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Public Safety Column
The IPSA's Public Safety Column is an opportunity for our members and corporate sponsors to provide thought leadership articles about all topics facing public safety.
The articles we publish are not necessarily the views of the IPSA, rather they are opinions shared by each contributor.
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By Lieutenant Tim Murphy, Paso Robles (CA) Police Department, IPSA Memorial Committee
The concept of officer safety in law enforcement is stressed from day one in the academy and remains prominent throughout our careers. All of us in law enforcement have read a training bulletin, seen a BOLO teletype or heard a radio broadcast with the ‘officer safety’ heading.
Officer safety related posters are displayed in locker rooms, break rooms, briefing rooms and report writing rooms across the nation reminding us to wear our vests, drive defensively and remain vigilant. As you drive out of the parking lot to start your tour of duty, you may even see a sign reminding you to wear your seat belt.
As a profession, we are proactive when it comes to our officer safety tactics, techniques and procedures.
An oath to protect others and ourselves
All officers take an oath to serve and protect. We voluntarily signed on to face the risks inherent in our job, and we do our best to mitigate those risks by wearing our vests, driving defensively, clicking our seatbelts on and donning our personal protective equipment when dealing with a biohazard.
Even so, we can never mitigate all risks to zero – it is simply impossible. However, we can make great strides in reducing the health-related risks by taking a proactive approach to our health and wellness tactics, techniques and procedures.
Officer safety includes health, wellness
As human beings, we are all experiencing the effects of time and aging – it’s a reality we must face and respond to as law enforcement professionals.
All officers are dealing with the effects of the job. New recruits, command level and executives all go through irregular hours and shift work, interrupted or varied meal periods, high stress or periods of inactivity followed by intense physical and mental stress.
There are three things that all officers can do to be proactive about health and wellness in the fast paced, high stress world of law enforcement.
Each one of the three major areas may seem too daunting to tackle, let alone trying to make changes in all three areas. However, I am confident you each face and successfully handle bigger challenges every day in your work assignments. You know you can do this.
Workout at a pace that fits your situation and lifestyle. Start with easy changes (pack your lunch instead of eating out, drink water instead of that routine cup of coffee, go for a walk instead of sitting in front of the TV). Incorporate these changes into your daily routines and you will start to feel better. As stated by Charles J. Givens, “Achieve success in any area of life by identifying the optimum strategies and repeating them until they become habits.”
Officer safety is a serious topic. The threats faced by domestic law enforcement have evolved over the years and in response, our profession has upgraded our tactics, techniques and procedures.
I encourage each of you to take a few moments to review your personal health and wellness tactics, techniques and procedures.
By no means do I profess to be a fitness or nutrition expert. I do not espouse any exercise regimen or tout the wonders of any specific diet, but I do know from personal experience that a few simple steps can make a big difference. Finally, before beginning any exercise programs be sure to consult with your primary care provider.
About the Author
Tim Murphy currently serves as the Support Services Commander at the Paso Robles (CA) Police Department. He is commander of the San Luis Obispo Regional SWAT Team and holds a B.S. Degree in criminal justice from California State University (Sacramento) and a Master’s Degree in Justice Administration from Norwich University. During his 27-year career, he has served as a field training officer, motor officer, detective, and SWAT operator.
By Gary Teeler, Chief of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, IPSA Emerging Technologies Committee Member
Though there have been numerous technological advancements in modern civilization, a reliance on electrical energy in the modern world leaves us more vulnerable than ever to the aftermath of an Electromagnetic Pulse event. The potential effects of an EMP event on the U.S. power grid would likely be devastating to a degree of incomprehension.
An EMP first occurred in 1945, following the detonation of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Scientist noted that after the blasts the atmosphere was saturated with an excess of electrons for several months.
The true forces of EMP were later realized in 1962 as a byproduct of a 1.4 megaton nuclear missile detonation at an altitude of 248 miles over Johnson Island, in the Pacific Ocean. Though this military exercise, named Starfish Prime, took place in a remote part of the ocean, locations as far away as Hawaii, California and Australia experienced radio disruptions. At least six satellites were also disabled by the EMP.
