Criminal Justice Technology: From the Past to the Future

by Tabetha Cooper

Today’s criminal justice system owes a lot to technology.  Without technology, life for law enforcement personnel would be more difficult and more offenders would walk away from the crimes they commit never seeing justice.  According to Foster (2004), technology assists law enforcement but is not the reason crimes get solved.  Criminals are brought to justice by personnel that are assigned a 
Adult Criminal Justice System
Adult Criminal Justice System (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
case, their good judgment, and their ability to use the information that technology provides them.  Technology has evolved over time and it is important to look at all the technology available.  To have full appreciation of the technology that will be used in the criminal justice field an exploration of past, present, and even potential future technology must be conducted.
            Major evolution in technology began in the Political Era of Policing, which lasted from the 1840s through the 1920s.  Best stated in the article History of Police Technology (1998), at the beginning of this era police only used the existing technology of the gun and nightstick.  Both of these technologies are still used today but several advancements have been made throughout the era.  Samuel Morse and Alexander Graham Bell need to be acknowledged for making communication with the police a much easier and quicker task.  In the late 1870s, the criminal justice field adapted the technologies known as the telegraph (Morse), telephone, and police call boxes (Bell).  The telegraph was a way t
FBI Criminal Justice Information Services.
FBI Criminal Justice Information Services. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
o communicate using a series of dashes and dots to send a message, according to the National Museum of American History.  Bell invented the telephone making verbal communication possible; although, it took away precious time in an emergency waiting on the operator to patch the call to the desired location.  A short time later police call boxes where appearing on the streets of America and by the early 1900s where being introduced in other countries.  These call boxes where wired directly to the police station so police officers could report their locations and the public could quickly contact the police if need be. (History of the Metropolitan Police).
            Forensics started to see advances in technology during the Political Era as well.  Francis Galton, interested in the fingerprint, believed that no two people’s fingerprints were alike.  He was by no means the only person to notice or find a use for fingerprints, but he was the first to realize the significance of them.  He studied fingerprints and was able to see three different patterns in each: loops, whorls, and arches.  In 1892 he published his findings in his book, Fingerprints.  (Osterburg & Ward, 2007).  Osterburg & Ward (2007) address the fact that prior to 1901 a source of a stain could not be determined.  If the stain was obviously blood there was no way to prove if the source was animal or human.   Paul Uhlenhuth, in 1901, found a way to test to see whether an animal or human deposited the blood found with the precipitin test.  Crime laboratories used to process evidence came into the 
English: A photo of a traditional "blue lamp" as located outside most English police stations. This one is outside the Covent Garden Police Station of the Metropolitan Police in London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
criminal justice field in 1910, when the first was established in London.  By the 1920s there were many crime laboratories in the United States.
Technologies at the end of the Political Era included not only the gun and night stick, but also the telephone, police call boxes, fingerprinting, and blood testing.  Technologies continued to advance in the next era of policing, the Professional Era (1920-1970).  William Marston believed that a person’s heart rate increased when they were lying.  He came up with a lie detector test that was administered using a blood pressure cuff to monitor blood pressure.  He would ask yes and no questions to determine if someone was lying.  After a series of tests with employees of the Berkley Police Department, Marston was convinced that his 
John Jay College of Criminal Justice Field Tri...
John Jay College of Criminal Justice Field Trip to Forest Hills - 1993-94 (Photo credit: Duke of Crydee)
method was accurate.  In 1921, the Berkley Police Department began using his method of lie detecting in the investigations of minor thefts in the community.  (Fisher, 2008)
In 1923, Calvin Goddard made another step toward making investigations easier.  He invented the comparison microscope that could be used to compare bullets or cartridges left at the scene of a crime with bullets fired from a particular gun. (Osterburg & Ward, 2007).  If the gun was found at a suspect’s house and was used during the commission of a crime, strong evidence is present for trial.  Transportation for early police officers was either done by foot or bicycle.  In the 1930s police departments started to use police wagons.  Although police wagons were used by a few agencies starting at the beginning of the 1900s, it was not until the 1930s that their use was wide spread. (History of Police Technology, 2008).  Communication also advanced a little more during this era.  According to the Massachusetts Institution of Technology (2000), Al G
ross invented the walkie-talkie in 1938, and then came up with the Citizen’s Band (CB) in 1948.  These two technologies, when combined, became the two-way radio, which gave officers added safety and speedier response times.
