Police Technology: A History, Past, Present, and Future

by Elizabeth Hall
We have come a long way, since the Old West when law enforcement meant a local sheriff, with just a gun and a sheriff badge, and the town posse.  Law enforcement in those days was a dangerous business.  Policing can be divided into three eras, the Political Era, the Professional Model, and the Community Policing Era, which is the system we operate today (Foster, 2000).  In all three eras, there were significant advances in police technology.  By 1903, police were patrolling unpaved streets, and uneven sidewalks, on foot and horseback.  This was during the Political Era, which started in 1840 and lasts until 1920, named for the political bonds tied to law enforcement regulation.  Other technological inventions included the telephone, the telegraph, police call boxes, the Bertillon system used to identify criminals, and, early versions of fingerprinting systems.  By the time the Professional Model Era began in 1920, police were also equipped with a gun and a nightstick.  This era ushered in the reformists, who aimed to clean up political ties to policing .This era brought with it, the polygraph, better fingerprinting methods, handwriting classification systems, and the use of the automobile considerably more.  Radar became available during this time, .along with two-way radios, and the Federal Government tried to give money to the state and local governments to help with crime control.  The emergency 911 number was created in this era.  The Professional Model gave way to Community Policing in 1970, which is the system we operate under currently.  There have been many technological advances in this era.  Policing was turning to computerization.  Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) was developed and implemented, and the National Crime Information Center ( NCIC) was formed.  Enhanced 911 systems came into play, and the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) was implemented.  These are just some of the advances in technology for the Community Policing Era. We will discuss more of these later in the paper.  The future of law enforcement holds much advancement in store, such as exoskeletons to increase strength and durability, weapons advancements, and intelligence advancements.  (Unknown, 1998)
The Political Era is the time between 1840 and 1920 and is signified by the close relationship with politics and law enforcement during this time.  This relationship benefitted both the politician, and the local law enforcement agencies.  During this era, police technology included advances in guns, and the still used police nightstick. General technology of the era began in 1837 with the invention of the telegraph system by William Cooke, and Charles Wheatstone.  Samuel Morse advanced the technology further, using his Morse code.  In 1851 Boston, the telegraph was used for emergency assistance by the fire departments in coordinating their actions, and for communication.  After this in 1876, the telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell, which paved the way for police telephones not too long after its emergence as new technology.  By 1883, call boxes were invented that could both serve the police and the public.  For the police, these boxes allowed them to reduce costs by reducing the number of patrol officers needed for the streets.  For the public, these boxes, wired directly to police assistance would increase promptness and effectiveness of police response in emergencies.  (Stewart, 1994)
The Bertillon System of Identification known as Anthropometry used to identify criminals was invented by Alphonse Bertillon, and involved extensive physical measurements of features such as the head and face to produce a “portrait” of the criminal (Bertillon System, 2010).  Police also began using police wagons to transport criminals.  Police technology had come a long way since the days of the Wild West with the famous sheriffs such as Wyatt Earp.  The Political Era stayed in effect until the 1920’s.
The Professional Era began in the 1920’s, with the reform movement aiming to rid policing of the often corrupt political ties to policing, and change law enforcement into a more professional model.  This era promoted regulation, equality in the enforcement of the law, and national level policy-making.  August Vollmer was instrumental in this era.  He opened the first crime lab, and implemented the use of the polygraph machine, and the use of fingerprint and handwriting analysis.  This was the precursor to the Federal Bureau of Investigation opening in 1932, what was to become the “most comprehensive and technologically advanced forensic laboratory in the world” (Unknown, 1998).
  During this era, there were also other technological advancements.  In the 1930’s, the automobile began to be used more in law enforcement.  Two-way radios came into play during this time as well.  Radar invented, and, made available to the traffic sections of law enforcement in the 1940’s was a great invention to resolve traffic issues, and safety.  Crime concern became  a nationalized concern during the 1964 presidential campaign.  Candidate Barry Goldwater plunged crime into the national spotlight during his campaign, as crime rates were rising at the time. Although he lost to Lyndon Johnson, the effect of his campaign was that Johnson implemented the appointment of the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, which was faced with the task of investigating, and providing a solution to the problem of the rapidly growing crime rates.  One of the implementations of the commission’s findings was the invention of the 911 emergency number, created by AT&T in 1968. (Unknown, 1998)
The commission also promoted the computerization of law enforcement.  A subsidy program managed by the Law Enforcement Assistance program was created to manage the computerization process.
In 1970, the Community Policing model took over as the system that our Government uses for criminal justice.  This system recognizes that in order to control crime, more must be done besides arresting offenders and closing cases.  Policy makers recognized that solving the root causes of crime in the community was the better way to control crime. This model is still in effect today. During this era, computerization of law enforcement systems has been greatly advanced.  Most of these advances can be traced back to two inventions; the transistor and the microprocessor.  These inventions lead to the invention of computers.  (Foster, 2000)
Computers have been the key factor in many different advances in police technology.  The manner in which data is collected, stored, and studied was affected in a major way. Databases have been created that can be studied and used nationally, such as AFIS, and NCIC.
AFIS, or the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, is a national database that can be accessed by law enforcement agencies to match fingerprints found at crime scenes.  If  you have ever been arrested, the fingerprints that were taken at the time of booking, will be uploaded into AFIS.  This speeds up the fingerprint identification for crime scene technicians, detectives, and anyone else concerned with evidence management. (Foster, 2000)
NCIC, or the National Crime Information Center which connects fingerprint information to individual criminal records, such as; criminal record, tattoo pictures, offender photographs, current status of offender (ie. Parole or punishment information), and any other identifying features that can be recorded.  This technology saves officers valuable time in having the records readily available whether in the office or the patrol car.  It also allows officers responding to 911 calls to look up offender information on license plates, addresses, or drivers licenses from their cars which now are equipped with computers, before they have to have contact with suspects.  The officers are more informed and can use more caution, when they are made aware of violent tendencies, or other suspect information.  Fingerprint information, was sped up even further with the invention of the fax machine.  Information can be transmitted between agencies or from NCIC to the requesting agency in seconds, when mailed requests took weeks to receive results.  By the late 1990’s the Integrated Automated Fingerprint System (IAFIS) enabled instantaneous national fingerprint information. (Foster, 2000).
Other advances in technology in this era include Geographic Information Systems, which help in locating suspects and victims, and Global Positioning technology, which uses satellites to locate people. Radio Frequency Transmitter chips have given technologists the ability to “chip” items.  This involves putting a small microchip in items such as electronics and other expensive items, which in effect tags that particular item, which allows registration of items to a particular person, and if stolen, can aid in locating the item through radio frequency.  (Foster, 2000)
Transponder systems being tested now, may be the answer to controlling the prison population.  Less dangerous offenders can be placed on house arrest using these transponder systems.  The criminal has an electronic bracelet placed around their ankle.  The technology in the bracelet allows administrators to verify whether offenders are indeed at their house, through the telephone system. Future applications of this technology can save the criminal justice system the cost of housing some criminal offenders, which is a major expense for our system currently. (Foster, 2000)
With the creation of enhanced 911, police were able to make use of the computer, in automating the dispatch process or Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD).  This allows 911 call dispatchers to see detailed address, which makes it easier for emergency responders to locate victims, and possible suspect information on cases such as domestic violence cases, making the dispatcher a more useful tool in dealing with emergencies.  (Foster, 2000)
In the late 1980’s, the advancement of DNA technology, which allows definitive identification of a suspect through bodily fluids left at a crime scene. With the exception of  identical twins, no two people have the exact identical DNA.  This technology is particularly effective, since it can identify suspects from cold cases, current cases, and even prove innocence of people wrongly convicted.  This has been one of the most useful technologies to date.  (Foster, 2000)
The future of police technology seems limitless, with the rapid advances in technology.  There are scientists working on cyborg technology, and Raytheon has developed an exoskeleton system that already enables the wearer to carry up to 200lbs of weight without taxing the body (Raytheon, 2010).  Applied to law enforcement, this technology can be designed to armor a person, and provide extra strength, speed, and body power, capable of making officers more resilient to bodily harm.  Computer databases will be available globally one day, giving criminals more difficulty in hiding from law enforcement.
In conclusion, police technology has come a long way in a short period of time. With each advancement in technology, it is harder for criminals to get away with committing crime, through the advancement of evidence technology, database and information technology, and police safety technology.  The criminal of the future will have little or no chance of evading law enforcement.

