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Symposium on Enabling Technologies for Law Enforcement

I appreciate the opportunity to come here and be part of SPIE's symposium on Enabling Technologies for Law Enforcement. All of us at the National Institute of Standards & Technology know the important work that this organization and its members do. It is almost impossible to work in virtually any area of science and technology today and not know.

Many of you are familiar with what NIST does, including:

  • our measurement and standards labs,
  • our Advanced Technology Program co-funding industry's high-risk, high- payoff R&D,
  • our Manufacturing Extension Partnership providing hands-on assistance to small manufacturers around the country, and
  • the Baldrige National Quality Program that is helping companies to improve their approaches to quality and performance excellence.

But in the realm of law enforcement, NIST's role is not widely known, and I appreciate the invitation to come here and rectify that.

Actually, I'm not the person you invited to speak. You invited Kathleen Higgins, the Director of our Office of Law Enforcement Standards. She sent me.

Why? Well, as you know, in any bureaucracy work trickles down and blame trickles up. At NIST, we discovered long ago the physical principle behind this phenomenon. Very simply, work has a higher relative density than blame. Work is a precipitate of the decision-making process. The more energetic – some might say volatile – upper level decision makers are, the more precipitate they produce. The accumulating precipitate exerts increasing pressure on the system. That pressure is released through the formation of blame – which, as most of us know from experience, is mostly gas with almost no capacity for achieving anything useful. Rising blame, however, does raise the overall energy of the system. As blame bubbles up around them, defensive decision-makers increase their decision-making, which accelerates precipitation, which ... you get the idea. A classic cyclical reaction.

Based on these findings, our scientists theorized the existence of a reagent closely related to blame but with opposite spin and polarity. Sure enough, they soon discovered it. It's called praise. Praise, it turns out, has a palliative effect on the work- blame cycle. It calms over-energized decision-makers and lightens the burden of work. Best of all, it enjoys a neutral density. Praise can move upward as easily as downward. In fact, it must keep moving to be effective. If allowed to accumulate too long at any one point – well, you can imagine.

Understand, too, that while blaming oneself is acceptable, even honorable although certainly rare – praising oneself or praising the program one heads is considered just plain tacky.

I suspect, then, that Kathy Higgins sent me here for two reasons. First, I can speak glowingly about her program, which our entire agency is proud of, without sounding self- serving. Second, and perhaps more important, I think she is hoping that if I'm exposed to some of the praise that her program earns, I'll calm down and stop dropping so much precipitate on her.


Many of you are surprised, I'm sure, to learn that NIST has an Office of Law Enforcement Standards, which we creatively call OLES. It is not hard to understand how we would get involved in the standards part – after all, we are America's national laboratory for measurement and standards. But NIST is an agency of the Department of Commerce. Our mission is to promote U.S. economic growth, and we do that by working with industry to develop and apply technology, measurements and standards to ensure the quality and marketability of commercial products.

So what does that have to do with law enforcement? About the same thing it has to do with earthquake-resistant buildings.

Let me explain. Constructing earthquake-resistant buildings is a major public safety issue in many parts of this country. But the people who build buildings – developers, architects, contractors – don't have the time, the resources or the technical know-how to do the research needed to develop earthquake-resistant designs. That's why the U.S. government, in the interest of public safety, funds research on the topic. And some of that research is done at NIST.

Why? Because we have the resources and the technical know-how. I doubt that any of the scientists or engineers at NIST will ever be great architects or contractors, but when it comes to helping to develop reliable test methods and standards to measure building performance, we're hard to beat. So that's what we do.

After that, the trick is to get the standards out into the field, where they'll be used. That's done by involving industry in our work up front and by participating in voluntary standards committees – which in turn are relied upon by state and local building code officials. The standards aren't complicated with all the details of our research and how we went about it. The complicated science and testing behind them is available for scrutiny – but it is largely invisible to building designers, contractors, and occupants.

The result? Safer structures without any guess work and much less time- consuming research on the part of the people who build, buy and occupy them.

That is almost exactly what we are doing for the law enforcement community – eliminating the guess work and a lot of the homework from the process of deciding what equipment to purchase.