Local police motorcyclists
Local police motorcyclists (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Making an emergency phone call was difficult throughout much of the Professional Era.  If someone needed police, fire or medical help they had to either call the operator or they had to have the number for the agency they needed at hand.  AT&T launched a plan that was suggested by the National Association of Fire Chiefs, implemented in 1968, for a number that could be used by the public to summon the assistance of emergency personnel.  They wanted the number to be something short that everyone could remember.  Based on the fact that Great Britain was already using 999 as an emergency number and that in the United States 1 as the second and third digit of a number had been reserved for business offices, AT&T decided to make this new emergency number 911.  (Foster, 2004).  The 1960s also brought about a widely used database, the National Crime Information Center (NCIC).  NCIC was implemented by the FBI in 1967, in an attempt to have one program that store several types of criminal information.  NCIC now stores a vast array of information such as fingerprints, DNA samples, stolen items, probated offenders, criminal histories, and missing person’s information. (NCIC, 2010)
As the Professional Era of Policing came to an end around 1970, the Community Policing Era began and is still in effect today.  As time marched on, law enforcement agencies had more resources at their fingertips.  At the beginning of this era most police department were using what had become traditional technologies such as the gun, nightstick, telephone, fingerprinting, and blood testing.  In addition, now they had polygraphs, comparison microscopes, police wagons, two-way radios, and 911 systems.  At the rapid pace that technologies were being offered to the general public, there was more need for additional police technologies and upgrades on existing ones.  In the 1970s computers were introduced into the criminal justice field.  Due to financial reasons, not very many police departments had them.  What departments that had the finances available to use them, did not use them that often due to the complexity of the systems and lack of training available.  It was not until the 1980s that computers were commonly being used.
Police downtown
Police downtown (Photo credit: Toban B.)
As automobiles evolved so did the technology police needed to enforce laws concerning them.  Although police radars were being used in a few police agencies by the late 1940s, the modern police radar was introduced in law enforcement in the 1980s.  When automobiles gained the ability to run at high rates of speed, there was a need for a device that could clock the speed of passing motorist.  John Aker and William Goodson secured a patent, in 1980, for a device that could accurately determine the speed of vehicles as they passed, the police radar.  Using technology now available with the advancements of computers, like microprocessors, helped Aker and Goodson improve existing military technology to give the police radar the ability to give an accurate reading on the speed of moving vehicles. (Traffic Radar Device, 1980).  In addition to the police radar, this era perfected and put many technologies into use.  There are far too many to discuss in detail but the most valuable include: metal detectors, portable x-ray machines used to detect bombs, night vision devices, bulletproof vests, and raid gear. (History of Police Technology, 1998).
In the 1980s, DNA was discovered and explained by Dr. Alec Jeffreys.  DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid and states a person’s genetics.  It can be found in the nucleus of cells and is same within every cell of each individual.  Much like fingerprints, no two DNA profiles are the same.  The only exception to this is identical twins.  DNA can be found in skin cells, hair, any bodily fluid, mucus membranes, organs, and fingernails.  With all of the possible place to find DNA, it is very 
State police hunt for the McMath kidnappers in...
State police hunt for the McMath kidnappers in Cape Cod section (Photo credit: Boston Public Library)
probable that a trace amount of it will be left at a crime scene, and when found can lead to a suspect.  The best thing about DNA is that it does not just point a finger to the guilty; it has also freed people that have been incarcerated for years on crimes that they did not commit. (Basic Biology of DNA, 2003)
With the use of computers, many of the existing technologies evolved; computers were becoming more useful for information storage and retrieval.  In 1979, AT&T set Enhanced 911, referred to as E911, into motion.  The E-911 system was able to connect to the telephone company and provide the dispatcher with the telephone number from which the called was made, as well as the address that the phone is actually located.  This worked until cell phones were invented.  By 2001 cell phones were more common than house phones.  With the high volume of calls being placed to 911 dispatched from cell phones, it was evident there needed to be a better way to track the location of the call.  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided that it was time to put tracking devices on cell phones.  Cell phone providers already kept track of which cell phone towers were providing service to a phone that was in use.  With the aid of Geographical Information Systems (GIS), the provider was able to use a triangulation method to determine an approximate location that the call was being placed from.  The triangulation method is done by using the three closest cell phone towers to locate the caller. (Foster, 2004).
: Criminal Justice Center
: Criminal Justice Center (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Dispatchers were now able to assign speedy emergency help, but the 911 systems were not done evolving yet.  In the early 2000s dispatch centers started using the Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) systems.  CAD systems help manage the dispatch center.  Software and hardware make it possible for dispatchers to access information from a number of databases.  It enables workers to pull up any available information on the 911 caller, including past calls and arrest records.  It helps the responding emergency personnel to be prepared for what they may encounter upon arrival to the scene.  It also has the capability to keep track of an officer’s whereabouts.  This enables the dispatcher to send the closest available unit and know where to send back up, should the need arise. (Foster, 2004).
