Big Data

Smart guns: Can tech bring transparency to law enforcement?

Yardarm Technologies developed a sensor for guns to detect when, where, and how they're used, in hopes of improving safety and accountability for law enforcement officers.

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The small Yardarm sensor fits into a Glock handgun and communicates via Bluetooth to an officer's phone.
Image: Yardarm Technologies

We'll probably never know the full story of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. But what has transpired in the weeks after the tragic event — the protests, the police militarization, the impending grand jury decision — has made problems with law enforcement processes glaringly obvious. Many of those problems relate to authorities having to piece together what occurred through multiple accounts: who shot whom, from what angle and where, how much time transpired.

But with new IoT technology, there may soon be a way to avoid much of the confusion that surrounds officer shootings.

Yardarm Technologies has developed sensors that fit into guns that track when the gun is unholstered and/or fired, which direction, and the exact location, in order to enhance firearm awareness. This is to make sure officers are safer day-to-day and monitored when they are in danger, and it also provides a way to document abuses of power.

"We are simply another technology that can provide the data in a completely objective way," said Jim Schaff, VP of marketing for Yardarm. "[It's] now just evidence."

The number of felony suspects fatally shot by police is higher than it has been in two decades — the count reached 461 in 2013. We're also in a time when mass shootings are drastically rising, according to the FBI, so gun control is a timely topic. But the polarizing political debate surrounding gun control and the Second Amendment has made it near impossible to get any new regulations passed — or even considered — in the US.

Technology like Yardarm's could be beneficial in creating change without changing federal or state regulations. The company was founded just five months after the Sandy Hook shooting. The founders were originally looking at targeting the consumer market to connect people 24/7 to their guns, bringing firearms into the connected world like almost every other item out there.

"We're not a bunch of gun guys figuring out how to put tech in guns," Schaff said. "We're a bunch of tech guys trying to figure out how to put tech in guns."

The team received a lot of messages from interested organizations like private security firms, police forces, and foreign governments, who wanted more information — more data — to use as evidence, and more ways to monitor the safety of officers out in the field.

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Rendering of a gun with a Yardarm sensor inside.
Image: Yardarm Technologies

"The core of what we do first is officer safety," Schaff said. "We automatically send dispatch and alerts."

The system is currently being tested by the Sheriff's Department of Santa Cruz County, California and the Carrollton, Texas Police Department. They're figuring out the most efficient ways to customize the system and best practices to use during critical events.

Today, law enforcement operations around the country are trying to become more tech savvy to operate in real time. Some 911 dispatches, for instance, are learning how to use video clips taken by witnesses and uploaded to the internet, or are integrating SMS messaging into their systems.

The best example of new tech for law enforcement is dashcams, Schaff said. They were initially met with pushback, but have since become important tools for officers. Some law enforcement are now experimenting with body cams, which are controversial, to provide an eyewitness account of physical altercations or other types of disputes. That, Schaff said, is a whole other story — there are many ways to abuse them. It's important not to rush technology like this, he added, because it could lead to deployments that are more destructive than helpful.

The Yardarm technology, however, is easily integrated into law enforcement processes. It's treated as any other piece of evidence. It's hard data, and it simply shows where the gun is and what it's doing.

Here's the tech behind it: A small electronic module sensor fits into a the back of a Glock handgun, which was used because the majority of law enforcement use Glocks. The sensor has a small battery, accelerometer, and compass. It connects via Bluetooth LE to the officer's smartphone, which has an installed app.

The encrypted data passes through Yardarm's servers and goes to the department. The sensor communicates to the station, other police cars within a determined radius, and to dispatch, so the data can be retrieved in real time, depending on the particular departments' guidelines. For example, a phone alert could be sent to all officers within six blocks and a text would be send to the police chief when an officer uses her/his gun or moves locations without notifying anyone. The sensors also offer value in events that don't involve firearms, like foot pursuit, because of the GPS tracking technology.

"It's a perfect fit for us to say we can tie directly into the current existing infrastructure in a space where it's getting more dangerous to be an officer,"

That's the major pain point Yardarm is trying to relieve — budget cuts in police forces. Cities are growing rapidly, but forces around the country are experiencing big cuts in number of officers and budget, so their safety is critical. But expensive technological advancements are hard to reason, Schaff said.

Another issue Yardarm is trying to tackle is exemplified in the Ferguson case: Not only are authorities trying to analyze and interpret facts, but the majority of the discussion is about what the facts actually are. With a sensor in the gun, those necessary details could have been accounted for as evidence.

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About Lyndsey Gilpin

Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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