Groups of police officers from local communities and as far away as South Africa gathered in Cambridge on Monday and Tuesday to listen to lectures on Google Glass, drones, wearable technology and next-generation GPS.
The Police Innovation Conference hosted at the Microsoft New England headquarters in Kendall Square looks at how technology is changing traditional policing but the subject matter is also raising concerns about privacy.
When Robert Champagne joined the Peabody police force in January of 1975 as a beat cop, technology took on a much simpler form.
“At the beginning when you came on- technology was a pencil, not a pen, and a piece of paper - a small little notebook … nobody had radios," he said. "You’d go out and walk a beat you’d be responsible for a certain geographic area and you’d look to see if the light came on.”
Peter Olson, a former Peabody detective hired by Robert Champagne in the 1990s - long after Champagne became the chief of police of that North Shore community - said the police force is changing dramatically.
With Champagne’s blessing, Olson became the go-to guy to marry old world policing with modern times.
“You’re dealing with everything from a 9-1-1 medical call to the next minute you get a call about cyber bullying. So, you have to have now specialized units,” he said. “Cyber-related crimes just keep rising. Everything from identity theft, to cyber bullying, to malware on computers stealing your bank account information. So, it’s a new world for police.”
A world of robots, drones, face recognition technology, advanced communication systems and new ways of tracking criminals based on algorithms and mathematics models.
Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas said perhaps the most useful tools are not the most exotic examples of modern and future policing. And social networking may be the most practical.
“For a long time, we’ve resorted to traditional methods of giving information out," he said. "And finding that a large portion of our population doesn’t use that as a means of information. So, in moving in that direction we involved ourselves in developing Facebook and Twitter, which they use in real time to report crime.”
And it’s a two-way street. Hass said text messaging and Twitter have also given citizens the ability to report crimes anonymously, and he hopes that information will lead to a break, for example, in a major cold case like the murder of 16-year-old Charlene Holmes, who was slain in a drive by shooting in Cambridge during the summer of 2012.
And to that end Cambridge is also using a new app developed by Peter Olson called MyPD, which he said puts a lot of resources in police pockets- such as sending messages between police, or sending out notifications to the community.
Olson, who is now retired from the Peabody police, said he wants to take policing much further. While some police forces around the country continue to insist on doing things by the old book with billy clubs, lots of paper work, and radio calls, Olson said he wants to bring more police departments into his world. He said he organized this week’s Police Innovation Conference with several questions in mind.
“What’s the latest technology?" he asked. "How can we adopt it? Can we adopt it? Should we adopt it? What can we learn from Cambridge? How can other agencies learn to automate their dispatch for Twitter?”
Watertown Police Chief Ed Deveau said a shootout, the fear of unexploded bombs and a suspect on the loose, was why his force asked Boston police to bring a robot to the scene in the epic days after the Marathon bombing.
“We did need robots that day," he said. "We had undetonated explosives here. We had no capability of handling it ourselves, and that was seamless that day.”
Tom Phelps, the director of robotics products for the iRobot Corporation, was one of several executives exhibiting products at the conference. Phelps brought along two of the company’s tactical mobile robots to demonstrate to police officers. Another company at the conference showed off a 3-D printer that had the capability of printing police badges, busts of suspects, Google Maps with skyscrapers, and tungsten guns.
Also at the conference was face recognition software that makes it harder for criminals to disguise their looks even after surgical alterations.
No doubt, in an age of growing concerns over privacy, police overreactions and NSA surveillance, a lot of folks out there are thinking “that’s scary stuff.” Boston attorney Howard Friedman, who defends clients against alleged police abuse, is one of them:
“There are security cameras everywhere," he said. "And so there are a lot of high tech ways that they are able to get information about who’s doing what, and who’s where. We’re not quite as bad as London, but it’s getting that way.”
Boston and other communities have installed new cameras since the Boston Marathon bombing in various locations, and police forces around the country are steadily making use of new eyes in the sky. Though Peter Olson concedes that drones are a concern for many, he said the flying surveillance robots would save time and money in cases of missing persons.
Modern policing, experts said, also means embracing policies that mitigate tensions between police and citizens and that cut down on misunderstandings. Future policing means not only trying to predict when and how potential conflicts might occur, but also weeding out potential bad police by using better psychological profiling in the recruitment stage, and training veteran cops to adapt to the modern world of increasing linguistic, ethnic, gender, and sexuality differences.
Technology helps in the communication process, said veteran policeman Robert Champagne. Forty years after patrolling the streets of Peabody, becoming police chief and now just a few weeks from retiring, he proudly looks out on the police force in his town; among a growing number of departments that have enthusiastically embraced new ways of doing things:
"Now we have instant communication," he said. "We are able to send pictures of crime scenes directly to officers who are out there."