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Grand Forks police work goes high tech

"That's my office," said Officer Wes Vert, pointing to a Ford Crown Victoria in the parking lot of the Grand Forks police station. "We rely on everything in there, from our computer system, our camera, our radar, radios and Wi-Fi"...

Officer Wes Vert
Grand Forks Police Officer Wes Vert checks the computer system in a patrol car. Modern police cars use a number of new technologies, from GPS to digital video cameras. Much of the information gathered in the cars can be uploaded automatically to a server once the car enters the police station parking lot. Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

"That's my office," said Officer Wes Vert, pointing to a Ford Crown Victoria in the parking lot of the Grand Forks police station. "We rely on everything in there, from our computer system, our camera, our radar, radios and Wi-Fi"

In both day-to-day operations and investigations, police are using more new technologies to track and process criminals and their activity.

Something as seemingly simple as the police radio has turned into a major piece of technology. With the click of a button, Grand Forks police can contact virtually every other law enforcement agency throughout the state and police in East Grand Forks.

"Now, the new digital radios are more like a handheld computer," Lt. Roger Pohlman said. "They allow for inter-operability between different agencies and the Department of Emergency Services. There are 20 channels with up to 20 banks on each channel. Everyone can converge on a channel and talk to each other."

Until recently, Pohlman headed the department's Facility and Equipment Bureau, which put him in charge of purchasing many of the new items and technology systems the department now uses.

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"One caveat that covers everything is cost," he said. "If you have the funds, it's almost unlimited what you can do. We stay a little on the conservative side. The new technology stuff we want other people to check out before we invest in it."

In-car video isn't a brand-new technology, but it continues to advance.

Pohlman said agencies on the West Coast are experimenting with high-definition personnel cameras that simply clip onto the pocket of the officer.

Local authorities are likely years away from using that type of device, but in 2008, the Grand Forks department installed digital video systems into their cars.

As soon as officers return to the department parking lot, a server uploads the video from that shift.

"The amount of video that can be stored in the hard drive and the upload capabilities are amazing," Pohlman said. "It's a huge asset. Otherwise, you have to be pulling tapes, handing out new tapes. It's time-consuming, and it takes time away from people."

The department also uses digital voice recorders for interviewing witnesses and suspects. Investigators are able to place their recorder on a docking station at their desks, and it automatically uploads the audio to the police server.

"At the same time, since the public has such ready access, the courts expect the police to be using technology also," Pohlman said. "The number of requests we've had for our in-car video and our audio dictation through the courts for discovery has increased a lot. Something we're researching is new digital storage for our evidence room. It would stay secure and maintain the chain of evidence, but can store all of this digital information we're bringing in."

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Video has become a much more common prosecutorial tool in courtrooms, not only the in-car variety.

"Surveillance video," said Sgt. B.A. Johnson, who heads the department's property crimes division. "We run into that daily, where we didn't before. More often than not, if a crime is committed, we will be able to get video from the place or a neighboring place."

The Grand Forks department recently upgraded its dispatch center and moved it into a new part of headquarters. Now, the center is compatible for "Next Generation Dispatch," which would utilize even more technology.

Identification technologies, like fingerprinting, have been around for more than a century. The Grand Forks department was one of the agencies to receive a grant from the attorney general's office to upgrade from ink fingerprinting to a digital system called Live Scan.

"It's portable also," Pohlman said. "Let's say we have a huge crime scene where, for some reason, we had to fingerprint all the people involved. We can take this system out on scene, plug it in and just scan everybody there. The other thing it does is save them in a digital database that can be cross-referenced immediately to other databases if someone's prints are on file. Before you had to print cards out, then you'd need someone to sit down and physically compare the ridges. That's time-consuming."

DNA evidence, which is only a few decades old, has taken technological strides.

"Years ago, you used to have to get about a quarter-size drop of blood," Johnson said. "You only need a few cells really. It's more common and easier to test for."

Controversy

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With new technologies, there is often controversy. In the past few years, the use of unmanned drones and traffic enforcement cameras has drawn the ire of personal rights activists.

The Grand Forks department is researching a license plate recognition system that could be used for parking enforcement.

But Pohlman said any sort of warrantless searches or surveillance must go through the proper legal channels.

"We go through a lot of training on constitutional rights," he said. "We know where you violate and where you don't. We make sure to stay away from that. Most of the time, the reasonable suspicion or probable cause is there to utilize covert devices. Otherwise, we don't use the covert devices if we don't get a warrant."

While fingerprint databases are commonplace in law enforcement, DNA databases are not likely to turn up any time soon.

"People may see a DNA database as Big Brother type of stuff," he said. "Procedurally, it's an easy thing to get a database. Rights-wise, we're a long way from doing that, if ever."

Deal with people

Pohlman said the use of technology has helped to streamline police work, but in essence, the job hasn't changed.

"Basic police work has stayed pretty much the same," Pohlman said. "It's all about being aware of the situation and communicating and interacting with the public or victims or suspects. Your people and communications skills are just as important as ever because that really never changes."

Johnson said his job still involves a lot of "gumshoe detective work."

"People are people," he said. "I'm sure if you talked to someone who was a police officer or a detective 50 years ago, it's the same job. It's just a little different nowadays with technology, but it's just dealing with people."

Related Topics: TECHNOLOGY
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