With the continual evolving of computers and them becoming easier to use, police agencies have utilized them more for their own benefit.  Since the 1980’s several databases have been added to computers that can be accessed through other agencies via the Internet.  One of those databases is a widely used one called Automated Fingerprinting Information Systems (AFIS), here fingerprints can be stored on a computer verses index cards and filed in the storage room of an agency.  The national database can be accessed through NCIC.  Computers have made past duties much easier.  Take crime mapping for example.  At one time crime, mapping had to be done on a big map hung on the wall; pus
: Criminal Justice Center
: Criminal Justice Center (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
h pins would be stuck in the location of crime, and it helped identify the high crime areas.  Now it can be done on the computer, and with its convenience, can help an officer determine if, when, and where a crime is going to happen in a particular section of town.  Most patrol units have computers in their squad cars that link to NCIC, their agency, and some to AFIS directly.  Since most of society has become dependent on computers, more agencies have developed web pages where the public can voice concerns, leave anonymous crime tips, or simply find out what is going on in their community. (Foster, 2004)
Safety has been a huge concern during this era, not only for law enforcement but also for the general population.  Steps have been made to find less lethal weapon alternatives.  Some of these alternatives include: tazer guns, bean bag rounds, flash grenades, smoke bombs, and rubber bullets.  There are ongoing studies that may help implement future technologies.  Scientists have looked into a person’s reactions with electromagnetic waves.  They hope to find a way to safely cause extreme nausea, a brief seizure, a bout of disorientation, or even something that may make an offender temporarily see white spots before their eyes; anything to momentarily incapacitate him.  Studies are also being done to aid an officer with safety when it comes to his own gun.  Ideas have been formed for a gun that requires a special activation ring or fingerprint verification in order to get it to fire. (Foster, 2004)
English: Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center
English: Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
All kinds of wonderful technologies are in the works.  There are several devices that can attach to a patrol car.  One will give the officer the ability to turn any traffic light to green, during an emergency.  Another will be a remote that can deploy a spike strip.  A possibility of another device shooting an offender’s car with an electromagnetic beam that can disable his cars entire computer system.  With satellite systems advancing rapidly as well, it may be conceivable that eventually there will be a satellite that transmits footage of a crime happening as it is being committed, so an officer can see what a suspect looks like and where he is going when he leaves the scene of a crime.  One day all security cameras may be linked to one central network that uses facial recognition technology to give the police department the name and all the information available on a suspect before he is even finished committing the crime.  Most valuable merchandise sold in stores today has magnetic strips that sound an alarm if they have not been deactivated.  Plans have been made to manufacture everything with a computer chip that will work off of the same idea of technology.  The chip will always be inside of the merchandise and can be activated using a special scanning device.  This could help aid officers in locating stolen items.  All of these ideas are conceivable and further yet probable.  (Foster, 2004).  Most of these future technologies are being studied and may be implemented before the new criminal justice majors retire from their careers.
Police vans on Waterloo Bridge
Police vans on Waterloo Bridge (Photo credit: Martin Deutsch)
Criminal Technology has made life for law enforcement increasingly easier throughout the years.  Technology slowly began to advance as each era of policing passed.  Officers started out with nothing more than a nightstick and gun.  Today there is more technologies available to police officers than one could mention.  Every new technology leaves promise for a better one down the road.  And with the rapid pace of advancing technology within that last thirty years, it can be agreed that when it comes to technology of tomorrow, the sky is the limit.


DNA Initiative. (2003) Basic Biology of DNA. Retrieved May 22, 2010, from             http://www.dna.gov/basics/biology/  
Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2010) NCIC: The National Crime Information Center.   Retrieved May 20, 2010, from http://www.fbi.gov/hq/cjisd/ncic.htm
Fisher, J. (2008) The Polygraph Wars. Retrieved May 23, 2010, from             http://jimfisher.edinboro.edu/forensics/polywar1.html
Foster, R.E. (2004). Police Technology. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (2000) Inventor of the Week. Retrieved May 24, 2010,    from http://web.mit.edu/invent/iow/gross.html
National Museum of American History. (N.D.) Telegraph. Retrieved May 23, 2010, from            http://www.150.si.edu/150trav/remember/r819.htm
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Osterburg, J.W. & Ward, R.H. (2007) Criminal Investigation: A Method for Reconstructing         the Past (5th Ed.) Newark, NJ. Mathew Bender & Company, Inc.
Patent Storm. (1980) Traffic radar device - US Patent 4236140 Abstract. Retrieved May 21,        2010, from http://www.patentstorm.us/patents/4236140.html
Unknown. (1998) History of Police Technology. Retrieved May 21, 2010, from                                         http://www.police-technology.net/id59.html

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