Kirstin Julian

19 March 2001






            Technology has a definite impact not only on our everyday lives but also on the ideologies we pursue or abandon.  This change can be clearly seen as society has progressed through from an agrarian culture through the growing pains of the industrial revolution, and into the current wave, the information wave.  The role of technology was seen as a tool in the agrarian culture and also as a means for physical exploration of humanity’s surroundings.  During the industrial revolution that tool, used to better the agrarian age morphed into a guiding force for social change, intellectual idealism, and scientific exploration.  As the industrial age drew to a close, marked by increased warfare and frightening new discoveries, there was a backlash against the ideological representation of technology.  Technology in the information age has become not only a force that produces wonderful new things, but ultimately a tool in the hands of a very flawed and occasionally noble society.  The current views on technology are diverse and cover grounds that span from technology being a way to save, to that same technology being a means to an end or power. 

            The personification of technology ranges from a way to place power firmly in the hands of the few, to technology being a means for anyone to do things that before required a specialized education.  The publishing liberty of the Internet creates a forum in which any one can be taken seriously; whether they are in truth serious is another discussion.  This liberty of forum is available to anyone with a modicum of knowledge or the desire to gain such knowledge.  This is in direct contrast to the publishing world where it requires a specialized knowledge and education to produce some thing or to become published.  Often the knowledge needs to be combined with a fair amount of luck as well.  Technology has also become a way to put social power into the hands of the few as well.  The existence of surveillance systems, the exorbitant prices of medical matters, and the existence of issues such as the digital divide are all examples of technologically based ways to shift a balance of power in an arena. 

            As technology is always in a state of flux so are our society’s attitudes regarding technology.  There is a definite polarization of issues in the field of law enforcement.  Technology has always been seen as an asset in providing irrefutable proof that the person charged with the crime was the one who committed said crime.  Technology has also been seen as an invasion of privacy as law enforcement officials gather data.  Part of this change from the perception that technology will play an expanded role in a noble cause, to the invasion of privacy that police may commit, in their zeal to gather information, can be traced to a shift in attitude toward law enforcement in general.  The position that law enforcement officials hold in our society has undergone much change through out its history.  In the beginning, police came from the neighborhoods they served; they were a part of the integral fabric of a community with personal knowledge of the difficulties and joys of the community.  Policing then became a much-politicized position in the heyday of the political machine, often giving rise to notorious corruption in cities such as New York and Chicago.  The political machine, however, gave law enforcement a secure safety net, as well as a support system in their neighborhoods and precincts.  A control system which despite its roots in the thirties and forties can be seen functioning today in the corruption charges that resound through the Los Angeles Police Department on many occasions: the controversy over Darryl F. Gates and the more recent Rampart District scandal.  The reformers moved in and slowly things changed, outside control was brought to bear on police departments and precincts.  Areas such as vice began to receive attention now that the acquisition of profits from this area was threatened and even ceased.  With the demise of the political machines, (for the most part) the police found themselves lacking in the safety net that structure had provided.  Today’s charges of corruption rarely reach further outside of the police department than the questioning of the district attorney’s office, as opposed to the political machines of the early twentieth century which often controlled every aspect of the government.  The lack of support combined with allegations of corruption causes cracks in our societies feelings about law enforcement personnel.  For the first time, there was widespread suspicion of police.  The efforts of reformers were taken seriously as the Police suffered from an image problem; they had become the frequent targets of laughter.[1] 

            In the 1960’s law enforcement saw major strides being taken to enhance their work, from a technological perspective.  Crime became a national, not merely local concern resulting in the formation of the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice in 1967.  Federal funding was then used to create the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) which “sought to spur the computerization of policing.”[2]  LEAA was formally disbanded in 1982 after succeeding in raising awareness of the need to educate and train law enforcement personnel to use automated systems and other technological advances, as well as help to convince the corporate sector that there was indeed money to be made in this area.  The Justice department surveyed law enforcement agencies to determine their technological capabilities and discovered that “Two thirds of local police departments were using computers in 1993, compared to half in 1990.” it was determined that this increase from a 1980’s survey was due to the legacy of LEAA.[3] 

            There is a long history of adapting technology to detective work particularly in the area of identification, starting with bertonillage, which was the beginning of modern identification techniques.  Bertonillage was a theory and practice developed in the late 1800’s, which used body measurements, in particular the skull circumference and the distance between the eyes to determine unique identifying characteristics.  In the 1890’s the discovery of fingerprints was made and they quickly became an identification standard.  Most recently, DNA has been used as a unique identifying characteristic.  These scientific processes often take quite a bit of time to completely finish.  Today time is at a premium, as technology has worked to speed up our pace of living ever since the industrial revolution, easier and faster has been the cry.

