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4 ways to leverage the power of a smartphone in policing

Smartphones have various applications in policing – here’s how to use them to their full potential

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Much like a Swiss Army knife, a smartphone has seemingly endless investigatory and administrative functions.


“Child kidnapping in progress. All available units respond,” voiced an overly-calm dispatcher over the radio.

As I raced toward the kidnapping scene, a dilapidated two-story apartment complex known for its drug users and high crime, an on-scene sergeant hit his emergency button on his radio and yelled, “It was a 10-year old girl taken by a Hispanic male in a white car. Last seen westbound on Broadway.”

As all available officers frantically stopped all the white-colored vehicles in the area, they quickly realized that finding this little girl would be an almost impossible task: the color white is Arizona’s favorite color for cars.

A nearby officer arrived and pulled out his smartphone from his pant pocket. After listening to the vehicle description from several witnesses, the officer searched for a picture of what he thought was the suspect car – a 2003 BMW I series. “Yes! That’s the car!” yelled several witnesses who were hovering around the small screen. The officer quickly relayed the new description over the radio and to neighboring agencies who continued their search.

Only after a few minutes, the Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) stopped the vehicle matching the description on the freeway possibly heading south toward Mexico. The total time it took to find the suspect vehicle: less than 15 minutes.

The use of a smartphone was critical in finding the vehicle in this case. The officer was able to find a picture that matched the suspect’s vehicle using a simple open-source picture search. More important, he was able to quickly show the picture to the witnesses for immediate verification.

Before the use of smartphones, station officers would have to listen to radio comments in hopes of patching together enough information for an online search. They would then search the image on a desktop computer, print out a possible match, then have another officer drive the picture to the scene to show witnesses for verification. This process took a lot of time, and time is not something you have in most cases.

Smartphones have important uses for police personnel. Here are just four of the ways smartphones can help police investigators and police personnel do their job.

1. Smartphones aid police investigations

Officers can access information immediately using smartphones. Just like in the kidnapping example, this immediacy is important because quick retrieval of information can save lives.

Detectives also benefit from the use of smartphones. There are hundreds of smartphone applications that allow detectives to communicate securely, transfer investigative photographs quickly, fax and receive search warrants promptly and monitor suspect movements covertly. There is even an application where officers can mask their smartphone number when calling suspects/victims/witnesses. When the suspect/victim/witness returns the officer’s phone call, the application can send a push notification directly to the detective alerting him of the contact. This can prevent unwanted late-night calls and help monitor phone traffic.

Smartphones can also be connected directly to police-only services to provide immediate, pertinent information like location alerts, suspect profiles and criminal history. Since many of these third-party services offer multi-level security encryption and general maintenance, it is cheaper to run and more secure than many traditional police technology services. The possible smartphone applications for law enforcement investigations are nearly endless.

2. Smartphones increase situational awareness for officers

What a blessing it is to have immediate access to crime bulletins and alerts. Instead of wondering, I think I saw this guy on the bulletin board in the briefing room, an officer can look it up on his smartphone to confirm. Furthermore, an officer can use smartphone technology to show citizens pictures of wanted suspects.

The ability to zoom in and backlighting option comes in handy while working in the dark.

Smartphones eliminate the need for paper and significantly reduce clutter inside an already full patrol car.

3. Smartphones allow officers to be more mobile

Many officers are limited to the use of in-vehicle computers. These computers, typically laptops, are mounted just off-center of the center console and are locked into a docking station that is attached to the vehicle’s computer monitoring systems. Most agencies, due to potential thefts, restrict the removal of in-vehicle computers making it difficult to use when interacting citizens. Essentially, in-vehicle computers serve the same function as desktop computers, except they are tied to a car, not a desk.

Smartphones, on the other hand, are inherently mobile. They can be placed in an officer’s pants pocket, in an outer-carrier pouch, or inside a pursuit bag. They are small, lightweight, highly functional and convenient.

4. Smartphones streamline administrative processes

Police administration and command staff can also benefit from smartphones.

There are many smartphone applications that are designed to electronically draft, sign and send documents. Electronic document services eliminate the need to print, sign, scan and mail. Police administration can also review search warrants, urgent legal documents and emails without having to find a desktop computer.


Much like a Swiss Army knife, a smartphone has seemingly endless investigatory and administrative functions. Using smartphones can save valuable time during the beginning stages of investigations, can increase arrest and prosecution rates, speed up administrative functions, and make it a lot easier and cheaper for police personnel to do their job.

Joshua Lee is an active-duty police sergeant for a municipal police department in Arizona. Before being promoted, Joshua served five years as a patrol officer and six years as a detective with the Organized Crime Section investigating civil asset forfeiture, white-collar financial crime, and cryptocurrency crimes.

Joshua is a money laundering investigations expert witness and consultant for banks, financial institutions, and accountants. He is also an artificial intelligence for government applications advisor and researcher.

Joshua holds a BA in Justice Studies, an MA in Legal Studies, and an MA in Professional Writing. He has earned some of law enforcement’s top certifications, including the ACFE’s Certified Fraud Examiners (CFE), ACAMS Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialist (CAMS) and the IAFC’s Certified Cyber Crimes Investigator (CCCI).

Joshua is an adjunct professor at a large national university, and a smaller regional college teaching law, criminal justice, government, technology, writing and English courses.