Hollywood Not, But How Real Forensic Science Solves Crimes

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For over a decade now, countless shows have been entertaining us with the tools and gadgets behind the scientific side of crime solving. These instruments and techniques are highlighted in shows such as CSI, Law & Order, NCIS, Bones, Without A Trace, and many others. There is little doubt that shows such as these have not only entertained us, but have even changed the way the public perceives crime solving and forensics analysis in particular; but are the public’s perceptions accurate or even fair?

Imagine this scene in your head:

A bank has just been robbed. The robbers meticulously planned and executed their brazen daytime heist. When it was all over, they sped away in their shiny black Dodge Charger with what is easily a couple million in untraceable cash, stuffed into several large duffle bags. What the crooks did not count on, however, was the simple deli across the street having a surveillance camera positioned in such a way that it catches the Charger as the robbers make their getaway.

Enter the Crime Scene Investigators! Frustrated at a lack of evidence in the bank, they start looking for some outside the bank and notice the deli’s surveillance camera. A quick analysis of the footage produces a grainy pixelated clip of several figures exiting the bank and hopping into a vehicle before speeding away. This is no problem for these crime scene investigators. A few clicks and commands into their super forensics computer and what was once a barely recognizable video becomes a clear hi-definition video! They zoom in on the bad guys faces and wa-la! All that needs to be done is plug that into some facial recognition software and they’ll have the identities of the robbers in seconds.

Unfortunately, this is a highly romanticized and exaggerated narrative of how modern day forensics experts analyze and enhance video evidence in real life situations. Let’s take another look at the video footage and see what we can really do.

First of all, it’s important to define pixels. Pixels are the smallest unit of visible data which comprise an image. The image could be a still picture or a video, but whatever it is can be broken down to these pixels. The higher a pixel count the original image or video has, the higher the resolution. The higher the resolution, the clearer the image or video is. Forensics experts can only work with the number of pixels that a video has at the time it was recorded. Not only that, but as video surveillance evidence is transferred from a Digital Video Recorder (DVR) to a Flash Drive, the data is often compressed which can also result in a decrease in resolution (e.g. less pixels).

So how does this affect the video of our bank robbers? If the video was grainy and pixelated because it was recorded in a low resolution, no amount of forensic manipulation can un-pixilate it. However, modern forensics can utilize cutting edge software and techniques to get lots of vital and useful data from our video.

Firstly, we may start by focusing on the car, and particularly on the license plate. Video forensics experts can sometimes enhance video characteristics around the license in such a way to discern the characters on the plate. Next we can enhance the video around the robbers themselves. Sometimes it can be cleaned up enough to get a clean facial image. Other times we can discern unique facial characteristics: facial hair, bone structure, skin tone, hair color and/or length, freckles, etc. We can also use video enhancement techniques to determine the height of a suspect or the speed of their car. All this information could be crucial in both in tracking down suspects and as evidence at trial.

In some cases, we’re able to utilize a cutting edge technique known as Frame Averaging. Frame averaging allows a forensic video expert to combine multiple frames and multiple details from a surveillance recording and combine them into a single, high resolution image. Using frame averaging, we may be able to get a much more clear, usable image of a robbers face.

Synchronization is the combining of multiple sources of evidence to clarify an event. In other words, we take multiple videos from multiple cameras and synchronize the footage into one cohegent video clip that best shows the events as they unfolded. We are also able to use all available video evidence to map out the sequence of events. This makes it easier to understand the events that took place and the order in which they occurred; this is extremely helpful evidence in court.

What if the video clip shows someone or a car moving very fast, too fast to understand the movement of a body or the interaction of cars in an accident? We can use slow motion, zooming into footage, and repetitive viewing to help understand the details of a case.

What about audio evidence? We can clarify audio by removing background noise or by lowering a very loud foreground sound or voice. Sometimes we can isolate sounds, for instance a conversation in the background.

There are also technical aspects of video evidence that often need to be clarified to juries. This may include details such as verifying the date and time stamp on a video, determining the video frame rate, and teaching a jury how wide angle lenses or telephoto lenses may alter a viewer’s perception of what they are watching on the TV monitor.