The effects on certain electronic equipment over very large expanses, opened eyes to the potential dangers.
Just over 100 years earlier, in 1859, a natural phenomenon occurred which had similar effects. Now known as the Carrington Event, this severe solar storm effectively knocked out telegraph networks on four continents, which required replacement of the trans-Atlantic telegraph system.
Today’s EMP threat types
EMP threats come in many forms, including electromagnetic attacks, cyberattacks, direct physical attacks and solar geomagnetic disturbances (GMD).
Electromagnetic weapons can range from small suitcase sized radio frequency (RF) energy devices, up to nuclear weapons detonated at a high altitude creating an electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) over a selected target.
HEMP attacks: The area impacted by a HEMP attack is related to the height at which the detonation occurs. The higher the altitude of the detonation, the larger the radius of the area effected by EMP.
Cyberattacks: Any cyberattacks related to EMP come in the form of attacks directly to power grid infrastructure. It’s critical for all emergency responders to understand that these cyberattacks occur daily, and can result in serious damage or failure of equipment, impacting hundreds of thousands of customers. Further, cyberattacks can even be carried out by hackers far removed from the physical location.
Direct physical attacks: Direct physical attacks come in the form of small arms attacks directly to electrical substations. These key pieces of infrastructure are often in plain view, lack hardened casing and are typically located simply behind chain link fencing. This makes for an easy target even with handguns and shoulder weapons.
GMD attacks: Geomagnetic disturbances can be considered the mother nature form of EMP. These naturally occurring solar storms can produce an effect very like a nuclear based HEMP attack. For example, in July 2012 the Earth reportedly missed a super storm of the magnitude of the previously mentioned Carrington Event by only nine days.
One can only imagine how different the effects would have been versus effects that occurred in the 1859 event.
Who are EMP attackers?
The entities that might carry out EMP attacks come in many forms including state actors, non-state actors and even naturally occurring events with no actors.
State actors generally include North Korea, Iran, China and Russia. These countries have made overt statements regarding EMP, HEMP, RF attacks and physical and cyberattacks on the grid. Additionally, these countries possess nuclear capabilities which could support a HEMP attack.
Non-state actors could be global terrorist organizations or individual actors such as hackers. Not to be overlooked is the unpreventable threat posed by mother nature, which can come at any time and location, and can be of an extreme magnitude.
What can happen during an EMP attack?
Imagine airplanes falling from the sky, vehicles not functioning and all power/utility/electrical networks deteriorating at the same time. While this may sound incredibly fictional, it’s not. It’s about as real as it gets.
When an EMP attack occurs, you can count on chaos. All emergency responders will be incredibly challenged to communicate with one another and effectively responding.
Typically, the goal of an EMP attack is to take out the power grid. Loss of a portion of the power grid would likely result in cascading losses to remaining portions of the grid.
Unlike a temporary power outage, there may be no existing mechanism to get power back to the affected area. The EMP will have effectively destroyed the grid infrastructure, including power transformers. These expensive pieces of infrastructure take extended periods to manufacture, are often aged and lack redundancy at most sites.
Each of the 16 Critical Infrastructures, as identified in the Presidential Policy Directive – Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience, would be critically affected by failure of the electrical grid. The effects on transportation and communication alone would hamper the efforts of first responders and utility workers.
Backup systems and processes in place for a power failure would likely last only as long as there is onsite fuel supply. This is of concern at nuclear power plants, where cooling of the reactor core requires electricity.
When the backup generator runs out of fuel, the result would be a melt-down. On a related note, the backup fuel supply at a reactor site is only required to support one week of operation. In other words, your Plan B better be good.
Survival and risk mitigation
Individuals in the modern world will not be prepared for life without electricity. The Congressional EMP Commission reported that nine out of 10 Americans would die within the first year of a prolonged nationwide blackout. Water and food would be in short supply, resulting in starvation and disease.
Unsanitary conditions, civil unrest and a limited ability to protect the country would be the eventual result.
While this does not paint a pretty picture, there are steps that can be taken to mitigate effects, including hardening of infrastructure facilities, redundancy of certain equipment and removing capabilities of adversaries.