             Law enforcement and military management have much in common, as do some of the technologies used in these organizations.  The need for an authoritative presence, intelligence gathering activities, and the perception of secrecy all weigh in as similarities between the military and law enforcement, particularly as the face of military operations change and they become increasingly known as police actions.  This creates a need for automation in the law enforcement community, and through that need, giant databases of identifying information and other records.  As of 1997, 87% of all criminal history records in the United States were automated, consisting of over 54.2 million records that are available in state criminal history repositories.  This automation has been steadily progressing over the last thirty years, and the United States has been growing ever closer to unified identification databases becoming a working future in law enforcement.  With the continuing insistence on these automated databases due to speed of retrieval and other issues, it is interesting to note the types of steps taken to ensure accuracy in these databases.  In 45 states, Washington DC, and the Virgin Islands a manual review of incoming documents is conducted, only 43 states and Washington DC maintain some type of computer editing and verification program, while only 19 states and Washington DC perform random samples to test for repository compliance.[4]

            Many of these databases function at a national level through the cooperation of regional police departments and other law enforcement agencies under the auspices of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  The FBI maintains a Criminal Justice Information Services Division which “serves as the focal point and central repository for criminal justice services in the FBI.”[5]  These national efforts are usually co-operative often becoming instituted through processes similar to the ones involved in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which was mandated by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act and became operational in November of 1998.  The NICS was intended to reduce handgun violence by requiring a background check before the purchase of certain guns.  This database relies on the automation of records other agencies, mainly the State Master Name Indexes, which were almost completely automated as of 1992.  With all of this automation, enabling a faster check that could encompass more than just the local jurisdictions, there were some problems with conflicting privacy legislation.  For example the difference in level of access allowed various parties in open records states and those states which do not have an open records policy restricting access to those mentioned in the actual incident report.  California, not having an open record policy, restricts access to law enforcement records to those people mentioned in those records and their legal guardians.  If a request was made for a record that was originated in California and requested by Arizona than the laws of Arizona would cover privacy issues surrounding that record in the Arizona case.  The National Crime Prevention and Privacy Act legislates privacy issues in a transfer of records to an out of state inquiry.  This act was submitted to the state assemblies for ratification in 1998 and was designed to facilitate a digital exchange of criminal history data between states.  The main provisions of this act stated that sealed records are exempted from requests and that the laws of the requesting state will take precedence over the laws of the originating state in questions of privacy.[6]  In the event that access to a record should need to be traced, however, as of 1997, only 47 states and Washington DC maintained a transaction log to be used as an audit trail.

            One of the best known national databases is the FBI’s Fingerprint Identification Automation Program.  This database was created in an automated form in 1990 with a projected goal of involvement by all states in a National Fingerprint File by 2000.  This project was ostensibly started to eliminate the necessity of keeping duplicate records in various state and federal forms.  The design of this system is based on the CAL-ID program, which has been functional in California since October of 1983.[7]  In 1998, the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System went through its final build stages. This means that in addition to fingerprint matching services this database became host to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) and included other identification information such as mug shots, and a connection to the National Crime Information Canter (NCIC).  NCIC was started in the late 1960’s and was the first real instance of a law enforcement database on a national level as well as being the “first practical application of computer technology used by American police agencies.”[8]

