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Law enforcement 2.0: new opportunities, novel challenges

Technological innovation invariably outstrips government’s ability to adapt, and police departments have a reputation for slowness at buying into new developments. A number of Massachusetts startups aim to change that. The Police Innovation Conference, held this week at Microsoft’s Kendall Square New England headquarters, brings together tech pioneers with officers from as far away as South Africa to chart the course of law enforcement in the coming decades.

This inaugural conference is the brainchild of Peter Olson, founder of WiredBlue, a police communications firm based in Peabody. In 2010, Olson, then a detective in the Peabody Police Department, had an idea for a smartphone app to better link police departments with their constituents.

“My goal was to foster interactions between the police and the public,” says Olson. “I knew that if I wanted a tool like this, there must be dozens of departments out there that need something similar. And I thought, ‘If I’m gonna do it, I better do it right.’”

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That same year, Olson threw job security and a police pension to the wind to found WiredBlue and launch MyPD as its first product. A customizable app available on both iPhone and Android, MyPD allows police departments to push social media notifications and urgent alerts to the public, as well as to collect feedback, survey data, and even officer commendations from connected citizens.

Having introduced MyPD to more than one hundred departments across the United States and Canada, Olson remains passionate about expanding police deployment of social media and data analysis. He’s teamed up with Cambridge Police Department, one of his first clients, to facilitate the Police Innovation Conference as a discussion of advanced technology in law enforcement, including the potential productivity boosts, vulnerabilities and relevant privacy concerns.

Dan Riviello, CPD communications director and conference emcee, explains that his department’s unique situation between Harvard and MIT makes for a particularly tech-savvy constituency that expects the same from its police. In February, Cambridge became just the second city in the country to share realtime police alerts via an automated Twitter feed.

“Cambridge is a very demanding public, for sure,” says Riviello, “and we take that as an opportunity to rise to the challenge and do innovative things within our department.”

In this spirit, Olson and Riviello put together an agenda unlike your typical police conference, from the slick venue in the heart of Kendall Square to the lineup of companies invited to demonstrate their products.

Bedford-based iRobot is a household name for its Roomba vacuum robots, but its defense and security products are a bit more rugged. iRobot Robotics Product Director Tom Phelps demonstrated the five-pound, throwable FirstLook as well as the more formidable, pincer-armed PackBot, both of which were deployed in the marathon bombing manhunt. Phelps suggests that robots will become more and more common as prices decline and operation becomes easier, particularly for younger officers raised on video games.

Asked whether iRobot has plans to incorporate tasers or other weaponry into its products, Phelps deferred to market demand: he says that so far law enforcement had been erratic in requesting armed bots but that he wouldn’t rule it out in the future.

Phelps was quick to add that there “should always be a human in the decision-making loop.”

Mutualink, whose R&D center is in Westford, Mass., has built a network of first responders around its interoperable communications hardware, which allows agencies to share communications on an incident-by-incident basis. The company has also developed a Google Glass prototype that allows agencies to share voice, data and video in a hands-free application better suited for emergencies. Bob Galvin, Mutualink’s New England business development director and retired Norwell police chief, points to situations like Hurricane Sandy or the marathon bombing as clear cases where secure communication channels between agencies are critical.

Olson was also excited to feature companies whose products might not have apparent law enforcement applications, or at least not yet. Solidyte, a 3D printing firm in Woburn, began in 2009 with a product line of unique keepsakes, such as custom night lights and busts printed from customers’ uploaded photos. After a number of commissions from architectural firms to print design models to scale, founders Tanapat Kitudomkul and Ken Macharia have begun investigating potential law enforcement applications for their systems. Evidence reconstruction and 3D incident maps are two of the ideas they float.

“The technology is improving, and we just need to learn how to put it to use in the law enforcement sector,” says Kitudomkul. “That’s why we’re here, to ask police what uses they might see for our services.”

After a full day of demonstrations and forums, participants seemed energized by the innovations on display, both the practical and the elaborate.

“Departments have to progress,” says Peabody officer Nino De La Cruz after closing remarks. “This is a great look at what others are doing, and the tech that’s out there for us.”

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