March 7, 2000

          Police Gadgets Aim to Fight Crime With 007-Style Ingenuity


          By KEVIN FLYNN

                 hat if New York City police officers were routinely equipped with
                 hand-held weapon detectors that could tell them from a distance
                 whether a suspect was armed? 

          What if patrol cars had portable minilabs that analyzed DNA so fast that
          officers, using a strand of a suspect's hair, could determine within minutes
          whether he was the right, or the wrong, man? 

          What if video cameras at Kennedy International Airport could scan
          thousands of faces, electronically compare them with a database of
          photographs, and alert the authorities when the image of a traveler
          matched that of a fugitive or a terrorist? 

          If these sound like the idle dreams of an Ian Fleming fan, do not blink.
          Experts say this assortment of Bond-like gadgets could transform the way
          suspects are captured and prosecuted, and might be ready in just a few
          years. A face-scanning surveillance system is already in use in one London
          neighborhood. And at a campaign appearance in Manhattan on Sunday,
          Hillary Rodham Clinton called for increased federal spending on research
          to improve police technology, including gun detectors. 

          Prototypes of some new gadgets were showcased in New York in January
          at a breakfast symposium held by the Citizens Crime Commission. 

          "We are beginning to see a technological revolution in law enforcement of
          such immense dimensions that I don't think anyone knows really where it
          will go," said Thomas A. Reppetto, president of the commission, a nonprofit
          city organization that reviews issues in law enforcement. 

          The New York Police Department, the country's largest, plays an
          important role in the field, largely because it is often the entry point for
          technological innovations. Compstat, the computer mapping system that
          tracks crime patterns, spread across the country after taking root in New

          "We are constantly being approached by companies, vendors who want to
          sell us their products or want us to test their products," Police
          Commissioner Howard Safir said in an interview last month. 

          This month, representatives of a California company, Jaycor, are coming to
          New York to demonstrate the PepperBall, a launcher that uses
          compressed air to shoot projectiles filled with a disabling powder similar to
          pepper spray. 

          Later this year, federal researchers plan to test with the police a new type
          of metal detector in the city's schools. They say it could speed the scanning
          of students by distinguishing between the ferrous metal of a gun and the
          nonferrous metals often used in jewelry. 

          "There is no other agency like the N.Y.P.D.," said Craig Beery, director of
          sales for the PepperBall. 

          "They are the influence maker in the market." 

          Jaycor is also developing a hand-held detector of concealed weapons that
          should be available in a few years, said Jeremy Travis, director of the
          National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Justice Department. 

          The federal government has invested more than $300,000 in the weapons
          detector. It emits a sonic pulse, and when a knife or gun is present, the
          pulse is reflected back, triggering an alarm and a light. Mr. Travis said
          tests on the device had shown that it worked at a distance of up to 12 feet.

          In her remarks on Sunday, Mrs. Clinton, who is running against Mayor
          Rudolph W. Giuliani for the Senate, said aggressive street searches for
          weapons under Mr. Giuliani's leadership had sown mistrust in minority
          neighborhoods. She proposed increasing federal spending on research "so
          that we can create gun detectors that can scan city streets and pinpoint
          guns, reducing the need for stop-and-frisks." 

          Like many new technologies, the detector spawned both excitement and
          skepticism at the crime commission's breakfast. One former police official
          asked about investment opportunities with the manufacturer. Another,
          former Commissioner William J. Bratton, said the prototype looked too
          much like a gun and would only increase tensions in a street encounter. "I
          wouldn't invest 2 cents in that thing," he said. 

          Peter Coakley of Jaycor later said he welcomed the criticisms. "We could
          give it a flatter, paddle look to make it less threatening," he said. 

          Even when new gadgets work perfectly, they often raise concerns about
          the invasion of privacy and the erosion of civil liberties. 

          One innovation that has fostered both high hopes and privacy concerns is
          the facial recognition technology being used in the Newham section of
          London. Newham had been plagued with high crime rates for years, but
          security officials say crime has dropped 30 percent since November 1998,
          when the video surveillance system was installed. 

          A total of 247 cameras are posted at busy locations, like subway stops.
          When a camera is hooked up to the software, faces are repeatedly
          captured and matched against a list of Newham's 100 most troublesome
          criminals. When there is a match, the police are alerted, and they either
          dispatch an officer or record the sighting so there is a potential suspect if a
          crime is later reported. 

          So far, the system has not led to any arrests, but Bob Lack, Newham's
          security manager, said it had been a deterrent. 

          The facial recognition system was developed by Visionics of Jersey City. 

          Joseph J. Atick, the company's president, said one potential use of the
          product in New York would be at an airport, where a camera at the
          bottom of an escalator could capture 60 to 100 faces a minute, then
          instantly compare them with a list of terrorists. 

          The software works by mapping a face, identifying markers that make it
          unique, like the distance between the nose and mouth. 

          To address privacy concerns, the authorities in Britain say, they discard all
          the images that are not true matches. But such systems still concern
          people like Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic
          Privacy Information Center in Washington. He worries that surveillance
          will become so routine that it will result in "the investigation and tracking of
          people in public places without any reason to believe they are engaged in
          wrongdoing," he said. 

          Despite the heightened expectations about what these 007-style
          technologies would be able to achieve, the United States government does
          not spend much on research or development, Mr. Travis said. His agency
          spent $55 million on such research last fiscal year, while the federal energy
          research budget topped $2 billion. 

          Mr. Travis was among the experts who said new, more efficient devices
          often pay for themselves. The portable DNA labs under development, for
          example, would make it easier for police officers to collect and analyze
          samples without the use of an outside laboratory, experts said. Each
          portable lab could cost more than $20,000, but police officials could reduce
          outside laboratory fees sharply, the experts said. 

          The portable labs, which could be widely available in three years, use a
          DNA analysis chip about the size of a credit card. 

          Saliva or other biological material from a suspect is fed into a channel in
          the chip. It travels past a laser that reads 13 DNA markers, creating a
          profile of the suspect. 

          The chips can identify the markers in about two minutes, according to Dan
          Ehrlich, director of a DNA minilab project at the Whitehead Institute for
          Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass. 

          Comparing them with a central database would then take about 12 minutes,
          he said. 

          "If the laws were written in such a way," Dr. Ehrlich said, "some local
          police officer in some unnamed Southern state may pull over a suspect for
          drunk driving or having a headlight out, and he may be able to extract a
          DNA sample of saliva and punch it back into the computer and find that
          the guy was wanted for something else in the state of New York." 

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company