An EMP attack is high impact low frequency (HILF) event, which poses unique challenges for support and funding. To properly mitigate risk and protect infrastructure will require a considerable public and private partnership. There is a duty to act to protect the quality of life we have become accustomed to, and there are steps that can be taken to secure the grid.
We must collectively decide it is a national priority.
About the Author
Gary Teeler has 21 years of service in public safety and currently serves as the Chief of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Gary has a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice Leadership and Management from Sam Houston State University, and a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice Law Enforcement from Texas State University. He is a certified Texas Peace Officer, Certified Emergency Manager (CEM), and a graduate of the 256th Session of the FBI National Academy. Gary serves on the IPSA Emerging Technologies Committee and as an adjunct professor at South University in Austin.
Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the IPSA or any agency of the government.
By Lieutenant Joseph “Paul” Manley, IPSA Memorial Committee
Law enforcement officers’ lives are on the line both on and off duty. They must follow several guidelines and protocols 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to help ensure their own safety, the safety of their peers and the people around them.
Officers come across violent and non-violent criminals on a regular basis. In some jurisdictions or beats, this occurs several times during any given shift. Therefore, officers must always think about safety because these interactions with known and unknown offenders puts their safety at a high risk.
A frightening trend
According to data compiled by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, law enforcement fatalities nationwide rose to their highest level in five years in 2016, with 135 officers killed in the line of duty. This is a 10 percent increase over the 123 who lost their lives in the line of duty in year 2015.
During the first five months of 2017, there have been 55 officer fatalities compared to 39 in the first five months of 2016. That is a 41 percent increase. Based on this current trend, officer fatalities for 2017 may equal or surpass last year.
Throughout the years, data consistently shows that firearms and traffic related fatalities are the leading cause of law enforcement LODDs. Contrary to popular belief, people are not the biggest danger to police officers, but rather traffic fatalities. Except for 2016, traffic fatalities have been the single leading cause of death for officers throughout the years.
The NLEOMF reports that over a 10-year period ending in 2015, an average of 144 officers were killed each year. The report indicates that 64 of these LODDs were feloniously killed per year, while the majority of LODDs are killed by accident or by other means, not necessarily violent attacks.
Officer safety tips
The following four simple and easy safety tips will help ensure officers go home at the end of his or her shift. It is important to remember these four tips and put them into practice.
We will never know how many times body armor or seat belts have saved an officer’s life because that data is not collected, but we all can agree that we must work continuously to ensure that officers are provided with the best protective equipment, and that they use it always as a matter of routine.
Following the list of helpful tips is not a guarantee that you will go home at the end of your shift, but these safety tips may help prevent an unnecessary injury or fatality from happening.
By Heather R. Cotter, IPSA Executive Director
The global public safety community has witnessed, directly and through news reports, a tremendous amount of violence. It is just absolutely devastating to see these events unfold before us.
Today there was a mass casualty shooting at a workplace in Orlando, Florida. Investigators believe this atrocity is from a disgruntled employee.
Over the weekend, we learned about the London Bridge terrorist attack – in which a vehicle was used as a weapon. Several innocents lost their lives and many were injured. Then there was a second incident at the Borough Market in which the attackers were using knives as weapons.
In May, there was a suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester – another mass casualty incident in which 22 perished.
An unpredictable environment
When the unpredictable happens, our first responders must be fully prepared to respond – whether it’s a single incident or a complex, coordinated attack.
Law enforcement, firefighters, EMS, telecommunicators, transportation, hospitals, emergency management and allied emergency responders are relying on their training, standard operating procedures and an effective incident command to get through the chaos while protecting the lives of citizens and keeping themselves safe from harm.
While on scene, it is often unknown whether all the suspects have been identified and captured. It is unknown how many victims are injured. It is unknown whether another incident is going to occur in a nearby location. The work our first responders perform during these high-risk operations, and in an unpredictable environment, is admirable. It takes exceptional human beings to work at ground zero.