Bertillon system. (2010). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved May 26, 2010, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/62832/Bertillon-system
Foster, R.E. (2000).  Police Technology.  Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall
Raytheon, (2010). The Exoskeleton’s Super  Technology.  Retrieved from http://www.raytheon.com/newsroom/technology/rtn08_exoskeleton/
Stewart, R.W.(1994).  The Police Signal Box: A 100 Year History.  Retrieved from:
Unknown. (1998) History of Police Technology. Retrieved May 23, 2010, from

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  1. I am wondering if we are truly still in the "Community Policing Era". Considering serious budget cuts and cuts in so called "Community Policing Services" in order to put more "boots on the ground" it seems that many police departments are casting aside community policing and returning to more aggressive patrol and interdiction models. There seems to be less community involvement rather than more in some cities. Of course, it might be considered that many of these agencies really did not know what community policing was supposed to be in the first place.

  2. I have also seen a gradual movement towards this particularly in larger cities with more area to cover and less manpower to use. This seems to drive them to use more technology to do their jobs, but also pushes them further away from the communities they live in. Another thing is that technology affords them more safety because they can do some of their work from afar, utilizing social media and digital technology.

  3. I appreciate this article. I also suggest that to use new technology like video conference services in Miami and near by area


All comments and feedback appreciated!

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