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More than meets the eye; Technology complements more and more criminal investigations.

Byline: Scott J. Croteau

The compact robot glides smoothly across the room. It stops in front of a shirtless, muscle-bound man standing in the shadows. The robot elevates its mounted camera-head, seemingly going from a crouching position to standing, and, within seconds, fires two tethered projectiles, striking the man and toppling him to the ground with an electronic pulse.

The scene is played out as a demonstration video on Taser International Inc.'s Web site. Taser is working with iRobot Corp. of Burlington to arm robots with Taser technology.

As the company puts it, the robot will help law enforcement safely subdue dangerous suspects.

That kind of technology can't yet be found on the streets or in the police departments of Central Massachusetts communities. But the technology boom has helped law enforcement here to see in the dark, detect missing people in the woods, more quickly receive information in police cruisers or find evidence not seen by the naked eye.

"I would say in the past 10 years technology has exploded for law enforcement," said Worcester police Capt. Reginald W. Needham, who runs the system management division for the department.

Law enforcement officials will always caution that technology alone cannot solve crimes and that old-fashioned police work is at the heart of any investigation.

But they'll acknowledge technology helps in certain situations.

When the Hudson Police Department used $11,795 from a community policing grant to buy a thermal-imaging camera a few years ago, it quickly proved helpful.

Two men suspected of breaking into a business were tracked down in the woods when the police used the camera to follow their movements. A piece of evidence was also recovered by using the camera.

"It picked up heat from being on the suspects. When they threw it away, the evidence set off a glow (in the camera)," Hudson Police Chief Richard A. Braga said.

From above, Massachusetts State Police use the same technology in their four Air Wing

helicopters to help track suspects and find missing people. The thermal-imaging camera is not isolated to use in wooded areas and has been helpful following suspects running through the downtown streets of Worcester, said Sgt. Bruce T. Johnson, tactical flight officer for the state police.

The state police helicopter also used the technology to help in the Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. building fire in 1999. Looking through the camera, the personnel on board noticed the water being sprayed on the fire below wasn't directly hitting the flames.

Smoke made it hard to see where to attack, but the camera doesn't see smoke; it sees heat, the sergeant said. The helicopter picked up a fire commander who was able to direct the spray toward the flames, he said. (At the time of the warehouse fire, which killed six firefighters, the Worcester Fire Department did not have thermal-imaging cameras to find people in dense smoke. After the fire, the city acquired several of the devices.)

Flight officers on the state police helicopters are trained to read what they see on the monitor, which looks like a flat-screen television. At night they use white-hot, a video image application that makes heated objects appear white on the gray screen.

The cameras have become so sophisticated over the years, the flight officers can distinguish animals from humans at 2,000 feet.

"We can distinguish a deer eating grass," Sgt. Johnson said.

The helicopter can also down-link live camera footage to authorities below. The helicopter can cut down on search time, combing a football field-sized area in two seconds, the sergeant said.

Hudson police can keep tabs on the department's cruisers using global positioning systems. The department has a large computer monitor in the dispatch area that shows the locations of police cruisers, their speeds and other information.

"When we have an emergency call we want to get the closest car there," Chief Braga said. "It is a more efficient process and ensures the quickest response in an emergency situation."

Computers and updated software may be taken for granted, but police know the advantages of having laptops and computers in the cruisers. Many veterans remember writing or tapping away at typewriter keys.

Worcester police's laptops can access information from the Registry of Motor Vehicles, criminal history reports and driver's license photos and will soon be able to access all police department information, such as e-mail and reports, as if officers were in the station.

Capt. Paul B. Saucier said the new wireless computers can pull up a license photo. That could help when officers are looking for a suspect.

A geographic information system map can also be accessed and if streets need to be shut down for some emergency, an officer could check the online map and relay what streets should be closed, he said.

Reports can be completed inside the cruiser, which helps because information in criminal cases is sent electronically to prosecutors in the district attorney's office, Capt. Needham said.

Holden officers can access all that information with their cruiser computers, too.

"In the old days we used to inundate the dispatcher for information," Police Chief George R. Sherrill said about officers on the road.

His department is also linked to about 20 other area departments. When one of his officers pulls someone over or arrests someone, the officer can check reports from other communities, the chief said.

The gadgets and equipment come with price tags, though. Without grants, departments would be hard-pressed to find cash in their budgets to buy the equipment. Spending $10,000 on a piece of equipment would cause another part of the budget to suffer, chiefs say.

One way departments access new technology is through the New England State Police Information Network, said Chief Sherrill, a board member of the organization.

An offshoot of the Department of Justice, NESPIN owns surveillance equipment and recording devices and has personnel that departments can use.

Leicester Police Chief James Hurley, the unit supervisor of the Regional Drug & Counter Crime Task Force for the Middle District of Eastern Worcester County, said the task force also uses grant money to purchase equipment. It is available to the 12 communities that are task force members.

"It makes more sense for a department to do it regionally," Chief Sherrill said.

While departments are constricted by budgets, some criminals aren't and police have run into a few who have surveillance equipment or gadgets of their own to help them stay one step ahead of the police. Chief Hurley recalled an incident when

he was still working in Shrewsbury.

"An undercover officer was scanned by a target of a drug investigation to see if he was using an electronic recording device," he said. "The guy brought out what he called a scanner."

Cell phones, including disposable cell phones, have made criminals more mobile as well.

No matter what the technology used to investigate crimes, chiefs say officers still have to hit the streets.

"There is no substitution for good old-fashioned police work," Chief Hurley said. "You have to talk to people and go out and talk to people on the street. Knowledge is the No. 1 lifeline of police work."

Contact reporter Scott Croteau by e-mail at scroteau@telegram.com.

ART: PHOTOS; CHART

CUTLINE: (1) Hudson Police Chief Richard A. Braga is reflected in the lens of the department's new thermal imaging camera held by Officer Craig Perry. (2) Hudson police dispatcher Peter Ryan communicates with an officer on patrol as the department's new GPS system displays the locations of police cruisers around town on a 50-inch plasma monitor in the background. (CHART) Crime-fighting technology

PHOTOG: (PHOTOS) T&G Staff/PAUL KAPTEYN (CHART) T&G Staff
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jul 26, 2007
Words:1277
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