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10 Incredible Ways Science Is Making Tomorrow’s Cops

by Asher Bayot
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Public opinion about the police force tends to vary. Some see them as a mighty legion of men and women who exist to serve and protect, while others see them as the invasive, abusive minions of a Big Brother figure. Nevertheless, the police are undeniably an important part of society. From issuing parking tickets to arresting drug lords, police forces work hard to prevent criminal pursuits and maintain peace and order in the community.

Because crime keeps up with current technology, police forces are pressured to do the same. Thankfully, various innovations in science and technology are making police work faster and more effective than ever before. Here are some cool ways science is advancing police work.

10 High-Tech Handcuffs

February 20th marks National Handcuffs Day, an unofficial holiday that commemorates the birthday of modern handcuffs. The design we all know and love was patented in 1912 by George A. Carney, and has remained almost unchanged since its invention. Today, modern handcuffs are widely used by police departments around the world and are mostly produced by the Peerless Handcuff Company, which bought the patent from George A. Carney.

A new model of handcuffs seeks to challenge the century-old handcuffs designed by Carney. A fascinating—yet frightening—design of high-tech handcuffs promises to not only restrain, but also to electrocute or drug the detainee when necessary. The handcuffs, developed by a US company called Scotsdale Inventions, contain a microphone, a camera, and sensors that can determine a detainee’s present location and physical health. It also contains a device that can send electric shocks to anyone who tries to resist arrest.

The shocks can be activated either by the one guarding the detainee or by the detainee himself through acts of aggression. If a detainee attempts something violent, like grabbing a police officer’s weapon, while wearing the high-tech handcuffs, an immediate shock gets delivered straight into their wrists. The intensity of the shocks can range from 20,000 to 150,000 volts, and can last as long as 10 seconds.

The restraining device also contains a “substance delivery system” which injects different types of drugs into a detainee’s system. A needle or a gas injection system installed in the handcuffs can deliver either a strong sedative or a paralytic.

As cool as this may seem, it’s also pretty terrifying. While detainees can be violent at times even while in handcuffs, police-perpetrated torture and abuse of detainees in handcuffs is not unheard of, and this device could just make it all the easier.

9 GPS Bullets

According to the FBI, one out of every 100 high-speed police pursuits ends in a fatality. Police pursuits account for at least one death per day, and they cause one percent of all police officer deaths in the US. Forty percent of all police chases end up in crashes, and one third of the deaths that result from violent police pursuits are of innocent bystanders. In December 2013, four separate police pursuits in four days caused the deaths of five people in Los Angeles alone.

Because of these terrifying numbers, many people are criticizing the effectiveness of police pursuits in combating crime. That is why a company is lending their help to make police pursuits less violent and more effective. A Virginia-based company called StarChase invented a small GPS device that can be shot toward a vehicle fleeing from the scene of the crime. While the suspect is speeding away, the GPS device—and not a police car—will track the suspect’s location and relay this information to police officers in nearby areas.

Once the GPS device is attached to the escaping vehicle, police officers around the area will be alerted of the car’s coordinates every three to five seconds. The police car that shot the GPS device can even turn off their siren and slow down to make the suspect think that no one’s giving chase. As many as 15 law enforcement agencies are already using this device, including officers located on the US-Mexico border, where car chases are a fairly common occurrence.

8 Cameras That Predict Aggression

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Many political leaders endorse the widespread installation of CCTV cameras to keep a watchful eye on their constituents. An extreme example would be the Russian government, which placed surveillance cameras inside the shower rooms of the participants of the Sochi Olympics. Despite claims that CCTV cameras are meant to prevent crimes from occurring, official numbers would reveal that surveillance cameras have actually done almost nothing to prevent criminal activities. In the UK, it was found that that only one case a year is solved per 1,000 surveillance cameras installed.

