When you see headlines like 40 million accounts hacked at discount retailer Target, or 800,000 customers having their details snatched from Orange Communication, it's easy to see why cybercrime is frequently the focus of media attention.
Yet the latest FBI figures (for 2012) show street crime at horrific levels. Over a million violent acts. Nearly nine million property-related incidents (costing the victims $15.5 billion).
Not surprisingly, there's an enormous effort being made to reduce these statistics and technology is playing an increasingly important part in both prevention and detection.
Hollywood Visions Becoming Reality
So how close are scenes from RoboCop, Judge Dredd and Minority Report to what's actually available? Well in some cases, truth has even outstripped fiction.
There's plenty of stuff out there that seemed futuristic until quite recently. Drones developed for the military are now used to pursue criminals. There's no hiding place either. If high-resolution day and night cameras can't see them, thermal imaging detects their body heat (or that given off by vehicles).
Dangerous situation? Deploy the Throwbot from ReconRobotics. It's a relatively low-cost, camera-enabled device that can literally be thrown into a building to scout out the interior.
Although K-9 units have been used in the past, as Sgt. Carter Staaf pointed out, "That's a $20,000 dog and there's an emotional attachment if something happens. There's zero emotional attachment to the robotic camera. If it gets shot or smashed by an assailant, at least you know the bad guy is there."
In a suspected terrorist incident, officers can call on portable laser spectroscopy units that can identify various chemicals and explosives - while allowing personnel to maintain a safe distance.
Weapons Technology - Capture Not Kill
Stun guns are commonplace, but have not been free of controversy. Alternatives currently in use include the A-WASP (Acoustic Warning Signal Projector) that fires an extremely accurate high-intensity sound wave. It disorientates the target individual with much lower risk of physical injury. Similar results are being found with tightly focused, strobe-effect flashlights currently being tested.
An advance on the OC (pepper) spray is the pepper bullet. The problem with the rubber bullet that it's based on is that sometimes people still escape. Add pepper spray to the mix - released on impact - and the vast majority of people are stopped in their tracks.
Mobile units are being fitted with a different kind of "gun" - one that comes straight out of James Bond. The GPS bullet is fired from a mechanism in the patrol car's grille and the projectile is actually a tracking device that attaches to the suspect vehicle. It removes the need for "hot pursuit" and so reduces potential hazards for both police and public.
If it gets up close and personal, there's an armored glove under development that protects the forearm and has both a built-in camera and a stun-gun.
Big Brother Is Doing More Than Watching
It often seems CCTV is everywhere - and it's no longer simply watching what you do. Artificial intelligence and behavioral analysis are being used to identify suspicious activity and suspects can be tracked across multiple cameras. Add Hitachi's facial recognition and computers can sort through 36 million faces a second.
The University of Notre Dame is developing software that identifies criminals returning to the scene of the crime. Apparently they do, surprisingly often. The QuOD (Quesionable Observer Detector) differentiates between frequent visitors and casual onlookers.
The public can also being more pro-active. In West Virginia, the ReportCrimes app gives people the opportunity to report suspicious activity - anonymously if they prefer. Utilizing the technology available on their smartphone they can send photos and texts to waiting investigators.
At home they can be more security conscious thanks to developments like SmartWater - a forensically marked liquid that's both clear when dry and non-toxic. Each bottle is unique and tagged to the purchaser. It can be wiped on individual articles as a means of identification, or used in a security role to spray an intruder.
Sometimes technology is at its best handling mundane tasks. If you're stopped for a motoring offense (and apparently one in six get at least one traffic ticket per year), the officer is increasingly likely to be holding an iPad. They're now used for everything from writing citations (emailed to the offender in PDF format), to recording crime scene information. At a time when departments are under increasing fiscal pressure, savings in time and paperwork mean better use of resources elsewhere.
Tablets are also keeping more cops on the street. Tasks like filing reports, which used to require returning to base, can now be done in the vehicle.
As can advanced processes like DNA identification - thanks to MinION DNA from Oxford Nanopore Technologies. Instead of hours taken going back to the lab, with a special USB stick and an ordinary laptop, tests can be done in seconds, at the scene.
And when the accused gets back for interrogation, they'll find that the polygraph is no more. Instead of unreliable readings taken from blood pressure, perspiration and respiration rate, a helmet will read actual brain activity. A bit too sci-fi for you? Several units are already undergoing testing.
Today's law enforcement has an astonishing array of advanced technology to call on in their battle to protect and serve. Criminals are faced with better security systems, better detection systems and the threat of getting hit with 50,000 volts from a Taser, or a bullet filled with tear gas.
It is any surprise they stay home in front of a computer screen?
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