With Devices Like These, Can RoboCop Be Far Behind?

James Bond had Q to give him all the crime-fighting technology he needed. But your local police force? It has OLETC.

That's the ungainly acronym for the Office of Law Enforcement Technology Commercialization. The 2-1/2-year old federally funded unit based in Wheeling, W.V., is trying to focus America's inventive genius on fighting crime. Two weeks ago, it unveiled its first product: a tire-puncturing device called the RoadSpike.

Other devices are likely to follow: a computer that compares mug shots, a 911-activated emergency porch light, and environmentally friendly bullets (read on).

The RoadSpike is designed to end all those high-speed chases in which, inevitably, 007 got away and the squad cars rammed into a ditch - or each other. By puncturing the tires of fleeing criminals, police can slow them down to 30 miles an hour and help diminish the danger of such chases.

According to one group, police are involved in more than 250,000 chases a year in the United States. Last year, they resulted in 57,500 injuries and fatalities, the group estimates. Many of the victims are innocent bystanders.

Using the portable RoadSpike, policemen can reduce those hazards by radioing another officer to deploy the plastic strip on a road ahead of the criminal. Other cars can drive over the strip without incident. When the criminal approaches, the officer hits a switch and the spikes flip up. The criminal's tires are flat within 8 seconds of hitting the strip (a controlled deflation that's much safer than a blowout).

Similar devices are on the market. But "this is the best we've seen," says Scottie Hicks, chief of the Weirton, W.V., police, which are involved in about 10 high-speed chases a year.

OLETC didn't invent the device. It brought together the inventor with manufacturers. Sometimes, the group serves as marketing arm for a law-enforcement technology. For example, it is trying to convince telephone companies they ought to include a 911 emergency light as an option for their customers.

That way, when someone dials 911, police don't have to waste time trying to find the exact location. The light, attached to the caller's house, begins blinking as soon as the emergency dispatcher hits a button. Another OLETC project: computerizing the nation's mug shots. Law-enforcement agencies have some 40 million photos of criminals and thousands of artists' renderings of suspects. Every year, they generate 10 million more mug shots, making a manual search through them virtually impossible.

So Arsev Eraslan, OLETC's technology scientist, has devised a way of letting computers do the comparison. The trick is to break down each face into 64 features, render it into a three-dimensional picture, then pick the best fit for each feature: which one of 256 noses, of 256 eyebrows, 256 mouths, and so on, comes closest to describing the suspect. It's like playing Mr. Potato Head, only vaster. When completed in several years, the system will be able to search 1 million photos in four seconds.

Should police ever have to shoot at one of those suspects, they can train to do it in a much more environmentally benign fashion. A scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee has found a way to take the lead out of bullets, which seriously contaminates many shooting ranges. The Energy Department is interested in an added benefit: the bullets don't ricochet.

That's important should police confront, for example, a terrorist group in a nuclear power plant. Bullets bouncing off the walls could hit sensitive equipment and cause a disaster. When these lead-free bullets hit a wall, they disintegrate into powder.

We suspect Q would have smiled.

* Send comments to lbelsie@ix.netcom.com or visit my In Cyberspace forum at http://www.csmonitor.com

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