The Blog

Dogs and Drones, Cameras and Phones

Most of us want both peaceful, secure communities and a fundamental respect for civil liberties. Let's look at four highly visible, often controversial elements of law enforcement's quest to ensure safety and security at public gatherings.
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UNITED STATES - APRIL 17: A U.S. Capitol Police K-9 officer patrols the Capitol grounds. Two nearby Senate office buildings were evacuated during today due to suspicious packages and letters.(Photo By Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 17: A U.S. Capitol Police K-9 officer patrols the Capitol grounds. Two nearby Senate office buildings were evacuated during today due to suspicious packages and letters.(Photo By Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)

Many innocent Americans, particularly black, brown, and/or Muslim, live in fear that they will be stopped, frisked, or otherwise detained by agents of the government, their persons, homes, vehicles violated by unlawful searches and seizures. Of course, many Americas fear that while engaging in everyday life events -- attending school, taking in a motion picture at the Cineplex, cheering on the finishers at a marathon -- they will be victimized by a sudden, shattering attack of bullets or bombs.

These fears are not mutually exclusive: Each reflects a legitimate concern of freedom-loving individuals who wish to keep themselves and their families safe. With the terror of the week of April 15 still fresh, the impulse to trade freedom for security is understandable. In fact, even before the Boston bombings, a majority of Americans were prepared to make the swap.

But, as Timothy Egan wrote recently in the Times, "Security upgrades can be made, without wholesale downgrades to daily living."

How? By making better use of both traditional law enforcement tools and more recent technological innovations -- and by ensuring the participation of civil libertarians in the process of planning these "security upgrades."

Let's look at four highly visible, often controversial elements of law enforcement's quest to ensure safety and security at public gatherings.

Dogs. Police dogs come in a number of breeds and sizes, and are trained in a variety of specialties. The German Shepherd is the canine of choice for most law enforcement agencies, especially for routine patrol work. But they come with baggage. Trained principally as trackers and so-called "attack dogs," they can come across as dangerous, even "out of control."

Enter the Labrador Retriever, gentle, loyal, lovable. Known for its excellent olfactory faculties and its speed and endurance -- on land and in water -- the lab is a superb bomb dog. With much better PR than its German cousins.

Which is a shame. If a German Shepherd is a "bad dog" the blame rests with the human beings in its life: the person who selected that particular animal, and the dog's training and handling. But there is no disputing the remarkable public safety contribution of the breed (including bomb detection; read how an airline pilot and an NYPD German shepherd named Brandy prevented a mid-air bombing on a 1972 TWA flight from JFK to LAX).

Regardless of breed, bomb-dog sweeps (and resweeps) of vulnerable venues, from sporting events to political rallies, airports to national monuments, are a cost-effective insurance policy.
But there is also a role for dogs in tracking and cornering bombing and other criminal suspects.

Which brings us back to German Shepherds, and why they are often subjects of civil suits, media exposés and YouTube footage of grimacing individuals pointing to ugly wounds in arms, thighs, buttocks. Invariably, these bite victims found themselves in the toothy grasp of dogs trained to "bite and hold" vs. "circle and bark."

Before condemning the former method, it is important to recognize that in a confrontation between an armed suspect and a dog trained in the more merciful circle-and-bark approach, the animal can be shot or stabbed with relative ease. Picture a police dog merely circling Adam Lanza at the Sandy Hook Elementary School or the Brothers Tsarnaev on Boylston Street barking itself hoarse but not moving in to end the threat. You're picturing a dead dog, with continuing risk to human life.

So, as the Boston Marathon bombings illustrate, both types of canines have a role: the bomb dog to sniff out potential explosives (if you see one sit down on the job, run like hell; she's picked up the scent of explosives) and the patrol K-9 to assist in tracking and capturing suspects.

I'm a strong, strong supporter of dogs in police work (and not just because I'm a "dog person"). These animals have saved many lives in airports, aboard planes, on urban streets and in suburban and rural communities. And they've kept cops from pulling the trigger prematurely.

