Could ‘smart’ uniforms reduce police use of force?

The exoskeleton uniform of the near future aims to increase decision-making time and safety for officers and decrease the need to go hands-on


An officer responds to a vehicle burglary report, a typical call that the police handle every day. The owners parked their car the night before, and when they awoke, they found it burglarized. The officer arrives on the scene and begins the investigation. Suddenly, the officer is aware of an impending threat and redirects attention from the owners to the enormous subject running toward the officer. The alert technology in the officer's uniform had given the officer a heads up, which allowed the officer to gain some distance and focus attention on the threat. The alert also notified the officer the subject was displaying anger and erratic behavior, indicating a high chance of a physical altercation. 

Dispatch begins to receive multiple 911 calls. One caller is screaming her younger brother is combative and fighting with the entire family about not being able to watch his TV show. The caller says her brother saw an officer at his neighbor's house and immediately ran in that direction.

Meanwhile, the officer's uniform also notified a supervisor and other officers in the vicinity of the impending threat. 

In this May 20, 2014 photo, Michael Fieldson , the civilian project manager for the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit at McDill Air Force Base, looks at sketches of the body armor exoskeleton during the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Fla.
In this May 20, 2014 photo, Michael Fieldson , the civilian project manager for the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit at McDill Air Force Base, looks at sketches of the body armor exoskeleton during the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Tamara Lush)

The sergeant quickly arrives on the scene and sees the officer has gained distance and is communicating with the subject. Officers take their time and speak to the individual in crisis, avoiding any use of force. After some time, they convince him to comply with their instructions. Eventually, the individual goes willingly with the police to be evaluated; the burglary is assigned to another officer. 

In the supervisor's report of the incident, the officers' smart exoskeleton uniform is credited with giving officers information about the subject's behavior and demeanor; it also helped them avoid any use of force. The subjects' family was happy; their loved one was unharmed and able to get the care he needed. Of course, dealing with persons who may be violent, or in an acute mental health crisis, is an all-too-common scenario for the police. The difference in this near-future scenario is the officer's uniform is a part of the threat assessment and response.

A way to gain time

Social media has changed how the public views modern-day policing. The use of force by the police is seen worldwide almost instantly after it occurs on smartphones and laptops. Regardless of the facts, the police are assumed guilty.

"Lawful but awful" police use of force has created a barrier between law enforcement and the community. The barrier is stifling the ability for police agencies to work with the community effectively to deal with their concerns.

Most deadly force situations by police usually occur in seconds. In crises, officers don't have much time to rethink options and are often forced to use deadly force. What if law enforcement chose not to go "hands-on" and stepped back to evaluate further?

Law enforcement's advanced knowledge of aggressive behavior from a violent offender would reduce the use of force incidents by officers, ultimately having a positive impact on community policing. Giving the officer more time, and a greater sense of safety, are critical aspects to lessen police use of force. The uniform of the near future in the form of an exoskeleton uniform strives to address both.

Developing a smart uniform 

US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) has been researching technology to amplify its operators' abilities through the uniforms they wear.

The TALOS (Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit) project was first presented in 2013 and while the project has officially ended, SOCOM’s Joint Acquisition Task Force is continuing to support the concept of a hyper-enabled operator.  

The TALOS concept was a powered exoskeleton that would provide the wearer additional strength, access to information and increased communications abilities. It was envisioned to be energy efficient without charging for long periods and provide wearers with heightened situational awareness.

The suit would have had the capacity to stream large amounts of data and information from various military platforms, with integrated life support systems that would monitor the wearer’s vital signs and health, with a compact communications package that would have allowed an upgraded audio reception capability.

The concept featured a three-dimensional sound sensor to enable the wearer to determine the source of incoming fire, vehicles, etc. This part of the suit was similar to Raytheon's BOOMERANG's shot detection system, which uses passive acoustic detection and computer-based signal processing to locate a shooter in less than a second.

TALOS would have featured a helmet with a heads-up display, a small optic just below the eyes allowing the wearer to access information with the slight movement of the eye.

Finally, TALOS would have enabled the operator to covertly listen to enemy ground movements and collect field intelligence

The exoskeleton of the TALOS suit was carbon fiber, although it was envisioned to be built from a lightweight metal such as titanium to address the needs and functionality desired while weighing less and offering greater protection. The TALOS project led to breakthroughs in sensors that monitor the physiological and biological status of the body.

Transferring the tech to law enforcement

Despite having to wait for a functioning, affordable exosuit, the tech behind the TALOS concept could easily be transferred to law enforcement use.

In addition to detecting movement, affording instant communications and providing a passive defense to any assault, an exosuit would also lessen the physical strain on an officer who wears it. The exosuit would protect the musculature and bone structure to help augment the ability of the wearer.

The exosuit would allow for heightened situation awareness; this would be invaluable to officers in the field having readily accessible information with just one look at the heads-up display.

The life support system monitoring its wearer’s vitals could be utilized by officers and supervisors to assess physical condition as an incident unfolds.

Lastly, audio reception capability would allow the officer to gather intelligence and warn of an impending threat earlier, thus creating a chance to gain time and distance during which choices about a response can be made. 

Using technology in policing is an opportunity for law enforcement organizations to be more productive and connect to the communities in which they serve. Technology is rapidly changing, which will change how policing services are delivered. Nearly every person carries around with them a device that can log and transmit amounts of data that would have been unthinkable a little over a decade ago. This one fact alone has significantly changed how police officers do their jobs. Exosuits could be one more option in an agency’s array of tech solutions to their most vexing problems. As pilot programs for their use emerge, police leaders should be ready to test, refine and then use the technology.

Conclusion

Even though policing has experienced significant changes in philosophy through its eras of practice, police tools and skills have mainly remained the same. Officers drive cars, have various less lethal and lethal options to enforce compliance, and rely primarily on command presence and communication skills to encourage others to do what they ask. Today, though, there are technologies that can change how the police interact with the public and do so in ways that could dramatically lessen the possibility of injury to the officer or others. One of the most significant advancements is the police uniform itself.

The smart uniform could significantly improve community relations due to the reduction in the use of force incidents. As a result, cooperation and trust will be reestablished with the community. We cannot afford to lose community trust. In the technology era, we must develop and use products that can only help us improve our tactics to elevate us back up to the pedestal of honor and integrity. 

NEXT: How biometric monitoring will save law enforcement lives

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