And finally, what about Facial Recognition software? Facial recognition is one area of forensic science that has seen tremendous improvement over the past decade. The FBI’s Next Generation Identification (NGI) system is cutting edge in the field of facial recognition. This technology is most effective when utilizing images taken under ideal circumstances, such as ID photos or “mug shots”. Potentially blurry images of a moving suspect taken from a distant camera with low resolution may be very difficult to enhance in order to extract identification. Nonetheless, it is certainly foreseeable in the near future that this type of technology will be improved and its uses increased throughout the world of forensic analysis.

Real life is not always as exciting as Hollywood would have us believe. Sometimes, it’s much harder to get the same results that TV and the movies get. But forensics has come a long way. We are able to uncover things today that was never possible not that long ago. While the field of forensics and crime scene analysis continues to advance and change, we expect to see many more astonishing and helpful techniques that will continue to better both the forensic and scientific communities.

 

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Inspector General Calls Security Cameras at LAPD Stations “Inadequate”

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A new report released this past Monday by LAPD Inspector General Alex Bustamante reveals that the LAPD’s security cameras, within their own facilities, are grossly inadequate. Bustamante’s report goes on to show that these cameras offer little to no coverage of the stations key areas, such as prisoner holding cells. An April 10th, within the Department’s West Traffic Division lobby, which left an officer injured and the gunman dead, was not captured properly; thus leading to a hindering of the investigation. Security cameras also failed to adequately record an inmate’s medical emergency within the department’s Southwest Station, that inmate later died.

Assistant Chief Sandy Jo MacArthur blames the “city’s financial crises” as the main cause of the security lapse. MacArthur went on to say that, “addressing the security camera issue is a priority for the department”. Making security cameras a priority, however, entails more than simply installing more cameras. Like many electronic devices, security cameras are sensitive and expensive pieces of delicate equipment. Once properly installed, they must also be regularly maintained and even replaced as they wear out. At any given time, a large Police Department may expect to have between 15%-35% of their security cameras offline. Regular maintenance of their security cameras also has to be considered in the departments budget.

Bustamante’s report on LAPD’s station cameras comes at a crucial time where concerns are also being raised regarding the department’s seemingly slow deployment of dashboard camera technology within LAPD cruisers. Out of four, only one LAPD Bureau has been fitted with dashboard camera technology to date. The August 11th shooting of Ezell Ford by LAPD officers was in a bureau without the dashboard cameras. The shooting has sparked protests which may have been avoided had the department deployed the dashboard camera technology in all bureaus.

These incidents are what prompted the internal investigation into the current status of the LAPD’s security camera system. Bustamante’s report further states that not only are security cameras not routinely inspected, but problems with the cameras are often only discovered when security footage is requested and found to be faulty or missing altogether. The LAPD also seems to have little to no security over their own camera system leaving many of the cameras, as well as their recording devices, vulnerable to tampering. What’s more, a department as large as the LAPD’s requires a high number of security cameras. The more cameras there are, the more there is to maintain. Having a large number of cameras also requires most of these cameras to be mounted on ceilings. Such a downward angle does not always provide for capturing faces and other important details.

When the department attempted to get funding for improvements to the security cameras for the 2013-14 fiscal year, they were told the funds had been allocated elsewhere. Moving forward, Inspector General Bustamante is requesting cameras be installed in all areas where inmates are either processed or held, such as holding cells or booking stalls. Installing equipment such as security cameras, however, is not a task simply left to a typical city maintenance technician.

The proper camera and lens must be perfectly matched and configured for the location in which it is being used. How wide of an angle is to be captured, what are the lighting conditions, how far of a distance is the camera capturing? These are just some of the details that need to be determined when deciding what type of equipment to use. Further, security cameras are run by specific software, as are the Digital Video Recording (DVR) devices used to save the data the cameras catch. Knowing how to install and configure, and even how to choose what equipment is best, must be done by an expert in the field of audio and video surveillance and forensics. Any law enforcement agency, or even private entity for that matter, must take all this into consideration when budgeting for security cameras.