First responders – whether they are in the United States or the United Kingdom – are operating under tremendous amount of stress while any attack unfolds. This stress continues even during the aftermath.
What we can learn from these recent mass casualty attacks is that weaponry, type of incident, locations, geography, attackers’ demographics and time of day all varies.
Given this, we must continue to provide education, tools, resources and share our after-action debriefings and lessons learned with one another. Globally, agencies, trainers and organizations must apply those lessons learned in training because the reality we face is these attacks can happen anywhere at any time.
Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, families, friends and colleagues of the innocents whose lives were devastated by these recent attacks.
By Sean W. Stumbaugh, Battalion Chief (Retired)
As firefighters, we are exposed to risks and hazards daily. We do what we can, as individuals and organizations, to reduce our exposure to these risks. When one of us is injured (or worse), we can typically point to a proximate cause: the event that triggered the injury. To get ahead of these injuries, however, we need to prevent the root causes.
During my 32 years of firefighting, I was fortunate as far as injuries are concerned. Oh sure, I had the typical bumps and bruises, but I only sustained one injury I would consider major, the result of a fall one dark night on a steep mountainside in Trinity County, Calif.
My engine company was part of a strike team conducting initial attack on a new—and growing—wildfire. Our strike team had just put in about 5,000 feet of 1½" fire hose up a steep mountainside along the left flank of the fire. We had tied in the line and were holding it with the help of hand crews. I made one misstep downhill and went tumbling over. Everyone heard my right knee pop as my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) gave way. Down I went.
I spent the next four or five years healing, having surgery, and healing again. This injury changed my career, moving me temporarily to a desk job and out of the firehouse. But in the end, it doesn’t hold me back much; I can still swim, ride my bike, ski and run (I sometimes wish my knee prevented that last one!). The short-term pain and down time was no fun at all, but fortunately I suffered no long-term effects.
I cannot say the same about my hearing.
Because of long-term occupational noise exposure, I suffer from permanent hearing loss in my left ear. The proximate cause of this disability is not a single event, like my knee, but chronic exposure to noise. I first started to notice the problem when I heard a noise in my head that sounded like a C-130 Hercules aircraft.
This noise was noticeable when things around me were very quiet. I initially thought it was congestion due to allergies, but it got progressively louder over time. The first real indication of a big problem was when I could not hear my wife’s voice very well at all (that can be trouble!).
Long story short, I was diagnosed with significant hearing loss in my left ear due to industrial noise exposure. The hearing loss is bad enough, as I have difficulty hearing conversations, especially in loud places. But the worst part is the tinnitus (noises or ringing in the ear).
This constant noise in my head is loud and it drowns out other sounds. There is no place that I can go where it is quiet; I hear this noise all the time.
Noise levels in the fire service
The National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety sets the noise exposure limit (REL) at 85 decibels (dBA) over a time weighted average (TWA) of eight hours.
Noise level measurements taken in the typical environment where a firefighter works often exceed this threshold. Consider the following three scenarios:
These situations are the proximate causes of hearing loss, and they require us to take steps to protect ourselves and our personnel, including training personnel to recognize unsafe noise levels and take appropriate steps to protect themselves, initiating engineering and administrative controls and providing appropriate personal protective equipment. The PPE needs to be adequate for the noise level involved and fit-tested to the individual firefighter.
We usually have adequate hearing protection devices available to us in situations where noise exposure is common. Supervisors are tasked with ensuring firefighters use hearing protection as required by the department’s policies and procedures. We have this weird situation in our industry, however, during which protecting our hearing becomes more challenging.
Hearing protection during emergency response
If we have hearing safeguards in place, why do so many firefighters retire with hearing loss?
Well, one reason is emergency response. We can go from performing station duties, sitting in our recliners, or even sleeping in our beds, to arriving on the scene of an emergency within a matter of minutes. We go from a resting state to potentially performing work at our highest level of physical ability. This emergent environment requires us to take quick and decisive action. We don our PPE and go to work. We have turnouts to protect our bodies from thermal insult and SCBA to protect our airways from smoke and heat, but do we have anything to protect our hearing when we are wearing all this other gear?
