Short Features

Roger That
Justiceworks helps law enforcement agencies solve some of their most critical problems.

A New York City firefighter, above, distributes prototype radios as part of a November 2002 drill. The goal is to avoid the type of widespread communication problems that occurred during the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.

As they hunted gunman Carl Drega through the woods of Vermont and New Hampshire near the Canadian border, police from both states—hampered by radio problems—were forced to relay messages between departments by sending cars back and forth between their units.

New York City firefighters rushing up the smoking towers of the World Trade Center to help trapped workers were unable to communicate with their commanders.

In Littleton, Colo., police responding to shots inside Columbine High School flooded the parking lot, effectively blocking emergency rescue vehicles that were trying to care for wounded students.

It's hard to imagine that a bloody shootout deep in the northern Vermont woods has much in common with attempts to save people during the World Trade Center attacks, let alone the Columbine massacre. But all three cases have been studied by UNH's ATLAS Project (Advanced Technologies in Law and Society) to explain the way agencies need a centralized communications command structure during an emergency.

Justiceworks, a criminal justice think tank that was founded at UNH in 1999, functions as an applied research unit in law enforcement, studying crime scenes and strategies. The cross-disciplinary group is largely funded by grants from the New Hampshire Department of Justice, and it has spent the past five years providing information, evaluations and assessments of law enforcement programs and tools to law enforcement agencies, the media and the government.

"We sit at an interesting juncture," says John T. "Ted" Kirkpatrick, the associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts, a Mike Ditka lookalike who also serves as co-director of Justiceworks. "It's an emerging field in criminology and criminal justice," he says.

Justiceworks has many projects underway, but the ATLAS Project is important not only because it straddles more than two academic disciplines but because it straddles two eras: before and after the application of high technology to hunt criminals. But while technology can create a number of effective policing tools, law enforcement is not a monolithic culture that immediately adopts new tools across its many levels.

"We have all these fabulous new technologies," Kirkpatrick says. "They help with eavesdropping, surveillance, tracing the flow of money. It's like no other time in history. But we really don't know how these technologies are shaping our understanding of justice or the rule of law in the 21st century."

ATLAS not only examines approaches to crime prevention that incorporate technology, it also tries to figure out which kinds of high-tech tools are actually deployed by police in an effective way, and why. As an illustration of the way police organizations utilize technology, Kirkpatrick points to New Hampshire's recent purchase of some 20 automated fingerprint identification machines, which are much more precise than the older finger-on-the-ink pad methods used for nearly a century.

"Many places, when they got that technology, immediately used it," he says. "But a lot of places viewed it as 'that machine that sits in the corner.' People get used to their own way of doing things, and the new machine was being used as a coffee cup holder."

That's where ATLAS comes in. The project's staff try to determine whether police officers ignore a new tool because of social and cultural reasons or because they don't understand the technology.

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