            The use of DNA in law enforcement is a fast growing trend.  The FBI’s DNA database, originally “50 databases run by the states but unified by common test procedures and software run by the FBI”[9] is growing, and a new investigative tactic is emerging among police officials, the DNA dragnet.  This tactic has been employed with varying degrees of success.  The origins of this tactic can be traced to European policing efforts, where a German investigation resulted in the genetic screening of 16,400 men in an effort to locate a suspect.  In the United States the idea of the genetic dragnet is moving more slowly into the arena of acceptance due to its possible clash with search and seizure passages in the constitution, this reluctance dose not, however, prevent the gathering of voluntary samples.  The Costa Mesa investigation into the murder of Sunny Sudweeks has become “one of the longest-running genetic dragnets launched in the United States.”[10]  This four year long search has yielded no leads and has generated some alarm upon reflection.  The fears arise not so much from the actual use of DNA sampling as an investigative tool but from the eventual destination of the information gained through the sample.  The fact that there is currently no agency or legislation that keeps track of eliminated genetic samples is a frightening prospect.  Blair Shelton, who provided genetic material to police in a 1994 genetic dragnet, waged a legal battle to get his genetic material returned to him.  After a suspect was arrested, he asked to have his genetic material returned the police refused.  Only after a two-year battle against the state were authorities forced to hand the genetic records back to Shelton.[11]

            Along with the increasing dependence on technological assistance for identification, the concept of policing has under gone a dramatic shift in the years since the 1980’s.  The increasing speed with which law enforcement agencies can handle requests for information and identification has given them time to establish a new method of action referred to as community policing.  This theory of law enforcement finds police in a wider role with in the community hearkening back to the beginning of law enforcement work when police were more integrated into their patrol areas.  Community policing requires an official to “[help] create and maintain communities in which citizens are safe, secure, and tolerant.”[12]  For example the Community Mobilization Project in the Los Angeles Police Department, Wilshire Area began to work with the community in the mid eighties, providing citizens a place to call for any thing from street maintenance to organizing neighborhood work parties.  They found, over time, that providing a visible presence in working with the people in the area created a working partnership that helped to make the streets safer.  All over the nation similar programs have sprung up to help keep communities safe and provide and alternative route to law enforcement than 911.[13]  As genetic evidence becomes the acceptable way to determine presence at the scene, it is an easy leap to make the assumption that genetic evidence equals guilt, despite the potential for human error in testing and gathering samples.  Will we take the documentation of our genetic structure so far as to maintain not only the genetic code of criminal elements but also any one surveyed.  Currently pending in Congress is a bill legislating against genetic discrimination in heath care matters.  The awareness of the need for legislation in the arena of genetics is rising.

            Thus, the compilation of these large databases operates as a time saving measure with in a law enforcement environment.  It is in part due to these technological advances that the nature of law enforcement has changed.  This change has allowed for the development of more community centered programs.  On the flip side, all the technology coming into wider use more recently has expanded the invasive capabilities of law enforcement.  This invasiveness is a concern as technologies are put into practice and the court system struggles to keep up with the rapidly changing forces available to the criminal justice community.

[1] Sparrow, Malcolm K. et al. Beyond 911.New York: Basic Books, Inc. 35-36

[2] The Evolution and Development of Police Technology.  1998. Seaskate Inc. Available through  March 19, 2001.

[3] The Evolution and Development of Police Technology.  1998. Seaskate Inc. Available through  March 19, 2001.

[4] Survey of State Criminal History Systems 1997.  Bureau of Justice Statistics (NCJ175641).  GPO.  April 1999.

[5]  Accessed March 19, 2001.

[6] Survey of State Criminal History Systems 1997.  Bureau of Justice Statistics (NCJ175641).  GPO.  April 1999.

[7] The FBI Fingerprint Identification Automation Program: Issues and Options.  Washington D.C.: Congress of the U. S., Office of Technology Assessment.  1991

[8] The Evolution and Development of Police Technology. 1998. Seaskate Inc. Available through  March 19, 2001.

[9] Wade, Nicholas.  F.B.I. Set to Begin Using National DNA Database.  The New York Times Company: October 12, 1998.

[10] Leonard, Jack.  “Using DNA to Trawl for Killers” Los Angeles Times.  March 10, 2001.

[11] Leonard, Jack.  “Using DNA to Trawl for Killers” Los Angeles Times.  March 10, 2001.

[12] Sparrow, Malcolm K. et al. Beyond 911.New York: Basic Books, Inc. 7.

[13] Sparrow, Malcolm K. et al. Beyond 911.New York: Basic Books, Inc. 8-14.