses

The law isn't the only place where catch-up is necessary. For departments, it can be tough to stay on top of the latest new "toy."

"Money, money, and money," says Lake Saint Louis police chief Michael Force when you ask him about the biggest challenge for departments.

Federal grants can help, though Mittman says that's created situations where departments purchase technology they don't need simply because the money is available. Force, who also chairs the technology committee for the Missouri Police Chiefs Association, says cooperative agreement are the answer. 

"Everyone wants to believe that they can take care of the things that they are responsible for," Force said. "I think sometimes that can be a hindrance in not being willing to recognize that taking care of those things that you are responsible for doesn't necessarily mean not utilizing the resources that are around you."

Shortcomings and the Future

St. Louis County Det. A.J. Soll says he looks forward to a day when information can move as easily across borders as criminals.

"Unless we're on a shared data system, I can't easily view reports from the St. Charles County sheriff's office," he said. "I might not even know that they took a report or made an arrest on a suspect that I'm investigating. I think that data sharing is critical, not only to predict crime but also to figure out what happened where and if there's a bigger pattern that I can't see."

But first, he wants to solve a basic problem with police radios.

Credit (Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon)
Despite all the advancements in technology, police departments still can't talk to each other - or other first responders like fire departments - on their radios.

"I was able to look down the street and see an officer of another department on a big scene and not be able to talk to him," Soll said. "That's an impediment to efficiency and safety."

Chief Mike Force in Lake Saint Louis has a similar sense of urgency.

"I spent 22 years in the Marines, and I've been in law enforcement for well over 20 years," he said. "I've not seen a single incident of any magnitude go bad that didn't have communication as one if the downfalls."

An interoperable radio system is under construction in St. Louis County, funded by a tax approved in 2009. Other counties and the state are working on similar projects, but no completion dates have been set.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.