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Ferguson Police To Purchase Body Worn Video Systems For Their Officers

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Being a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri right now is surely not an easy or desired job.

As the country continues to speculate on the death of teenager Michael Brown, many have condemned the Ferguson Police Department and Officer Darren Wilson, the officer who allegedly fired the shots that killed Brown. Some say the officer abused his power and that the shooting was racially motivated. Of course, this is a country where the public has shown time and time again that waiting to hear the facts is not a priority, and judgements are swiftly made solely on nothing more than raw emotions. So often with cases like these the truth comes out weeks or months later and is diametrically opposed to the original stories written in the press.

The latest report out of Ferguson is that Officer Wilson was badly beaten before the shooting occurred and apparently suffered a shattered eye orbital after allegedly being punched in the face Brown. These facts will surely play a key role in court, helping to determine whether or not the shooting was justified.

With so much drama and public outrage, the Ferguson police department is already openly speculating on taking a step that other police departments across the country and the world have made — equipping their officers with body-worn video cameras.

The situation in Ferguson is a perfect example of how crucially valuable these devices could be to both the officers and the public alike — bottom line, if there is a video record of an officers interactions while responding to a call, then there is significantly less debate about what did or didn’t occur. Proponents of this technological trend claim that an important purpose for these devices is to save money on court costs and lawsuits that almost always follow police use of force situations, savings which have statistically been proven true.

This trend of “guilty until proven innocent” mindset that is seemingly always associated with incidents involving police officer use of force is disturbing. We rely so heavily (whether we recognize it or not) on the police. After all, if anything were to ever happen to you in which you feared for your life or the lives of others, what’s the first thing you’re going to do? You’re going to call 9-1-1, because you know that calling 9-1-1 means that, whatever situation you’re in, an officer will jump in his car and speed off to help you — and bring his gun.

Yet, at the very whiff of an officer-related shooting, we immediately condemn the officer and sympathize with the victim, regardless of the circumstances or facts related to the incident. When looking at it objectively and in retrospect for countless cases, it’s as illogical as it is unfortunate that we do this over and over again.

If the Ferguson Police Department does indeed equip their officers with body-worn video cameras, it will undoubtedly strengthen other police department’s plans to do so. And safe to say, it won’t be long before all police officers — from New Jersey to San Diego — wear these devices.

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Facial Recognition Leads To Arrest After More Than A Decade

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In 1999, Neil Stammer was arrested in New Mexico on child sex abuse and kidnapping charges. Once released on bond, he forged a fake passport using the name “Kevin Hodges” and fled to Nepal, where he quietly hid out and posed as an English teacher.

The FBI’s investigation into Stammer’s whereabouts eventually went cold, and Stammer’s face remained on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for the last 15 years — until this month.

Last week, it was announced that Stammer was finally caught and extradited to the U.S., and law enforcement caught him by using a tool that we are sure to see more and more of in the future — facial recognition technology.

Recently, the Diplomatic Security Service, which “protects US embassies and checks the validity of US visas and passports,” began using FBI wanted posters to test out the FBI’s latest facial recognition system, called the Next Generation Identification system (NGI). Eventually, they got a positive match for Stammer’s FBI wanted poster when the system came across the fake-Kevin Hodges passport photo, finally bringing the criminal to justice more than a decade later through advances in technology.

“He was very comfortable in Nepal,” said FBI special agent Russ Wilson. “My impression was that he never thought he would be discovered.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a civil liberties group that has brought several lawsuits against the FBI over the years, reports that the FBI’s NGI database contained nearly 16 million images in 2013, and is projected to contain roughly 50 million images by 2015. The database also reportedly stores fingerprints, iris scans and palm prints.

It’s important to note that facial recognition software has been shown to be most effective when it is based on comparing images that have been taken under ideal circumstances — that is, pictures in which the person is looking straight into the camera, with their whole face properly exposed, just as you’d see in any drivers license or passport photo. The technology is significantly less efficient when it cannot clearly see a face that is squared up to the camera, for example as in surveillance camera footage, in which the camera is often attached to the ceiling and pointing down at an unusual angle or in which the camera has captured events at night.