If we donned hearing protection (ear plugs) before we threw on our mask that might help, but is it practical? We need to hear our radios over the rest of the loud noises. Orders or safety messages are too important to miss—and radio communications are often difficult to hear under the best fireground conditions. Further, PPE is an ensemble. We cannot just add components without proper testing to ensure the additions don’t interfere with the fit or function of other parts.
Let’s face it, there are no bulletproof solutions to hearing protection on the fireground.
However, that doesn’t mean we just throw up our hands and reconcile ourselves to hearing loss. Much of the work we do at fires and emergencies is done after the initial fast-paced, rescue and/or extinguishment activity. Once the fire is under control or the vehicle is stabilized, things slow down a little. That’s when we should consider whether hearing protection is appropriate.
While each situation will differ, firefighters and supervisors should remember that it is long-term exposure that usually damages our hearing. We won’t be able to eliminate our exposure, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take steps to reduce it.
Policy considerations for fire departments
As I noted at the beginning, injuries have proximate causes and root causes. If proximate causes of hearing loss are all the loud noises we’re exposed to, the root cause is lack of effective steps to reduce exposure.
All fire departments should have policies that outline hearing conservation programs and training, including:
When a member experiences a shift in hearing (discovered by comparison to past audiometric tests), your organization should perform a re-evaluation of the noise levels in the work environment and the adequacy of engineering controls and PPE. If you discover one or more processes are not being adequately addressed, further evaluation and training may be in order.
Take it seriously
Hearing is a precious sensory function for humans; living without it is not impossible, but it is difficult. We tend to take our hearing for granted when we have it, but go without it for a day and you’ll see how precious it becomes.
Take your hearing conservation program seriously. You may save your brothers and sisters the heartache that comes from missing key parts of conversations, or not being able to experience music the same way.
Or, in the case of those of us with tinnitus, knowing true silence is something we left on the fireground.
Sean Stumbaugh is a management services representative for Lexipol - an IPSA Supporter. He retired in 2015 after 32 years in the American fire service, serving as battalion chief for the Cosumnes Fire Department in Elk Grove, Calif., as well as the El Dorado Hills (Calif.) Fire Department and the Freedom (Calif.) Fire District.
Sean has a master’s degree in Leadership and Disaster Preparedness from Grand Canyon University, a bachelor’s degree in Fire Science from Columbia Southern University, and an associate degree from Cabrillo College in Fire Protection Technology. In addition to his formal education, he is a Certified Fire Officer, Chief Officer, and Instructor III in the California State Fire Training certification program. Sean has taught numerous state fire training courses and has been an adjunct professor with Cosumnes River College in Sacramento.
Sean is now continuing his career by serving as the volunteer Para- Chaplain for the Daisy Mountain Fire District in New River, AZ.
Law enforcement K9s are a fundamental extension to any law enforcement agency. They are highly trained and often have very specialized backgrounds including: narcotics detection, explosives detection, cadaverine detection, patrol and sentry/attack, search and rescue and arson detection.
Just like human officers, the job of a K9 is high risk. Since January 2017, and according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, U.S. law enforcement has lost eight K9 heroes due to gunfire (one accidental), heat exhaustion and a heart attack.
Every K9 LODD is a tragedy that causes deep mourning in any department. It is important to remember, recognize and learn from our fallen K9s.
There are several things we can do to keep our K9 safe from providing them bullet proof vests, making sure they’re hydrated, protecting them from overdosing during a drug raid, exercising them regularly and double or triple checking to make sure they’re not left alone in vehicles.
Vests: K9s, like human officers, must have protective vests. This life-saving piece of equipment can save a K9 life from stabbings, bullets and even thermal overheating.
Hydration: K9s need water. Whether you’re a handler for patrol, search and rescue or other K9 it’s critical to keep them hydrated while they are on duty and off duty. K9s exert an exorbitant amount of energy. Keep them hydrated.
Drug overdoses: K9s that work narcotics detection often encounter serious (and sometimes lethal) types of drugs. Recently, there has been news about using naloxone on K9s in case of an accidental overdose. This is worth further exploration for all K9 handlers and departments.
