Safer cities: Most wanted app, police do Snapchat, lasers that spot drunk drivers (and more)

Fri, 2014-07-25 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

Television shows that profile most wanted criminals and ask for the public’s help in finding them have been around for decades. But a new app takes that concept into the modern age.

The app is called Facewatch ID, and it lets residents see the faces of criminals who are wanted in their area. People who use the app can either scroll through hundreds of photos or sort the wanted suspects in terms of proximity to their home.

One police department in Britain is already using the app and several more are considering it.

For citizens, the app not only provides them an opportunity to help police, it also gives them a gauge of crime in their community.

Scroll down for more ways technology can help make cities safer.

Police use Snapchat to reach younger audiences

When you think of Snapchat, you typically think of the teens and 20somethings who send self-destructing messages to each other. But police in the British town of West Midlands have also joined Snapchat in an attempt to reach that audience.

Each day, the department sends out one picture or story, perhaps about its neighborhood outreach or Cannabis Disposal Team. Since its Snapchat, the story vanishes after 24 hours. But judging from the early results, a lot of people are apparently seeing the updates. The department says its messages reach a half-million people daily.

One on-going message that it needs to reinforce is that its Snapchat channel is for public relations efforts only; crimes still need to be reported the usual way.

Social media helps California police bridge language gap

Police in the California city of Alhambra are turning to a different form of social media to communicate with Chinese immigrants who speak little or no English. They are using the Chinese microblogging service Weibo to reach out.

The most recent census figures show there are several parts of Alhambra where Chinese immigrants make up half the population or more. And the department has only four officers who speak Chinese.

The department is using its Weibo account to talk about what it’s doing, answer questions, and in some cases, educate the immigrants about life in America.

Alhambra police have 13,000 followers already on the service, and say since they joined they are getting more calls from Chinese immigrants. They were even alerted to a rental-car voucher scam targeting Chinese nations, a scam they may not have discovered on their own.

Laser helps spot drunk drivers

Checkpoints could become a thing of the past with a new laser that can check a driver’s blood-alcohol level even when the window is rolled up.

The laser is powered with the same kind of technology that the military uses to find chemical weapons, hazardous materials, and improvised explosive devices. In short, alcohol absorbs some of the laser light. If the driver is drunk, the amount of light reflected back to the unit will be significantly reduced and the officer will be alerted.

There are still a lot of kinks to work out. The minimum detection threshold now is about double blood-alcohol limit in several states. It will also give a false alarm if the driver is sober but the passenger is drunk. And it doesn’t work at all if a car window is open. But the developer says it should be ready within a year.

A bigger issue may be that it’s not clear the device is legal. Officers have to have reasonable suspicion that someone is drunk before pulling them over. It’s not evident if a laser reading meets that test.

Police dogs sniff out child porn

Police in New England are using dogs to sniff for hidden electronics, part of their efforts to reduce child pornography.

The dogs, of course, can’t tell if the files on the hard drives and memory cards are child pornography, but they are proving useful in helping officers find the devices in the first place. Child pornographers often hide their electronic devices within other devices or behind ceiling tiles. The specially trained dogs have no trouble sniffing them out.

So far, Connecticut police have trained 65 dogs, which are then sent to help departments all across the country.

Drones could patrol Ohio prisons

Ohio could soon become the first state to use aerial drones to patrol its prisons. The state wants to use the drones over two prisons and is in the middle of a public comment period on the issue.

It hasn’t decided what type of drone to use – it’s considering tethered balloons, fixed-wing aircraft and quad-copters – but officials say the technology could help them crack down on people from the outside passing contraband over prison walls.

There are already some objections. Some state lawmakers have raised privacy concerns. And the union representing prison employees says it’s not against new technology, but it believes most prison issues are best solved with hiring more staff.

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