We still have a ways to go before a surveillance camera can pick someone out of a crowd and identify them using facial recognition software. But situations like this one will ultimately prove key to fine-tuning the technology.

 

***UPDATE***

As of September 15, 2014, the FBI has fully rolled out their Next Generation Identification System  (NGIS). Not only is this program designed to expand biometric identification throughout the United States, but eventually the FBI plans to use the NGIS to replace their current fingerprint system. Until then, NGIS will work in concert with the fingerprint system.

The NGI system entails two databases. The first database, called Rap Back, enables law enforcement and related agencies the ability  to receive ongoing status notifications of any criminal history reported on any specific individual. This feature is designed to help law enforcement agencies track and remain updated of suspects under investigation.

The second database, Interstate Photo System (IPS), is the actual facial recognition program. IPS has image searching capability for photos associated with criminal backgrounds.

The FBI’s Next Generation Identification System and its databases have now been made available to over 18,000 law enforcement agencies as well as other criminal justice partners 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

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Police Surveillance Network in San Diego Needs Oversight

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A surveillance-mapping effort is underway in San Diego to make the city safer, according to the San Diego Police Department. But some residents are worried that a lack of oversight makes the on-going project a clear violation of privacy.

The goal of the project is for law enforcement officers to be able to view crimes while they are in progress. So in order to be able to do this, the SDPD is using government and city-owned surveillance cameras that are already in place, and also encouraging local business in the downtown area to volunteer their camera systems, effectively creating a surveillance network of both public and private cameras that officers can actually access live in their squad cars.

A tumblr has been set up that shows the location of the cameras that are up and running so far, which currently numbers around 40. Hotel Indigo, located in San Diego’s downtown Gaslamp District, was the first to allow police to share their surveillance feed.

However, the main issue is whether or not there are proper (and transparent) guidelines in place that determines the rules for using this surveillance network. The SDPD claims that there are, and even posts on their website that they, “…have procedures in place that allow the viewing only when summoned to the Hotel Indigo (or any additional partner) for a service call.”

A San Diego resident named Jeff Hammett decided he wanted to see said procedures, so he filed a public records act to obtain them. His efforts were unsuccessful, however, because according to the response he received from the SDPD, the procedures don’t exist. They wrote, “There are no responsive documents for your request to any copies of procedures regarding viewing these camera feeds. Operation Secure San Diego is still in the development stages. There are no procedures at this time.”

This is disconcerting, seeing as the Hotel Indigo has been, according to UT San Diego, sharing their surveillance feed with the police since 2010, meaning that for four years now, there has been zero oversight to identify possible violations of privacy. The article did say that police are only allowed to view the streaming footage live and that they are not allowed to record any of it. However, with no oversight in place, clearly no one is around to enforce such a “rule.”

Increasing use of surveillance has upset many citizens who value their privacy. Although there are public safety benefits with utilizing a widespread surveillance network, the public will be suspicious of these programs until there are transparent protocols in place and open discussions regarding their use.

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Boston Bombing Leads to New Tool in Digital Investigations

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This past April, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office in California made history by becoming the first law enforcement agency in the country to utilize a new system of investigating and storing mass amounts of digital surveillance materials, a concept that will very soon become standard at law enforcement agencies across the country and the world.

According to GCN.com, while investigating riots in Isla Vista, CA, Santa Barbara Sheriff’s used what’s called a LEEDIR — that’s, Large Emergency Event Digital Information Repository.

The idea is simple enough — in the event of a large-scale, public incident, a cloud-based digital system is set up for the public to upload various pieces of video, audio or still-images. Then, once in the cloud, a law enforcement agency can sort through and investigate every piece of uploaded evidence.

The concept of a LEEDIR has its’ roots in the tragic aftermath of last years Boston Marathon bombing, in which thousands of Boston citizens and marathon attendees submitted hundreds of thousands of pictures and video of the horrific scene that occurred at the finish line of the race to the Boston Police Department. Originally, Boston Police had encouraged people to do this, but once the materials started flooding in, they realized very fast that they were in over their heads as far as having the capability and manpower to sort through all of the materials. The FBI promptly stepped in, assigning some of the best audio and video forensic experts in the country to scour through the countless pieces of evidence, working hand-in-hand with Boston PD. In the aftermath, after the two bombers were caught successfully by utilizing these audio and video forensic experts, law enforcement agencies realized that they needed a more efficient, organized system when it comes to sorting through massive amounts of media-materials.