Exercise: While K9s do get quite a bit of exercise, it’s important to keep them active even while they’re off-duty. Make sure they get regular physical examinations.
Vehicles: There is no getting around having a K9 in a vehicle. Therefore, it is incumbent and a responsibility of the handler to always double or triple check that the K9 is not left alone in the vehicle. The K9 is depending on the handler to ensure its safety.
K9s will always be a part of law enforcement. They have a long history of service and there is no end in sight. We must be vigilant to their environment and any stress they encounter – whether it’s environmental, during a call for service or physical. Our K9s protect us and we must protect them. Learn from the fallen heroes and apply those lessons in your department.
By James W. Dundas, Jr., Chair of the IPSA Memorial Committee
While monitoring public safety line of duty deaths in 2017, an alarming trend began to emerge regarding the number of vehicle accidents suffered by our first responders. As of today, and according to the U.S. Fire Administration and Officer Down Memorial Page, approximately 98 firefighters and law enforcement officers have lost their lives in 2017, and a large percentage of these fatalities were due to vehicle accidents.
Currently, wearing a seatbelt is not only standard practice, it is law in 49 of the 50 states. Only New Hampshire does not have a statute requiring adult passengers to wear seatbelts.
Some first responders do not buckle up
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, previously conducted research about why public safety personnel sometimes do not buckle-up.
For firefighters, the research claims they are unable to buckle-up in a fast-moving fire truck or don their protective clothing while strapped into a seat. Similarly, additional research revealed that some law enforcement officers perceive that seat restraints interfere with their weapon or another belt mounted tool. Further, the avoidance of seatbelts may also be attributed to the risk-taking culture of public safety personnel.
Seatbelt restraints explained
Seatbelts are a proven and reliable defense. Sudden road hazards or drivers that are aggressive, distracted or impaired always seem to appear out of nowhere. Because of this unknown, vehicle occupants cannot possible anticipate when they are in danger. Unfortunate events on the highways occur suddenly and usually without warning.
Seatbelt restraints protect vehicle occupants in several ways. Buckling up protects the driver and front seat passenger from striking the windshield, steering wheel or even a vehicle mounted mobile computer. Seatbelts also prevent back seat passengers from colliding with window glass or each other.
Further, seatbelts enhance the effectiveness of air bags. Seatbelts and airbags provide a combination defense increasing the safety of occupants and the survivability of a crash. Seatbelt use enhances the deployment effectiveness of airbags. But perhaps the greatest benefit of seatbelts is that they protect occupants from ejection. Once an occupant is ejected from a vehicle, the chances of serious injury or fatality substantially increase.
All LODDs are tragedies, and all non-restrained injuries in a vehicle accident are tragedies that could possibly be prevented.
Remember to buckle up - on duty and off duty. Your family, friends and colleagues are depending on you to be there for the next shift.
The International Public Safety Association, a 501(c)3 non-profit based in Arizona, is recruiting for the position of Secretary.
This is a volunteer-based, Officer position with the IPSA. The position of Secretary requires the understanding and knowledge of the IPSA’s Mission and purpose. The Secretary must have excellent communication skills, both verbal and written, and the ability to interact with Board officials, directors, and the organization's membership, all of whom come from multiple public safety professional backgrounds.
The Secretary's duties include managing all the IPSA’s internal communications and preparing or keeping track of Board meeting dates, meeting agendas and minutes from the meeting. The Secretary will be required to attend all Board meetings to keep a detailed record of the Board's actions. The Board's actions during the meeting are later typed up and disseminated to the Board as a recap of the events and the votes or decisions that transpired during the meeting.
In addition, given that this is a leadership position, there is an expectation that the Secretary will assist with membership referrals, fundraising efforts and be a champion for the IPSA.
Other duties performed by the secretary include the following:
Eligibility and other details:
Please submit your letter of interest describing why you are the best candidate for this position, two professional references and resume in a combined .PDF file to Executive Director Heather R. Cotter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The first review of resumes will occur in August. This leadership position will be filled in September.