Take soft body armor, for example – bullet-resistant vests. There are several types and several manufacturers. If you're a sheriff or a police chief, whose product do you buy? Which vest can you trust with your officers' lives? Simple. You read the label. In this case, you look to see if the vest is "NIJ Certified" – that is, certified by the National Institute of Justice.

What does NIJ have to do with NIST and OLES?

Well, back in the late 1960s there was a Presidential report entitled "Crime in a Free Society." It warned that law enforcement officers across United States weren't properly equipped to protect themselves and the public. The problem was that state and local law enforcement agencies had no common purchasing unit and no source of reliable information on products. When it came to buying anything – protective clothing, radios, sirens, firearms – everyone was on their own. The only information available was what the manufacturers printed up in their sales brochures and what officers found out on the grapevine. There were no established performance standards for anything used in the field.

Congress directed the Department of Justice to remedy that situation, and DOJ's research arm, the National Institute of Justice, came to us.

Now I can almost hear some of you wondering – why would the Department of Justice come to NIST when it already has one of the most respected laboratories in the world: the FBI Crime Lab? Frankly, because we're better.

Oh, we're not better at what the FBI Crime Lab does. But among other things, NIST is a measurement and standards laboratory – actually many of them – and that's what NIJ was looking for. So, in 1971, NIJ and NIST signed a Memorandum of Understanding, and OLES was born.

The OLES mission is very simple. We give practitioners within the criminal justice system – that includes law enforcement, corrections, forensic science and fire service agencies – information they can use to make wise purchasing decisions. Our role is strictly voluntary. More about that later.

There is a lot of sophisticated law enforcement technology out there. Some of it, like automated ballistics matching, was developed specifically with law enforcement in mind. Most of it, including technologies like DNA profiling, was originally developed for other purposes but has found applications in law enforcement. All of it is being marketed aggressively, because manufacturers clearly understand that the criminal justice community needs technology to protect the public, protect their officers, and gain an edge against criminals, both at the scene of a crime and later in court.

Some marketers would have us believe that buying a field testing kit for drugs of abuse or a rechargeable radio battery is a simple as buying a VCR. It's not. When you bring home a new VCR and it doesn't work properly, it may spoil your family's movie night, but no real harm is done. When a drug test kit or a battery fails, you could wind up facing a false arrest lawsuit or having an officer in trouble and unable to call for help.

How can law enforcement agencies differentiate between the good stuff and junk? One of two ways: either by maintaining their own scientists and facilities to test products or by relying on somebody else to establish standards that independent laboratories can use to test and certify products. NIST is that "somebody else." We know the science behind the products that are out there and on the drawing boards. We have 1600 professional staff – half of them PhDs – who know how to apply that science to the real world. We're coming up on a full century of establishing standards. All that science and history are behind NIJ certification and help to make NIJ certification a standard around the world.

Again, body armor is an excellent example. When a police officer in Ogden, Utah straps on a Class 1 vest, he is getting the same level of protection as an officer wearing a Class 1 vest in Sydney, Berlin or Tokyo. As the technology evolves, we update our standards and test protocols. And as new questions about body armor pop up – like how well does a Class 1 vest stand up to stabbing and slashing with edged weapons – we investigate the answers and, if asked, design new standards.

Clearly, having standards like this is a tremendous benefit to law enforcement practitioners. It means that they can have reasonable confidence in a product without having to test it themselves or keep technologists on staff to do testing. And not just because NIJ and NIST say so, but because the standards have proved themselves.

In 1975, the first bullet-resistant soft body armor that met NIJ certification standards was issued to 5000 officers in 15 major cities. Within six weeks, the first officer's life was saved. Since then, the number of lives saved by body armor – not just in gun battles but also vehicle accidents and similar incidents – has climbed to more than 2,000.

Over two thousand lives saved. We should all be proud of that.

And body armor is only one technology that OLES has been involved with. In 27 years we have published more than 200 standards, guides and technical reports, most of them through NIJ, for the criminal justice community. Among the research subjects have been handgun accuracy, ballistics imaging, portable explosives vapor detectors, radio batteries and antennas, traffic radar and laser devices, sirens, wiretapping interfaces for ISDN, pepper spray, DNA profiling, inflammability of mattresses and upholstery, locks for corrections facilities – I think you get the idea.