The key issue here is that most local law enforcement agencies simply don’t have the computing capacity to deal with massive amounts of digital files. Add to that the fact that we now live in a day and age where anything and everything can be digitally captured by anyone with a smartphone (i.e. everyone), and it’s not hard to understand that a local police department would very easily be overwhelmed by the amount of materials they could receive from an incident that happened in a public area.

To utilize a LEEDIR, a law enforcement agency has to meet two pieces of criteria: They can only set one up for an event in which at least 5,000 people were in attendance, and the event must involve multiple jurisdictions. Once those two pieces of criteria are met, a law enforcement official must then visit LEEDIR.us, fill out a questionnaire, answer the confirmation phone call, and at that point, the system will be up and running.

The next step (and most important step) is making the system available to the public through a simple uploading app that can be used on any computer or smartphone. Once materials are uploaded, the system automatically copies them into a single format for viewing, and saves the original so it does not get altered in any way. Then, a team of analysts sort the various pieces of materials into separate folders — for example, one folder may contain all images or videos of people wearing white hats, while another folder may contain only images or videos of people wearing bookbags.

Finally, once all the materials are uploaded and sorted, investigators begin studying each and every piece of evidence. And the system is built so that multiple approved agencies can have access to it. When the investigation is over, the agency can download the entire system of evidence, or choose to pay and store the files long-term on the system.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is currently in the process of developing a LEEDIR with Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) cloud service, and CitizenGlobal, an existing storehouse for digital videos and images.

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NCAVF is moving to bigger and better! (Change of address announcement)

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Dear Friends,
As of today, NCAVF has moved into a new location. Please update your info, and we look forward to having you visit us in our new digs. OLD ADDRESS: 9701 West Pico Blvd., Suite 207, Los Angeles, CA 90035.

NEW ADDRESS: 9230 W. Olympic Blvd., Suite 204, Beverly Hills, CA 90212

We’re excited to use our new location to provide better service to our attorneys, private investigators, and individual clients to enhance and clarify their audio and video evidence for court.

Our mailing address, P.O. Box 67704, stays the same, as will our phone numbers and email.
All the best,
David Notowitz

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Company Captures 1.8 Billion License Plate Images — And Will Never Erase Them

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Automatic License Plate Readers, or ALPRs, are controversial surveillance devices that can scan countless license plates and store the information. We usually assume city governments and law enforcement departments would be the ones with access to these devices, but in Texas, a private company is utilizing ALPRs in order to “revolutionize the repossession industry.”

Digital Recognition Network (DRN), based out of Fort Worth, has accumulated a network of over one thousand ALPRs across the country over the last six years. Based on this, according to CBS, “Chances are better than 50-50 that (DRN) at some point has taken a picture of your vehicle’s license plate. The odds increase to nearly 100-percent if you live in a major city or have ever gone to a shopping mall, according to the company.”

“Our technology really replaces the eyeballs of those people hanging their heads out of the windows,” says DRN CEO Chris Metaxes. And he’s not lying — DRN’s devices can scan about 60 license plates a second! And seeing as most of these devices are mounted on tow trucks, safe to say, the company has captured quite a lot of plate numbers — 1.8 billion to be exact. In comparison, “among local police departments, the Grapevine Police Department has the largest database of license plate reads with 4.7 million records.” And while most departments clear their databases after a year or so, DRN has never deleted their records in six years.

 Although some claim this is an invasion of privacy, DRN counters that by saying that they only collect plate numbers and not names. However, when a plate is scanned, the date, time and location are also recorded, and seeing as banks are known to pay lots of money for this information, it’s not too hard to add the extra step after-the-fact of associating names with the plate number.