By Roger Rodriguez, NYPD-Retired, Vigilant Solutions, Director of Business Development
Television has created a very unrealistic perception of facial recognition technology that many interpret as reality. Big Brother is watching you with a camera, all crimes are solved in an hour and a satellite camera positioned in the far reaches of outer space can produce an instantaneous facial recognition match. Throw in some special effects and we immediately have someone’s birth certificate, high school graduation photos and know he likes to eat pizza on Thursday nights.
It’s simply a misrepresentation of a powerful technology that is proven very effective when used properly. Understanding this technology through research, education and communication often sways the misguided perceptions of many. Unfortunately, misperceptions persist, even among those holding leadership positions at the state and national levels of government.
A report from the Government Accountability Office criticized the FBI’s “facial recognition database” for violating civil liberties and privacy. The GAO fears are really based on misinformation and a misunderstanding of what happens when law enforcement agencies use this technology every day. The report states facial recognition technology raises potential concerns as an effective tool for aiding law enforcement investigations, the protection of privacy, and individual civil liberties.
As a detective assigned to the New York Police Department’s (NYPD’s) Real Time Crime Center, I considered technology and data two critical components to any investigation. And that experience taught me that facial recognition was simply a technology tool, not an absolute science like DNA, but a biometric technology which could be used to identify unknown suspects and generate leads. Facial recognition technology, in particular is not a smoking gun. It’s only one component in the investigative process that detectives can use to help close cases faster, solve crimes effectively, and ensure public safety.
Facial recognition explained
As I go across the country, or travel to various parts of the world discussing facial recognition technology, I have found it mission critical to first ensure that there is a full understanding of what facial recognition is and clearly define what it is not.
Because of the misguided Hollywood perception that dominates this space, I always remind everyone this is nothing like the movie Minority Report or the TV show CSI. It’s a hands-on process requiring more than just a computer application to find a Possible Match. It still requires a fair amount of good, old fashioned police work.
It is really about matching photos or sketches of unknown suspects to galleries of known faces in photos, in our case mug shots, to try and find an investigative lead that will enable us to identify a perpetrator in a timely manner. The photos or sketches of suspects are often blurry or grainy, requiring a significant amount of enhancement work to make them usable. It’s not so definitive and greatly lacks the mystic Hollywood makes it out to be.
Understanding facial recognition versus facial identification
There are two distinct processes when it comes to using faces for investigations: facial recognition (an automated process) and facial identification.
Facial recognition is the automated process that enables investigators to compare a probe photo against an entire photo database, and helps reduce thousands of possibilities to dozens, and dozens, to one. Yes, I said one. As a matter of fact, it should always be one single candidate match. Upon search, many candidates are usually returned depending on the parameters set by the user.
But how does an analyst sift through millions of images and find a face? Apply search filters.
Most facial recognition applications have filtering capabilities and allow an analyst to constrict searches down to levels of specificity. Once the large mugshot gallery or “haystack of images” is reduced to a few hundred “bundles” of possibilities, analysts must undertake the critical aspect of this process known as facial identification.
Here, the analyst physically inspects each face in the gallery and looks for physical similarities and differences between the probe and each of the returned candidates. This process allows for higher probabilities of success in locating a possible candidate match that resides in the returned list because the reliance is not left solely on the software. Hoping to find that single “needle,” that one face in the gallery, requires an effort from the analyst to carefully review each face.
Tedious and time consuming to say the least, but essential to the investigation. This is the differentiator for higher accuracy rates and makes for a credible and successful facial recognition program.
Implementing this into a facial recognition workflow, makes it easier to obtain one possible candidate match from thousands, or even millions of faces in a gallery.
Most importantly, it is critical to remember that facial recognition technology can only be used to aid in the investigation. Arrests cannot be made solely based on a facial recognition possible match. The onus still falls on the agency to establish probable cause for an arrest.
What about the false positives?
Often, you will hear about the fear of false positives routinely being generated in facial searches. While it may sound interesting and plausible, it is not. If the facial recognition application returns faces that are similar, the agency should implement a process to physically inspect each face in the returned gallery.
