The Cop Column
April, 2004
Sgt. Rick Hord
Public Information Officer

Technology Helping Crime Fighters

In the first year of the 20th Century, police in Britain used brand-new technology when fingerprints on a billiard ball identified and convicted the thief.

The crime may seem quaint to us, but in 1901, decent billiard balls could only be made of ivory, and ivory was scarce. Trafficking in all manner of stolen ivory was a lucrative criminal enterprise.

We seldom see genuine ivory billiard balls any more, but fingerprints are still putting criminals in jail.

What has technology done for us lately? Here are but a few examples:

*Recreating the Crime: One of the most exciting new fields in science is "Forensic Entomology," or the study of what the maggots and other creepy little bugs on and near dead bodies can tell us about the demise of their host. A cutting-edge branch of another field, "Forensic Botany" got its start a few years ago by proving a dead woman's last meal came from Wendy's and not McDonald's. That got her boyfriend off the hook and led investigators to her other lunch date. The same scientists proved a grieving young mother was a murderer by examination of one-cell algae in the water swallowed by her drowned 15-month old son. That proved the little boy did not die in the creek where his body was found, which shot holes in the mother's abduction story.

*Identifying the Culprit. This much is old news: DNA at a crime scene can convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent if you've got a suspect with whom to make a comparison. The next step will be DNA telling us what an unknown suspect looks like. In Louisiana last year, police thought they were looking for a white male suspect, but a private lab said the suspect's DNA came from a black male. The witnesses were wrong, the lab was right. DNA scientist Tony Frudakis predicts, "A few years from now, we're going to have figured out so many traits that a criminal might as well leave his driver's license at the scene..."

*Getting the Bad Jail into Custody. You don't have to be very old to remember when many cops carried "slap-jacks" in their back pockets. Despite what you may see in the movies, we prefer to make arrests without using force. When the suspect won't allow that, we no longer slap him with a chunk of lead sewn into a leather strap. Pepper spray, electric Tasers, and bean-bag shotgun rounds are three items now available for use by the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office. There will be more in the years ahead. There's a market for ways to bring the reluctant and violent into custody without injury, and good old American Ingenuity is producing an endless stream of products.

Finally, a warning: technology will never replace humans. Don't become complacent in the foolish belief scientists can catch all the crooks. The most effective weapon against crime will always be citizens who aren't afraid to "become involved."