Our plate is full, which is a clear indication that the law enforcement community sees a real need for standards.

I mentioned that what NIST does for the law enforcement community is kind of like the work we do related to earthquake-resistant buildings. But there is one big difference. The standards for earthquake-resistant structures are written into building codes, and building codes are mandatory. They have to be followed. The standards we design for NIJ are voluntary. They are not regulations.

Manufacturers can choose whether or not to have their products evaluated. They foot the bill for the tests, which, incidentally, are done in approved independent laboratories under the direction of the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center, another grantee to NIJ. If the equipment they submit meets the minimum performance standards, it becomes "NIJ Certified" and carries a stamp of approval that criminal justice practitioners across the country and around the world recognize. If not, well – either back to the drawing board or they can continue to market their wares without the certification.

So if the standards aren't mandatory, why do we bother?

Keep in mind that NIST is part of the Department of Commerce. We believe that a free market will, in most cases, regulate itself, as long as the playing field is level. And standards are one way to level the playing field.

Standards make law enforcement practitioners smarter shoppers. A sheriff who knows to look for NIJ Certification for certain items isn't going to be snowed by fancy full-color brochures just because he doesn't have his own testing lab to advise him. By the same token, a small manufacturer who makes a good product but doesn't have the deep pockets of bigger competitors and can't mount glitzy marketing campaigns, can compete as an equal. If his product earns NIJ Certification, it can compete on the basis of performance.

These points are important, because as the bad guys become better armed and better equipped, and the specter of terrorism looms larger, the law enforcement community is feeling a pretty desperate need to get better equipped themselves. That feeling has reached all the way to Washington. Just last month, Vice President Gore announced that $229 million dollars will be distributed among hundreds of state and local police departments across the country to allow them to buy new equipment and hire more staff. The Vice President said that "sophisticated technology makes it harder for criminals to get away with their crimes and allows officers to do their jobs more quickly and effectively." Obviously, I suspect everyone in this room agrees, and we all know that it enables officers to work more safely, too.

Clearly, standards are the best way to get that technology in its most reliable forms out into the field. At the same time, we realize that money and manpower are too scarce to establish standards for everything that's on the market or on the drawing boards.

There was a program on the Discovery Channel a few weeks ago that demonstrated some of the up-and-coming law enforcement technologies for the next century. There were helicopter-mounted infrared cameras with microwave downlinks to police cruisers, that make it easier to coordinate nighttime searches between air and ground units. There was a little rocket-powered remote control vehicle that a cruiser could launch during a high-speed pursuit. It catches up to the bad guys' car, slips under it, and delivers a jolt of electricity that shorts out the ignition system. There were stun belts designed to replace handcuffs. There were crowd-control cannons that fired rubber balls and bean bags. There was even a gun that shot streams of sticky foam and immobilized suspects by literally gluing them in place.

All of these things worked great in the TV show. And I'm sure there were some police officers and corrections officers around the country who were thinking, "Wow, wouldn't one of those stun belts be great for transporting violent prisoners and suspects under the influence of PCP? One false move and ZZZAP they're writhing on the floor."

They're seeing a solution to a problem they face every day.

Mean while, Kathleen Higgins is watching at home and thinking, "I wonder how much of a jolt that thing delivers? Enough to kill somebody accidentally? Will it cause electromagnetic interference with communications devices? Will the battery last long enough to get a prisoner from Point A to Point Q in the next county? How well does it work in a wet environment?"

She's seeing the need for standards.

Then there's a huge group of viewers – law enforcement people in small state and local agencies with small budgets – who are watching and thinking, "We can't afford backup radio batteries, we're two cruisers short, and I'm supposed to be wowed by stun belts?"

They're seeing technology that has nothing to do with their immediate needs.

And that pretty much sums up the state of things. No doubt some cities and larger jurisdictions could put all kinds of futuristic equipment to use and have it protect the public and save lives – if indeed the technology works as advertised. But there are far more law enforcement folks out there who lack basic necessities.

Both groups need standards.

Like I said, though, there simply isn't enough money to test everything. So we have to set priorities for our research. That's where LECTAC comes in. LECTAC is the Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Advisory Council, a group of 125 or so practitioners from across the country that acts as a kind of industry advisory board to NIJ. LECTAC brings its concerns and recommendations to NIJ, and together with NIJ sets priorities for the research we do.