The GAO report states the FBI allows law enforcement agencies to request between two and 50 photos be returned from any NGI-IPS face recognition search. The report further states this is a completely automated process with no human analysis.
Is the criticism by the GAO justified? Yes. The reason for higher rates of false positives is because there is no physical inspection performed by an analyst. Another reason for high rates of false positives is because the list of candidates set by the FBI is far too low at 50.
When searching against galleries that are in the millions, many factors prevent algorithms from reading images effectively. More faces mean more similarities to cull through.
If a submitted image is high quality and meets all the necessary requirements of a good probe in pose, lighting, and expression, then a return in a top 50 is likely. But what happens when images are less than ideal by facial recognition standards?
Lower quality images will never return a top 50 ranking. In order for this to work correctly, the gallery must be smaller and the returned list of candidates should be set higher. I always set my returns between 250 to 500 candidates.
When images are less than ideal regarding pose, lighting or another reason the possible candidate most often resides deeper in the returned list. So setting a return at 50 is counter-productive because in a gallery of hundreds, the probe-to-candidate match may be found at rank 51, 150 or 500.
Every image is different and algorithms read each face uniquely and will interpret results based on the number of faces it is searching against. Because of this, there is a definite need for the analyst to individually examine each face.
Possible match and next steps
Once a subject has been identified as a possible match through physical attributes, an immediate background investigation should be performed to validate the candidate as a viable suspect in the investigation.
After the physical characteristics and background checks match up, a possible match report is provided by the agency to verify the single facial recognition match. A properly constructed possible match report document will clearly state in sum and substance, that probable cause must be established by other means for an arrest.
No arrest can be made solely because of the facial recognition possible match report.
Facial recognition simply automates a manual task
As is the case with most forms of newer technology, facial recognition is not necessarily helping us do something different. It’s simply enabling us to do something better.
What was once a manual drawn out process of viewing mugshot images to determine someone’s identity, or conducting neighborhood canvasses by knocking on doors to determine someone’s true identity from a photo, has been streamlined by facial recognition by returning investigative results quicker and more efficiently.
We are not re-writing the rules of law enforcement or privacy rights, just generating valuable leads which lead to identifications critical for criminal investigations.
Don’t view facial recognition as an absolute scientific breakthrough, or a tool infringing on our constitutional right to privacy. Rather, view it as a valuable resource in our lives, as we continue to live within the parameters set forth by our forefathers when they wrote the U.S. Constitution.
We now simply have better tools to capture the criminals who are preventing all of us from pursuing life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Roger Rodriguez joined Vigilant Solutions after serving over twenty years with the NYPD where he spearheaded the NYPD’s first dedicated facial recognition unit and helped start up the Real Time Crime Center. Both are recognized as world models in law enforcement data analytics and facial recognition used in criminal investigations. Today, Roger drives the Facial Recognition, License Plate Reader, and Mobile Companion product lines for Vigilant Solutions as Director of Business Development. As subject matter expert and author, he shares his experiences through thought leadership presentations, media interviews, publications, and hundreds of law enforcement agencies around the world have benefitted from them.
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As public safety practitioners, we face danger, injury and potentially fatal consequences every day. We pilot our police cars, fire apparatus and ambulances toward chaos and mayhem.
In the back of our minds, we offer a little prayer that we will complete our assignment and return safely. Our friends and family know what we do for a living and they offer the same wishes and prayers.
There is National Police Week, Fallen Firefighters Weekend, National Fallen EMS Responders week and we all pause to remember the fallen in our ranks. But there is another time, when we are obligated to reflect. The unofficial start of Summer - and that is Memorial Day.
To many, Memorial Day and the weekend prior, means the beach, the mountains or getting in the RV to anywhere USA. However, Memorial Day remembers and honors the sacrifices our military made, continues to make and potentially will make in the future.
Whenever someone willingly ventures into harm’s way to sacrifice and protect others, they are worthy of honor and respect.
Since the founding of this nation, our military has stood guard, battled tyranny and insured justice for people around the globe, people not of their own country.
On this day, the International Public Safety Association recognizes their sense of duty, their courage and their honor.
Thank you for your service and stay safe.
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