However, a new innovation in surveillance technology may actually be able to bridge that gap. Shahriar Nirjon and his fellow researchers from the University of Virginia have created a camera that can predict if a person is about do something violent. The camera generates a 3D skeleton figure of the subject and analyses its movement, looking out for precursors of potentially aggressive actions. Nirjon’s camera was able to predict a kick with 90 percent accuracy without even requiring the subject to face the camera. The researchers say they also plan to enable the camera to predict verbal aggression.

The camera was based on the gaming sensor Kinect and was originally intended to warn hospital staff when a patient is about to get violent, but these aggression-predicting cameras could easily be used to replace the ineffective security cameras currently installed in metropolitan areas.

7 NYPD2020

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New York City has one of the biggest police forces in the world, with 34,500 police officers and 51,000 employees overall. That averages out to around one cop per 250 New Yorkers. Despite having a security force larger than the FBI, New York is still home to a huge number of criminal activities. Violent crimes in New York are around one third higher than the US average, while 2,817 registered sex offenders are recorded to be living within the city.

Only last year, the NYPD revealed a program to modernize their police force that could curb New York’s crime problem once and for all. The program is called NYPD2020, and its primary project is creating a wave of police cars that are equipped with high-tech tools that will make police work much more efficient. One such tool is an infrared scanner that can read and remember every number that it detects—from plate numbers to addresses—and can automatically send that data to an NYPD command post. This will be efficient for tracking vehicles that may have been stolen or used for previous criminal activity. The cars would also be equipped with cameras that can stream live videos back to the NYPD headquarters. The department also plans to add fingerprint scanners and facial-recognition software to these modern cruisers.

6 3D-ID

One of the most important—yet difficult—tasks of forensic investigation is identifying corpses. During the recent devastation of typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, hundreds of bodies had to be buried in mass graves before they were properly identified. In India, the police estimate that as many as 102 dead bodies were left unidentified each day in the country.

Researchers from North Carolina State University have devised a system to make identifying dead bodies easier. Forensic anthropologist Ann Ross and her team created a software called the 3D-ID that can determine the identity of a body using its skull. The software compares the skull with a database of CT scans that are stored in the software, which will help the investigator identify the ancestry and sex of the unidentified body, narrowing down the potential choices. The investigator can then use this information to arrive at an accurate identity for the body.

5 Near-Instant DNA Profiling

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Contrary to what popular TV shows might tell you, matching a DNA sample isn’t as simple as “running it in the lab” overnight. Rigorous methods are involved with DNA profiling, all of which require long hours and expensive equipment. However, a company called LGC Forensics promises a new device that can profile a person’s DNA in just under an hour.

They call it the RapiDNA system, and it’s a portable tool that can be brought to the scene of the crime for immediate analysis. Around the size of an airline carry-on bag, the RapiDNA system can extract genetic information from organic materials like blood, semen, or saliva left on a crime scene. This information can be compared with available profiles on the National DNA Database to successfully match the DNA with a suspect. All of this can be accomplished in less than 60 minutes.

Because justice is sometimes slow for victims of horrible crimes, the RapiDNA system aims to make police work easier and faster by providing a tool that can help put them on the criminal’s tail almost immediately after a crime is committed.

4 Corneal Imaging

Eye on blue background (shallow DoF)
TV shows like NCIS and CSI regularly depict scenes where the detectives consult the department’s computer geek and try to determine who a suspect is by analyzing low-resolution images that were taken during the crime. Perhaps drawing inspiration from this ridiculously common TV trope, researchers Rob Jenkins and Christie Kerr are developing a method called corneal imaging, a simple way to identify people or objects reflected on the cornea of a person’s eye—from nothing more than a photo. Using a typical digital camera, the scientists took pictures of a person’s face and enhanced the eye of the person in the photo using an image processing software. They found out that the cornea of the subject was able to reflect the images of the people near them when the photo was taken.