Having that kind of involvement from the very criminal justice organizations we're trying to serve is invaluable. It keeps us on track and prevents us from spending money on research that nobody who's actually out on the street day-after-day wants.

We also get feedback through the OLES Technical Assistance office. Anyone in the criminal justice system who has questions about standards we've developed or reports and guides we've issued is welcome to call. And they do. We keep track of the questions we're asked, and when we keep hearing the same question over and over, we let NIJ know, and it becomes a candidate for further research.

Other ideas for research come from existing programs within NIST. Every once in awhile we spot one of our own 3,000 scientists doing something completely unrelated to criminal justice and realize that with some slight modification, what they're working on could have important applications in law enforcement or forensics. Of course, this is not unusual. Many technologies in use in law enforcement were not developed specifically for that purpose. The material Kevlar started out in radial tires. The system used to reveal and permanently bond fingerprints to surfaces started out as SuperGlue.

So we keep our eyes peeled, and we suspect that many of the technologies that are going to make a real impact on law enforcement in the future are going to be discovered in commercial and consumer products.[BEAT]

Standards are useful. Standards are necessary. But writing standards and certifying products by those standards is not enough. We feel it is our responsibility also to make sure that practitioners out in the field understand what those standards mean.

There is an old story from the days when NIST was the National Bureau Standards. A plumber wanted to use hydrochloric acid to clean out some drains. He was a careful man, so he wrote to the Bureau to make sure this procedure was safe.

Within a few days he received a reply in the mail, and I quote: "The efficacy of hydrochloric acid is indisputable, but chlorine residue is incompatible with metallic permanence."

Now this guy was a fine plumber, but he wasn't well schooled in bureaucratic jargon. He was also very polite. So he sent off a return letter, thanking the Bureau for responding so quickly and for telling him that using hydrochloric acid would be okay.

A few days later, he received a second letter from the Bureau. It said, "We cannot assume responsibility for the production of toxic and noxious residues resulting from use of hydrochloric acid, and suggest that you pursue an alternative procedure."

The plumber scratched his head as he read this, but he felt that the tone of the words was reassuring. So once again, he sent a letter thanking the Bureau for its help and expressing his pleasure that their experts agreed with him.

This time, the Bureau responded with a telegram which said: "Don't use hydrochloric acid; it eats the hell out of the pipes."

Sometimes people misinterpret our standards the same way. The minimum performance standard for soft body armor, for example, specifies that each panel of a vest be able to resist puncture by six independent single shot events. The test protocol specifies that all six shots be three inches from the edge of the panel and two inches apart. Now as scientists, we understand the need for this kind of specificity. But a lot of law enforcement officers see "six shots to a panel" and assume that they can take six hits and keep on running. Which they can't. So a lot of them continue to refer to body armor as bullet-proof vests. Which they aren't. You can imagine the potential problems.

And so, communicating what standards mean has to be an important element of any standards program.

So, in the end, what is my message to you?

First, standards have served the law enforcement community well. They save lives, save money, and protect the public, and they relieve law enforcement practitioners of the burden and expense of having to do their own product evaluations.

Second, the need for standards is growing in pace with pressure to buy. Better- armed and better-equipped criminals – as well as new threats like terrorism – are forcing law enforcement practitioners to upgrade their current equipment and purchase new types of equipment. Despite increasing Federal aid, state and local budgets remain tight. Practitioners have to get the biggest bang for their buck on every purchase. Standards help them to do that.

Third, rapid developments in technology are bringing new products out of the woodwork. Some are practical and reliable, others are useless and even dangerous. Standards help separate the wheat from the chaff.

And fourth, the standards-development process must follow the priorities of the criminal justice community. Groups like LECTAC ensure that, by directing precious research and evaluation dollars where they are most needed and steering researchers away from blind alleys and white elephants.[BEAT]

Laws may change, technologies certainly will change, and standards will always change. The best we can do, as a society, is to keep those three in balance. There is no other way I know of to ensure that the men and women in law enforcement will always have the enabling technologies they need to protect us and themselves.

Thank you.

Created October 16, 2009, Updated June 2, 2021