Law enforcement's tech tester

Cdr. Charles "Sid" Heal of the LA Sheriff's Department is the go-to guy for cutting-edge gadgets that may someday shape police work. Photos: High-tech crime fighting

Not every police department has its own R&D unit.

In fact, most don't have the time, funds, or personnel to dedicate to trying out high-tech gadgets that may or may not pan out. That's why Sid Heal of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department has become a go-to guy for law enforcement agencies around the country that want to know what's on the cutting edge and whether it might actually work in the real world.

Cdr. Charles "Sid" Heal heads up the department's technology exploration program, which for a decade has been doing hands-on evaluations of gadgets and has been working with entrepreneurs, defense contractors, and federal agencies on tech fresh from the drawing board. While the scope of the program is more or less wide open, a primary focus is on what Heal calls "nonlethal options"--gear that can be used in place of traditional weapons and high-risk procedures.

A case in point is the heat-spewing Active Denial System, a Buck Rogers-esque directed-energy technology.

In brief, ADS uses millimeter waves to create an intense, but short-lived, burning sensation in people on the receiving end. The Defense Department regularly touts it as a near-ideal nonlethal weapon that soldiers could use in tense crowd control situations overseas in lieu of firing bullets.

Heal, for one, sees it as holding promise for use in quelling domestic street disturbances without the risk of injury that comes with lower-tech alternatives such as beanbag projectiles. For the time being, however, ADS remains in prototype limbo.

Heal brings to his job some three decades of experience in law enforcement, with a focus on special and emergency operations, along with roughly the same amount of time in the Marine Corps Reserve, from which he recently retired. He spoke recently with CNET about key areas for technology exploration, from ADS and car-stopping gadgetry to high-powered loudspeakers and remote-controlled aerial drones.

Q: Could you describe basically what the mission of the technology exploration program is?
Heal: The mission is pretty simple, and that is, it's looking for technological solutions to problems of law enforcement. Law enforcement has historically solved problems with procedures rather than technology. Probably the best example that people would be aware of would be pursuit. Rather than demanding the technology to stop fleeing suspects, we simply limit the circumstances under which we are allowed to chase them.

So we actually go out there and attempt to identify, exploit, develop, integrate, and adapt technologies that may have some application in law enforcement. In many cases, they were developed for one application, and we see some uses in others.

I should also point out the fact that we are not focused on the technology; we are focused on the function. We may have five different technologies trying to solve the same problem, but our focus of effort is on intervening with less-lethal force, closely followed by stopping fleeing vehicles and then detecting contraband, particularly weapons, and then everything else. Very close to that has been emergency management because of the global war on terrorism, so we're involved with several projects for that too.

How wide a range of technology does the unit deal with? How much of the stuff would fall under the umbrella of high tech?
Heal: It depends on how you define high tech. We don't do any communications interoperability or software for the simple reason that the expertise is in different parts of the department. The Active Denial System, I think, would be high-tech.

The vast majority (of things the unit looks at) have either been improvements on existing technologies or what we call "transition technology." A lot of the stuff we got into is so new that there's no nomenclature, there's no taxonomy, there are no standards.

Our focus of effort is on intervening with less-lethal force, closely followed by stopping fleeing vehicles and then detecting contraband, particularly weapons.

A transition technology is any technology that has side effects, and is immature or underdeveloped, but still provides an advantage over the conventional method. So, for instance, beanbags (as a substitute for bullets) have been basically law enforcement's bread and butter for nonlethal options, but we don't like it. It's just better than the alternatives.

I want to come back to some of the specific technologies in a second, but how many people are in the unit?
Heal: Two. Me and a partner.

How long has it been in place?
Heal: In 1996, it actually took a name. It was probably in place a year before that. In 10 years, we've spent $1,800, and the last time I checked, we had nearly $12 million in grants we were managing. There is no funding in domestic law enforcement for technology. All comes through the federal government, and there are all kinds of problems with that, and it comes with all kinds of baggage. The big thing is that the local taxpayer is not very tolerant of allowing anybody to spend their tax dollars and experiment.

So a portion of what you do is accountability, as opposed to just trying out a gadget.
Heal: Yeah, definitely. As a matter of fact, if (technology developers are) looking for us just to put it in the field, they've got problems already, for the simple reason that we don't experiment on our own citizens.

The three big showstoppers are funding, because there is none (and) that means that the developer has to fund it on their own dime; civil liability, and that doesn't mean that we demand to be indemnified, but we at least have to be cognizant of all the little pitfalls we can anticipate; and the last thing is human bioeffects.

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