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High-Accuracy Wireless Location for Blueforce Tracking

Written by Bhavin Shah

The Mountain View, Calif. Police Department (MVPD) became the first law enforcement organization in the San Francisco Bay Area to trial a high-accuracy blueforce tracking application.

The MVPD is no stranger to deploying technology to enhance its crime-fighting efforts, since it’s in Google’s hometown in the heart of Silicon Valley. However, the use of blueforce tracking to monitor officer movements breaks new ground, and is a strong indicator of where law enforcement in the U.S. and other countries will be headed in the next few years.

 

Adapting Technology to Protect Officers

Police departments have long used wireless location technology—usually GPS—to locate and track criminals and suspects. More recently, they have turned the tables and deployed high-accuracy, software-based wireless location to track…themselves.

Criminals have grown ever more brazen in their use of technology to thwart law enforcement, so it only makes sense for the police departments to track officers to more effectively direct them where they are needed, ensure their safety, and gain efficiencies.

There are some drawbacks, such as officer privacy, but they are easily mitigated by technical and administrative safeguards. Blueforce tracking with high-accuracy wireless location represents the future of law enforcement.

Police cars are equipped with tracking devices but once the officer leaves the vehicle (for example, when pursuing a suspect on foot or if undercover), he cannot be located or tracked. The only way to reach him is by using a traditional two-way radio. The two-way radio does not provide geo-location and is an obvious giveaway that an officer is in the area. Also, not all officers carry a two-way radio on them at all times.

Blueforce tracking is also becoming more prominent as local police departments struggle with significant personnel cuts brought on by budget pressures. By making do with fewer officers, department heads are seeking ways in which technology can fill the gap. Blueforce tracking using high-accuracy wireless location offers several advantages.

One is efficiency. Blueforce tracking provides a solution to monitor officers and better allocate resources to meet the needs of the community, for example, during events such as Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

Another is officer safety. Fewer officers means it is vital to know where the closest backup is to respond to officers in need. High-accuracy wireless location enables authorities to locate and track suspects and officers simultaneously, preventing ambushes and ensuring adequate response force.

“The economy has forced reductions in training, safety equipment and personnel at law enforcement agencies across America,” stated NLEOMF Chairman Craig W. Floyd. “These budget cuts have put our officers at greater risk…” Blueforce tracking ensures dispatchers have the visibility that is needed to protect officers.

Finally, better intelligence. Blueforce tracking provides data to build prosecutors’ cases. Police departments can prove where officers were at the time of an incident, helping re-create crime scenarios and convincing jurors that their version of a case is the correct one.

 

The Advantages of RFPM

Many police departments have relied on GPS devices to track criminals, but this only works if: a) the suspect is in possession of a GPS-enabled phone, b) that he has not disabled the GPS chip inside the phone, and c) that he is not indoors where it is near-impossible for GPS satellites to obtain a location fix. If any of those conditions are not met, then the requested location information is not useful. Likewise, Blueforce tracking using GPS is less than reliable.

A standards-based alternative location method is Radio Frequency Pattern Matching (RFPM).  This network-based positioning method uses an officer device’s own radio signals to identify his location, eliminating any dependency on satellites or other network hardware. RFPM is able to locate officers across any air interface and in any environment, eliminating limitations related to the device type or network technology.

RFPM works extremely well in non line-of-sight conditions such as dense urban and indoor environments and cannot be disabled by the officer (or an attacking criminal), unlike GPS, making it highly reliable for mission-critical law enforcement needs.

Since the location technology cannot be disabled, the question of officer privacy arises. In some cases, an officer may not want to have his movements tracked. A useful compromise is for officers to “opt-in” first as a part of their employment agreement. The tracking can also be limited to coincide with the officer’s shift, thus helping to overcome any privacy issues and enforce workforce discipline.

 

Mountain View Looks Toward the Future

PolarisWireless partnered with the Mountain View, Calif. Police Department (MVPD) to pilot the company’s Altus Blueforce tracking application to augment police safety measures at a recent area concert. Altus was used to locate and track over 20 uniformed and plain-clothes police officers during the two-day concert, during which the MVPD conducted approximately 100 arrests.

During this pilot deployment, some officers were equipped with department-provided mobile phones, which were monitored using Polaris Wireless Altus from a command post set up in the event grounds. 

Blueforce tracking provides police departments and other law enforcement organizations with the ability to track police and other field officers (such as firefighters and emergency medical services [EMS] technicians), specifically when they are out of reach of their patrol vehicles, which typically contain separate location and tracking capabilities.

San Francisco-based Locaid, the world’s largest LaaS (Location-as-a-Service) company, provided the officers’ location information, which was then displayed on the Altus tracking application. As a result, MVPD commanders were able to track officers’ movements during the concert. Altus provides a more efficient and less obvious way of tracking an officer’s location than traditional two-way radio and verbal alerts.

The MVPD sees many applications for this useful technology. According to MVPD’s Lt. Chris Hsiung, “One of the use cases would be if an officer got in a pursuit and then got in a foot pursuit…this technology would theoretically let us track where that officer was going.” Blueforce tracking fills a gap where current officer tracking methods fall short.

Continues Hsiung, “Anytime you have a visual representation of where your resources are deployed, it’s much easier to see where they are at and to redeploy them if needed…currently, we basically go off experience when officers say they are at different intersections.”

Having successfully trialed the technology, and overcome any privacy objections by having officers opt-in on department-provided Smartphones, the MVPD is looking ahead to maintaining its reputation as one of the most technologically advanced small police departments in the country.

One possibility is to combine officer tracking with suspect surveillance to ensure that investigations are successful and police operations are as safe as possible. “The power of the [Blueforce] application to locate officers via mobile devices presents us with many exciting opportunities.”

 

Bhavin Shah is the Vice President of Marketing and Business Development for Polaris Wireless.


Published in Law and Order, Feb 2014

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