But every aspect of a K-9 program -- policies, procedures, practices -- must be subjected to the sense and sensibility, jointly, of law enforcement experts and civil libertarians. Preferably in a conference room versus a court room.

Drones. From the beginning of the controversy, The Huffington Post has played host to a critically important conversation about drones, or UAVS, "Unmanned Aerial Vehicles." On the domestic front, the controversy has been doing a slow but accelerating boil for two years. I'm not talking about the missile-laden, weapons-of-mass-destruction the government has employed in far-off lands like Pakistan and Yemen. No, I'm talking about those 3.5-pound helicopter drones that are equipped with night-viewing, still- and video-cameras, the ones that go by cute, innocuous names such as "Dragonfly." They look like toys, built from model aircraft kits.

But, OMG, they have extraordinary potential in furthering the cause of public safety, from locating lost or kidnapped children, tracking bank robbers, burglars, and serial rapists, showing SWAT the right house where an armed suspect is barricaded. And spotting bombs and bombers.

Yet, such technology is fraught with abuse potential. Drones can be used to violate the privacy rights of individual citizens, and to rain on parades of protest. It was precisely this concern -- and a failure to imagine the potential of crime-fighters and civil libertarians coming together to forge balanced policies -- that caused the mayor of Seattle to end that city's flirtation with drones. Trust me, it's a temporary cessation not an end to the drama.

Had a functioning domestic drone been deployed at or near the finish line of this year's Boston Marathon could it have captured images of the bag-dropping behavior of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev? Could it have given police time to get people out of harm's way before those horrid pressure cooker explosives were remotely triggered? Probably not. These early-generation drones have an extremely limited battery life, and keeping them aloft at such events poses numerous other challenges as well.

But the technology and the applications will improve, rapidly. And drones, with FAA and local approval, will soon be aloft in many more cities and counties throughout the country. Now is the time to anticipate and plan for their prudent, responsible, and effective deployment.

Cameras. From the moment on March 3, 1991 that George Holliday picked up his new camcorder, stepped out onto the balcony of his apartment and began videotaping the criminal beating of Rodney King by four LAPD officers, police work has never been the same. Which is not to say that cops have uniformly behaved themselves while being photographed or videoed (on the contrary, it's amazing the number of officers who misbehave in front of their own car-based camcorders). Yet the fact that just about everyone has the technological means to record what is transpiring in just about any situation points up the enormous potential for crime prevention, and for detection and apprehension of violent criminals.

The Boston bombers' images were captured, isolated, analyzed, and broadcast in an astonishingly short period of time. Without ubiquitous camera technology, from cell phones to privately and publicly positioned stationary security cameras, the Tsarnaev brothers might well still be on the loose. And they might well have completed their heinous day's work in Times Square.

Phones. Most people understand their mobile phones are a reliable tracking device. Federal, state, and local cops certainly know this, and often use cellphone triangulation techniques, along with GPS and Wi-Fi network data to pinpoint locations of individuals, from missing persons to fleeing criminals. The crime-control vs. civil liberties tension is implicit, and a huge social issue.

Less controversial, however, is the practice and value of mobile Americans using mobile phones to punch in those three little numbers, 9-1-1, to let the cops know what they've just witnessed. If there is one thing we know about catching people who hurt other people it is that the sooner suspicious activity is reported the greater are the odds that a crime will be prevented, or that the police will catch the suspects.

Beyond the scope of this article is the critical question of intelligence gathering and criminal investigations into terrorism and terrorists, global and domestic. It is vital, for example, that we learn everything we can about Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the appearance of his name, well before the bombings, on a U.S. terrorism watch list.

Also beyond the scope of this article is the role of the community in "community policing." You don't have to be the neighborhood snoop to know what's going on in your community, to be alert for suspicious or threatening behavior, or to care about your neighbors. More on this topic in future posts.

The key to deterring the next terrorist attack, while preserving our ostensible core values and civil liberties, is to make sure that all legitimate interests are represented in the prevention effort. Most of us, I think, want both peaceful, secure communities and a fundamental respect for civil liberties.