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Do smartwatches have a place in policing?

When equipped with cellular broadband, a smartwatch can serve as a standalone communications device

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The smartwatch can be a great asset to bike patrol officers where a glance at the wrist is much easier and safer than accessing a smartphone.


As the officer drove through a dimly lit alley, he spotted a subject crouched near the door of a closed business. As he stopped to investigate, the subject looked up and took off running. A foot pursuit followed but this time technology played a role.

Instead of grabbing for a radio microphone and putting out a garbled transmission, the officer concentrated on the pursuit and the actions of the subject. After a few seconds, his smartwatch chirped, indicating the microphone had been activated. A dispatcher had been alerted to the foot pursuit because a gyro sensor and accelerometer built into the watch had detected the officer was running and notified dispatch with a blinking red dot on the screen along with the unit ID number.

The officer knew that dispatch was listening and provided a description of the subject without having to touch the watch. He didn’t have to broadcast the location or direction of travel because the watch was taking care of that, along with sending a Bluetooth signal to the officer’s body-worn camera to ensure it was turned on.

When the subject reached for something in his waistband, the officer issued clear commands, ordering the subject to the ground. These commands were heard by the dispatcher who was able to provide responding units with the latest information, as well as the specific location where the confrontation was taking place. All of the related data and voice transmissions were automatically made part of the incident record.

Foot pursuits are one of the most dangerous activities that officers engage in, made all the more so when an officer can’t be quickly located. Anything that can be done to allow the officer to stay hands-free and have confidence that help is on the way is a significant factor in the officer’s favor.

The scenario outlined above is technologically feasible today and several vendors of computer-aided-dispatch (CAD) software are working diligently to make this ability (and many more) a reality. This bodes well for increased operational capability, greater situational awareness and most importantly, improved officer safety.

Smartwatches are Miniature Smartphones and More

Smartwatches are essentially a small smartphone and they’re capable of performing similar functions but with operations designed to be user-friendly on a small screen. While smartphones (and tablets) have larger displays, they’re not always available or accessible and a smartwatch can bridge that communication gap.

When equipped with LTE (cellular broadband), a smartwatch can serve as a standalone comm device because it is assigned a separate number. It’s designed to use Bluetooth to complement a paired smartphone but can handle email, calls and texts, even when the smartphone is out of range. This is an important factor for those situations when an officer inadvertently leaves the smartphone in the car or is separated from it during a physical altercation.

The smartwatch can also be a great asset to an officer working an assignment like bike patrol where a glance at the wrist is much easier and safer than accessing a smartphone.

Working Smarter and Safer

A CAD-enabled smartwatch provides real-time location and other user-configured data to the dispatch center and/or an incident commander, meaning the specific and relative location of personnel involved in an evolving tactical incident would be visible. Officers can be more responsive because smartwatches can handle CAD messages and updates (including a BOLO with a photo).

Unique features like haptic feedback (vibration) can provide discreet notification of sensitive information to an officer, such as a felony warrant on a detained subject.

A duress alert can be sent by an officer with a simple tap or combination of taps (user-configurable), immediately notifying other personnel of the location and need for assistance. After the alert is activated, dispatch can activate the microphone on the watch, providing invaluable information as to what is taking place without alerting other subjects and endangering the officer.

Option to Send Vital Health Data

Smartwatches, such as the Samsung Active and Gear S3, have built-in sensors that can measure heart rate, detect acceleration and even physical orientation (e.g., lying on the ground). If configured to do so, an alert can be automatically sent if the heart rate exceeds or drops below a predetermined threshold or if the device detects that an officer has fallen.

Since smartwatches are worn by the officer and readily accessible, this real-time information is more likely to get through during potentially deadly situations where an officer is unable to reach the radio or is suddenly rendered unconscious by a surprise attack.

Hitting the Streets in Chicago

The Chicago Police Department has been conducting a smartwatch trial with a group of bike patrol officers equipped with Samsung Galaxy smartwatches. The watches are tied into the agency’s Northrup Grumman CAD system and are running a mobile client optimized for the form factor and screen size of the watch. Officers can acknowledge notifications from dispatch, update their availability or status, and send a duress alert.

The watches use a Verizon data plan and are paired with the officer’s smartphone via Bluetooth. According to Chief Jonathan Lewin, Chicago PD Bureau of Technical Services, the agency would like to expand the smartwatch program and sees great potential in the technology, especially as the voice recognition capability improves.

“Higher quality speech recognition will mean the officers won’t have to touch the watch as often and can focus on what is taking place rather than the watch,” Lewin said.

Important Considerations

Police work is tough and heavy demands are put on equipment used in the field. If you’re considering making smartwatches part of your mobile effort, make sure the device you choose is up to the task.

At a minimum, smartwatches for field use should be MIL-STD-810G tested and IP68 certified for dust and water resistance. A scratch-resistant display that uses Corning Gorilla Glass is an important feature.

You’ll want ample battery life to power through your shift and the convenience of wireless charging can be a big plus.

Data security is also an important consideration so look for a device that integrates security at both the hardware and operating system level.

Finally, full benefit can only be realized with software that is designed to support public safety. Check with your CAD vendor to see if they can support smartwatch operations or if this capability is on the product development roadmap. If you’re currently going out to bid for CAD replacement or upgrade, make smartwatch capability part of your requirements.


Progressive departments across the country are recognizing the advantages of a connected officer approach because information is always available, regardless of assignment or proximity to a vehicle. Smartphones have already demonstrated their operational advantages and smartwatches will provide a viable option as agencies expand existing mobile capabilities. The form factor of the smartwatch combined with the built-in sensors and stand-alone communication ability promise to be a gamechanger for law enforcement.

Dale Stockton is a 32-year-veteran of law enforcement, having worked in all areas of police operations and investigations and retiring as a police captain from Carlsbad, California. He is a graduate of the 201st FBI National Academy and holds a Master’s degree in Criminology from the University of California, Irvine. He has served as a Commissioner for California POST, the agency responsible for all California policing standards and training. Dale is the former editor-in-chief of Law Officer Magazine and is the founder of Below 100.