Remember RoboCop? He had a series of enhanced senses and everything he saw and heard was recorded for use in court. He could see things telescopically or in infrared. He was superhumanly strong with metal body armor covering his skin and he carried a machine pistol holstered in a hollow unit in one of his legs.
As the movie tagline proclaimed, RoboCop was "Part man. Part machine. All cop. The future of law enforcement."
While this movie was just a futuristic fantasy, when it comes to tactical law enforcement, the future is now. Today's SWAT teams have an arsenal of RoboCop-like tools at their disposal.
These high-tech tools have changed the way the men and women in black operate. Sophisticated fibers and ceramics used in today's body armor and helmets armor officers against harm. Less-lethal tools, such as those in the TASER International lineup, enable teams to execute missions while reducing collateral damage. Products like the PistolCam and the TASER AXON capture audio-video recordings during missions, while tools such as the TacView 2500 pole-mounted camera allow teams to see inside before entering. Surplus military equipment and armored vehicles available through the 1033 LESO Program provide added cover and protection. And the list goes on.
If money were no object, every officer in every tactical team across the United States would have these tools. Unfortunately, many times budgetary quandaries reduce access to critical technology.
"Every single department I know is in budget crisis right now," says Jack O'Connor, president and executive director of the U.S. National SWAT Championships. "Administrative policy requires you to have certain things. You've got to have vests; you've got to have pistols and the right kind of ammo; ballistic helmets; eye and ear protection and basic less-lethal weapons. Those and personnel costs take priority, even if some of this really cool technology could be really helpful."
Near-empty coffers mean agencies must carefully plan everything from technology purchases to training. But they cannot go without. "The big drug guys have machine guns, hand grenades, and all this other stuff. It's very violent," says O'Connor. In that climate, the teams called in to deal with the criminal element's worst of the worst need every advantage possible in terms of technology and training.
"You never want to lose the basics, but if you can gain an edge on your adversary, that's always a good thing," says Lt. Thomas Hannon, who heads the Warwick (R.I.) Police Department Reactionary Team. "If we have technological equipment that can benefit us — fiber optic cameras, night vision, and that sort of thing — it puts us ahead of the game."
The trouble with technology
"Technology brings with it both good and bad," says John Gnagey, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA).
It's good that technology, originally developed for military use, is now being adapted for law enforcement. However, Gnagey notes much technology doesn't adapt well to law enforcement use because companies often design products without law enforcement input. "That's bad," he says. "It should be the reverse. It should be law enforcement working with R&D experts, saying, 'Here's my problem, let's work on a solution together.' " When the reverse is true, the resulting technology fits well with existing law enforcement tactics and supports officers as they carry out their duties.
With that in mind, how do departments select the right technology for the right application that fits the way they do business?
First and foremost, Gnagey recommends buying technology that enhances, not changes, existing tactics. "Don't buy a piece of technology then try to figure out how you're going to use it by adapting your tactics to that technology," he warns.