New Technology Benefits Law Enforcement by Tracking Sidearm Use
By Danielle Pompa, Stephen S. Owen, Ph.D., and Tod W. Burke, Ph.D.
One night an officer responds to a reported robbery and enters the location alone to investigate. The officer hears a noise, draws a sidearm from its holster, and proceeds carefully, but is attacked by the suspect and knocked unconscious. Fortunately, the officer’s firearm is equipped with new technology that immediately notifies dispatch when a weapon is drawn and assistance is necessary.
This technology allows dispatch personnel to closely monitor the weapons of law enforcement officers. It currently is being field-tested by various police departments.1 If the device becomes widely available, it could bolster officer safety and prove valuable to agencies.
Overview and Benefits
The new signaling tracker for firearms (STF) connects to an officer’s smart phone or computer, much like a GPS tracking mechanism. An on/off switch determines when it is in use.2 Once the small device is activated and inserted into the grip of the firearm—allowing it to remain completely unnoticeable—it gives important updates to dispatch personnel. The battery lasts about 1 week in-between charges. When the device is not in use, it enters a sleep mode until activity begins.3
The dispatch center receives notifications from the STF concerning the location of the weapon and, thus, the officer.4 Personnel also are alerted when the sidearm has been removed from its holster or fired—if so, the device communicates important information, such as the number of times the weapon was discharged and the time and direction of each shot.5
Ms. Pompa is an undergraduate student at Radford University in Radford, Virginia.
Dr. Owen is a professor and chair of the Department of Criminal Justice at Radford University in Radford, Virginia.
Dr. Burke, a former police officer, serves as the associate dean for the College of Humanities and Behavioral Sciences and as a professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Radford, Virginia.
The STF feeds information to dispatch more quickly than a verbal report. In doing so, the device allows dispatch personnel to provide real-time assistance to officers in the field. For instance, upon receiving notification that a sidearm was removed from its holster or fired, dispatch can send backup units immediately; this proves particularly important if the officer cannot call for assistance.6 Also, the device can provide mobile alerts to the officer’s supervisor or other appropriate personnel.7
While officer-involved shootings (OIS) are not new, they have received much attention in recent years. Data gathering via the STF may aid investigations related to an officer’s use of a firearm. For instance, an officer’s memory can be hampered due to the inherent stress involved in an OIS.8 To develop a better understanding of what transpired at the scene of an incident, agency personnel can use details, such as when and where shots occurred, provided by the STF that an officer may have forgotten.
STF technology certainly offers potential benefits for law enforcement. However, agencies considering the implementation of this technology have important matters to consider.
The devices yield a variety of data about the use of officers’ weapons. But, who will monitor, retain, and access the generated data? Would this duty overwhelm an already busy dispatch center and its personnel?9 Should others hold this responsibility? Agencies must make this determination.
Another important decision concerns what procedures to follow when an officer removes a sidearm from its holster in situations other than a shooting incident. These instances may include use of the weapon during training exercises; removal of the sidearm at the end of a shift; or stowing the firearm upon entering a facility, such as a jail housing unit, that prohibits weapons. In such circumstances, should officers switch off the device; leave it on, but with a notification to dispatch as to the circumstances; or take other steps?
Agencies also must determine if STF technology is cost-effective. Many have budgetary restrictions and will need to decide if the cost of the devices outweighs the potential benefits. The answer to this question may not rest in finances alone—police-community relations could factor into the decision-making process. For instance, given the seriousness of OISs, departments may weigh police accountability and transparency against budgetary concerns. Of course, establishing which officers will receive the device also will be an important factor in determining cost.
Finally, because STFs rely on cellular networks to transmit data, agencies must prepare for when a device is out of range. In these instances, STFs still can record data, but they cannot communicate with dispatch until they are back within range of appropriate networks.10
Because STFs are innovative forensic tools, police agencies likely will need to develop policies—perhaps, informed by existing guidelines—focused on their application. While formulating new policies, agencies should seek input and support from their officers. Also, to promote agency transparency, it would prove beneficial to include not only officers but, perhaps, also community members in discussions. Policies should address several issues.
- Who will receive the devices (e.g., all uniformed officers, nonuniformed personnel, supervisors, and administrators)?
- How should generated data be managed, including length of storage, purposes for its use, and who will have access to it?
- Would data be subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provisions and other legal issues in consultation with a review by legal staff members?Which procedures will dispatch personnel or supervisors follow, including appropriate protocols for response, when notifications are received from the device?
- May data generated from the device be used in internal affairs investigations or as evidence in criminal or civil litigation?
Regarding the last point, agencies should consult with their legal advisors to determine how the new technology will be viewed in court. In Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., the U.S. Supreme Court held that admissibility decisions are made based on the “scientific validity—and thus the evidentiary relevance and reliability—of the principles” of a technology.11 If they use STF technology for evidentiary purposes, agencies must be prepared in conjunction with their legal teams to address how it meets Daubert criteria.
While implementing the use of STFs, agencies will need to determine the role of training. Both in-service and academy training likely will need to include police officers, supervisors, and dispatchers and cover the installation, care, and monitoring of the STFs.
Finally, an evaluation process must assess the effectiveness of STF technology. The assessment should include a range of measures that may involve a cost-benefit analysis, the integration and utility of STFs in actual field use, and the effectiveness of the devices in aiding investigatory efforts in OISs.
The signaling tracker for firearms offers many potential benefits for law enforcement agencies. However, prior to implementation, agencies must carefully weigh all costs and considerations of the STF. If successfully deployed, the STF may enhance officer safety and aid investigations related to officer-involved shootings.