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Can these gun sensors keep cops safer?

Technology from startup Yardarm can tell 911 emergency responders if a police officer's gun has been fired. But Yardarm doesn't call it a "smart gun" -- that would court controversy.

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Yardarm's tracking sensor can be embedded into the handle of a Glock pistol. Yardarm

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. -- On a brisk Tuesday afternoon in February 2013, Santa Cruz police officers got an emergency call to check on a disturbance near downtown. They found a gruesome scene: two of their plainclothes colleagues had been gunned down. A routine call had gone horribly wrong.

"We lost two exceptionally fine officers today," Santa Cruz Police Chief Kevin Vogel told reporters at the time. "It's a horrible, horrible day for the Santa Cruz Police Department and the community of Santa Cruz."

Law enforcement across the country constantly grapples with violence against police officers. On average, one officer dies in the line of duty every 58 hours in the US, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. So, what if there were a way to keep police safer? Startup Yardarm Technologies is working on one.

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Yardarm's sensor automatically syncs with an iOS or Android smartphone via Bluetooth. Yardarm

The company's thumb-size wireless location- and movement-tracking sensor fits snugly in the butt of a Glock handgun. That sensor could shorten emergency response time, defuse deadly situations and create a log for crime analysis and evidence.

Yardarm, based in Capitola, Calif., is now field-testing the technology with two police departments: One in Carrollton, Texas, a Dallas suburb, and the other in Santa Cruz, south of San Francisco on California's northern coast.

Filling the void
Many guns come with a hollow space in the pistol grip. In handguns, it's a narrow area that's typically the length of the handle and sits next to where the magazine is loaded. Various theories explain the reason for the space -- it's a dirt and debris catcher, weight balancer or lanyard holder. For Yardarm, it's the perfect location for a tracking sensor.

Yardarm's first tracking device plugs in to the empty space in the handle of a Glock handgun, the preferred pistol in the field for roughly two-thirds of the nation's police officers.

That tracking sensor takes care of three basic tasks: knowing when the gun is removed from its holster, determining if and when the gun has been fired and recording the gun's GPS location. The Yardarm sensor immediately sends that data to police dispatch as a real-time alert. That instant notification is vital, since the vast majority of deadly incidents with law enforcement happen without dispatch knowing the officer's location, according to the Santa Cruz Police Department.

Yardarm's sensor also syncs automatically with police officers' iOS and Android smartphones via Bluetooth. So along with issuing alerts, the device can tell when officers have become separated from their firearms.

"Smart gun" recoil
Co-founders Bob Stewart and Joaquin Menezes dreamed up the idea that became Yardarm's gun-tracking technology in the wake of the December 2012 massacre in Sandy Hook, Conn. As the world now knows, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot his mother, stole her Bushmaster assault rifle and stormed the local elementary school. He killed 26 people there, including 20 children.

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Yardarm's sensor is roughly thumb size. Yardarm

This tragedy prompted many people to think about new ways to keep guns out of the wrong hands. One way is so-called smart guns -- which use technology to lock out all users except a gun's owner. One example comes from Germany-based Armatix, which makes a smart-gun system it hopes to license to gun manufacturers. Armatix-equipped guns would fire only if they're in range of an accompanying smartwatch. Likewise, Yardarm's initial prototype was intended for the general public -- not law enforcement -- and allowed gun owners to remotely disable their weapon.

There was one problem: backlash.

The National Rifle Association has repeatedly expressed fears that the US government could eventually require gun owners to use smart-gun technology, trampling Second Amendment rights.

"NRA recognizes that the 'smart guns' issue clearly has the potential to mesh with the antigunner's agenda, opening the door to a ban on all guns that do not possess the government-required technology," the NRA wrote in a blog post last year. The NRA didn't respond to a request for comment on this story.

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Gun advocates complained that Yardarm's prototype could stifle people's freedom to use guns whenever they wanted.

Yardarm would've faced a "very long path and a very challenging path," if it had continued working on a consumer product, said Yardarm's vice president of marketing, Jim Schaff. So, when chiefs of police and private security firms approached the company about a location-tracking system, it pivoted focus to law enforcement.

Keeping police officers safe
That February day in Santa Cruz, the police department's dispatch knew officers were on a routine call investigating a sexual assault. But it wasn't until officers had been silent for a while that 911 realized there had been a shooting. Yardarm sensors would have alerted dispatch that the officers had pulled their firearms from their holsters.

"We would have known sooner that they had been disarmed. We would have known sooner their exact location when that incident occurred," Santa Cruz County Sheriff Phil Wowak said in an interview with CNET. "It's not a bulletproof vest and it's not a magic bullet, but it is a safety device that I believe will bring assistance to those that are out there every day putting their life on the line for their community."

Yardarm's sensor could also be a tool for gathering certain crime scene evidence. Since the device tracks location and movement, it can glean important data, such as exactly where and when a gun is fired, and how many times.

"It will aid in the investigation of a deadly force confrontation and it will also help us qualify and corroborate the deputy's statement about the incident," Wowak said.

For example, questions loomed about the exact timing and location of the lethal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., this past August. It was unclear if police officer Darren Wilson fired at Brown from his car or if everything happened on the sidewalk. A Yardarm sensor would've been able to clarify some of these uncertainties.

While Yardarm's tracking sensor has been well received so far, some officers worry that dispatch can watch their every move. Others wonder if the sensor could interfere with a gun's capacity. Wowak believes these concerns will lessen once police see the sensor's capabilities firsthand.

"I think everyone has a question about Big Brother," he said. "We have no intention of tracking our people in real-time every minute of every day. This is essentially a fire alarm.

"It does nothing to the sidearm. It makes no alterations to the functionality of the equipment. All you have to do is log in to the system before you go in the street, just like you do putting a key in a car," said Wowak.

The field trials in Carrollton and Santa Cruz will last roughly four months. Yardarm is working with about a dozen officers in each unit to iron out kinks and customize the sensors to officers' needs. Yardarm expects to wrap up testing by year's end and bring the product to market by spring 2015.

Even though Yardarm is working exclusively with law enforcement, that doesn't mean it's ruled out a consumer product. Firearms and weapons commonly used by police tend to catch on with consumers, Schaff said. Yardarm hopes that will also happen with its sensor.

"We're suddenly in a million gun owners' hands every day," Schaff said of working with US police departments. "That just opens the door to the future and working with gun manufacturers."