One can’t help but think it’s a somewhat scary concept when private firms start using surveillance techniques that are used by the government and law enforcement. But until either federal or state laws start to restrict or prohibit this practice, there unfortunately is not much everyday citizens can do other than to continue to fight for our right to privacy.

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Wide Area Surveillance Secretly Tested in Compton, CA

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The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) recently listed the top seven mass surveillance tools being used by law enforcement, and through their research, uncovered that the city of Compton, California was secretly used as a trial location for a nine-day aerial surveillance program in 2012 — without notifying any citizens or even the mayor, Aja Brown.

The CIR classifies the program as an example of “wide-area surveillance,” which in this case, involved a manned Cessna plane (as supposed to a drone). For nearly two weeks, the plane “…recorded low-resolution images of every corner of the 10.1-square-mile city and beamed them to the local Sheriff’s Department station.”

During that period, deputies are reported to have observed incidents including “fender benders, a string of necklace-snatchings and a shooting.” However, this type of surveillance is different in that not only were deputies able to watch the streaming video footage in real-time, but they also had the ability to pause and rewind. A reporter at CIR, G.W. Schulz, describes it as “Google Earth with a rewind button and the ability to play back the movement of cars and people as they scurry about the city.”

The company that conducted the program, Persistent Surveillance Systems, claims that the surveillance footage was so low-resolution that, “…each individual appears as a single pixel — or nearly discerning enough to detect race, sex and other distinguishing characteristics,” according to Ross T. McNutt, the company’s president.

As for the concerned citizens who feel their privacy was intruded upon, the Sheriff’s Department feels justified in not notifying the public, seeing as citizens already had a sense that they were being monitored due to the fact that the city had recently installed several surveillance cameras on the ground.

Compton, which has long had a reputation for being crime-ridden, plans to install roughly 75 surveillance video cameras throughout the city in the coming months, at a cost of $2.7 million. The hope is that new surveillance will help deter criminal activities, along with solving crimes that are consistently committed. With that, it would not be surprising if Compton, or other similar cities with crime issues, continues to serve as a testing ground for new surveillance devices and techniques.

Some of the other forms of surveillance that made the CIR’s list include facial-recognition software, license plate scanners (or ALPRs), and streetlights that can record both video and audio.

As more and more of these militaristic forms of surveillance become available to local law enforcement departments, the debate as to their use and legality will continue to be discussed.

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Police in Georgia Experimenting with GoogleGlass

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Police departments across the country have begun to test and equip their officers with body-worn video recording devices.

But officers at the Byron Police Department in Georgia got to take part in a rare and exciting unprecedented technological experiment: This past September, BPD officers participated in a one-day field study using GoogleGlass in the field, and their results will surely serve as a case-study in how this groundbreaking new video technology can greatly benefit police duties.

By live-streaming the Google Glass footage to the CopTrax system, an integrated in-car video display system specifically made for police squad cars, officers were able to efficiently perform their duties without any hindrance or interference from the Google Glass.

Participating officers put the Google Glass/CopTrax systems through four tests, all of which would be considered routine in a normal day for a patrolling officer — First, officers conducted a standard vehicle patrol while wearing the Google Glass. Second, they performed several traffic stops. Third, officers made an arrest wearing the glasses, and fourth, officers fired both their pistols and rifles to see if the Google Glass affected their accuracy.

In the end, there were no complaints from any officers regarding performing their duties while wearing the glasses.

“Google Glass was not an impairment at all,” said Sgt. Eric Ferris, one of the BPD participants. “You don’t even know it’s on.”

The only issues that were raised were technical issues, most notably that the battery life for the glasses is fairly short. Also, the fact that Google Glass is currently for the right eye only could hinder those who are left-side dominant.

However, one of the technological benefits in linking Google Glass to the CopsTrax system is that the live-streaming footage from the glasses can not only feed into patrolling squad cars, but also to smartphones and tablets.

“Google glass works great being paired to the CopTrax Android app,” said Lt. Bryan Hunter, who supervised the September field test. “Being able to see the same thing the officer sees at the same time is awesome.”

As Google Glass becomes more readily available and affordable to the public, it’s safe to say that we will see more police wearing them in time.

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