The Future of Wearable Technologies in Law Enforcement

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Illustration (123RF)
Illustration (123RF)

This year’s Consumer Electronics Show ushered in a new term that is destined to become as common as “Google” in the near future: wearables. The term “wearable” refers to technology devices that have been transformed into something that can be worn by a user.

According to, in just the past few years, the introduction of wearable cameras for law enforcement officers has begun to shape the public safety wearable marketplace.

Recent reports surfaced that the New York City Police Department had acquired two pairs of Google Glass but NYPD isn’t the only agency considering wearables for law enforcement, though.

In its “Connected Law Enforcement Officer” campaign, Motorola envisions not only body-worn video for the future of law enforcement, but many other technology advances. Some of these devices include integrated display glasses, personal video integrated within a portable radio speaker microphone, clothing to monitor officers’ vital signs, gun holster sensors and environmental sensors that can detect hazardous conditions.

The international financial firm Credit Suisse estimates that within the next five years, purchases and investments in wearable technology will be $50 billion annually. This growth will be fueled by the “Internet of Everything” movement, which proposes to connect all of the smart devices in our lives together—whether we like it or not.

The wave of wearable technologies has only just begun. Manufacturers of these devices recognize that to gain the acceptance of the marketplace—the law enforcement community—devices must be simply and intuitively designed, priced reasonably and able to withstand the demands of the public safety environment.

Wearable devices are typically small and often feature a miniature display or other interactive panel. Ultimately, wearables are not intended to replace the full-size screens of smartphones, tablets or even laptops, but rather are meant to augment the senses of the user and provide an enhanced awareness of the environment. Given the size of the wearable marketplace, the next few years will open up a wide variety of different wearables to address various applications. In this new environment, critical and thorough research and evaluation of potential devices should be considered carefully before a department-wide purchase is made.

When evaluating a new device for use in law enforcement agency, the following key areas should initially be considered and be focused on:

1. Intuitiveness. One of the key design concepts that make a product user-friendly is how intuitive it is. Focus on wearables that can be learned quickly, with minimal training and interpretation of instructions. An average officer should be able to grasp the basic functions of a device within just a few minutes.

2. Environment. Wearable devices that are built for the extreme environments in law enforcement are still rare. Verify that the device is rated for, or has at least been tested successfully in harsh, wet environments with temperature extremes. How would the device function if dropped from a height of six feet?

3. Battery Life. Law enforcement officers have long dealt with the realities—and the improvements—in battery technologies over the last two decades. Still, battery life is a primary concern for wearable devices.

4. Charging. In addition to battery life, how the device is charged should be considered. Look for devices that use standard USB charging cords rather than proprietary wall adapters and specialized connectors

5. Display Type. Coupled with environment, the type of display on a wearable device should be an important consideration. Further, consider if the display can be manually dimmed or turned completely off for nighttime or covert situations.

6. Updateable. The wearable technology marketplace is not on the cutting edge, but rather the bleeding edge. Advances in devices and capabilities are occurring on a daily basis, and for many of these devices, features are being added at an astonishing pace. Look for devices that can be updated quickly and easily, without the help of a computer expert, and without special tools or software.

7. Usability.  When a device includes an interactive, touch-screen display, look for those that use resistive or infrared displays, which react to gloved hands.

8. Connectivity. We live in a wireless world, and devices should be able to connect to and communicate with other devices without special cables or cradles. Look for devices that can receive and transmit data, images and files with Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.

9. Security and Privacy. Last, but certainly not least, are the concerns of data security and privacy. Wearable devices are small, light and not firmly attached to our bodies by their very nature. The downside, though, is that this makes them easy to dislodge, fall off and ultimately lose. This can be particularly devastating if the device contained or has access to law enforcement sensitive information.

Look for devices that provide strong encryption of stored data, particularly those that are compliant with the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Security policies. Similarly, devices that communicate back to a smartphone via Bluetooth or a network with Wi-Fi should have strong encryption. Video devices should include mechanisms to verify the evidentiary integrity of the video, too.

The Future

Over the next three years, we will see many “beta” releases of wearable devices, pilot programs and testing of prototypes by law enforcement agencies. In three to five years, manufacturers will be developing and marketing applications and software for commercial, daily use. Within 10 years, the wearable marketplace will be mature, with devices being viewed not as futuristic or out of the ordinary, but rather common, everyday additions to our wardrobe. The future of the wearable marketplace will be exciting, and has the potential to change both our professional and personal lives on a scale similar to the introduction of the cellular phone. Progressive law enforcement agencies will start evaluating and incorporating such technologies now.