To see if these reflections can be put to practical use, a face-matching experiment was conducted by the researchers. They asked each of five volunteers to have their photos taken. While not being photographed, some of the volunteers were asked to stand close to a volunteer who was currently having their picture taken so that their image would be reflected on the subject’s cornea. Another set of volunteers was asked to match the actual pictures of the volunteers with the corneal reflections that were derived from the photos. The volunteers were able to successfully match the photos with the corneal images 84 percent of the time.

3 Virtual Autopsy

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Autopsies are an integral part of an investigation, especially in cases that involve horrible incidents like murder or suicide. However, autopsies aren’t always a guaranteed thing when the police are dealing with a corpse. There are many religions, for example, that do not allow their dead to be autopsied. Various cultural backgrounds of the victims may also prevent pathologists from even considering putting the deceased bodies under the knife.

That is why a newly developed method of autopsy may be very helpful in these types of situations. With virtual autopsy, a combination of CT and MRI scans will generate a 3D image of a body, which a pathologist can “dissect” using a computer. Without actually cutting up the body, the pathologist will be able to determine the nature of the person’s death.

Aside from religious and cultural issues that the virtual autopsy solves, the method can also prevent more errors in describing autopsies, as the 3D image can be shown to other pathologists to acquire a consensus on the victim’s death. It will also be the first time police departments can keep a real 3D image of a victim’s body for documentation purposes. And believe it or not, decomposing bodies can also receive a more thorough analysis through virtual autopsy than with the physical procedure.

2 Robot Cops

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In the 1987 film Robocop, Alex Murphy was brutally killed in the line of duty by a crime syndicate, then brought back to life in the form of a law enforcing cyborg who paraded vengeful justice through the streets of Detroit.

Though perhaps not as dramatic as what happened to Alex Murphy, there’s something similar happening in real-life police departments. There are a huge number of real police officers who suffer from serious injuries on a daily basis. Aside from having to endure physical pain and limitations, disabled police officers are also usually the first to go when police departments decide to cut costs and save money. In 2010, as many as 18,000 injured police officers from the UK faced the threat of being relieved from duty because they weren’t fit enough to work on the streets anymore.

A collaborative effort between Florida International University and the US Navy Reserves may help disabled police officers become a force to be reckoned with on the front lines once again. The project is taking two robots from the Florida Institute of Human and Machine Cognition and redesigning them as wheeled police officers that can patrol streets and alleys, write parking tickets, and even respond to 911 calls.

For these robots to be able to do these things, disabled police officers will be assigned to control them virtually from their offices in the police headquarters. This will allow disabled and seriously injured officers to work without being physically present in the streets. The researchers say the challenge in designing the robots is that they need to look intimidating enough to scare away outlaws, but also approachable enough that a three-year-old won’t hesitate to ask for their assistance.

1 Super-Recognizers

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According to psychologists, super-recognizers are people who can never forget a face. While some people might find their ability creepy and unsettling, the London police think otherwise. Super-recognizers are currently one of the most effective tools the London police force uses to solve crimes in the city. Around 200 people with this special ability have been recruited by the London Police Department to become a part of a special unit of police officers that fight crime using this “superpower.” The super-recognizer squad have been able to solve crimes ranging from simple muggings to big-time drug deals, using mainly their uncanny ability to recognize a perpetrator’s face.

During the 2011 London riots, as many as 30 percent of the 5,000 total arrests made were because of the super-recognizers. One super-recognizer even identified 300 rioters by himself during the investigation. On the other hand, the department’s facial recognition software was only able to identify one rioter. Super-recognizers were also useful during the Notting Hill Carnival, where they were able to prevent potential criminal activities by identifying known criminals and gang members in the crowd.

Others aren’t too thrilled with the London Police’s use of super-recognizers. NO CCTV, a UK-based pro-privacy organization, says that this “gimmick” is just another ploy to push widespread surveillance among the citizens of London. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of super-recognizers in combating crime is undeniable.

Asher Bayot is currently in grad school and is pursuing a career in cognitive psychology. In his spare time, he watches lots of sitcoms and eats lots of ramen. You can send him an email here or follow him on Twitter.

fact checked by Jamie Frater