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The technology that helped nab the Boston bombers

Technology played a big role in aiding the police operation that caught the Tsarnaev brothers

As tragic and terrible as the Boston Marathon bombing and the crimes that followed it were, this will be remembered as one of law enforcement’s finest hours.

Officers and agencies at all levels of government came together to protect the public and kill or capture the perpetrators in four days.

Technology played a big role in aiding the police operation.

Rolling the LENCO BearCat
The investigation and manhunt gave the cops the opportunity to roll out those big expensive tactical vehicles that were purchased with Homeland Security money over the years since 9/11, and demonstrated that they actually serve a real need.

It’s one thing when the bad guys are shooting guns at you. Pressure-cooker IEDs and homemade hand grenades are a whole different animal. No one in their right mind wants to take on one of those in an Interceptor or a Charger. When you’re going up against bad guys with high explosives, you want something more substantial around you... like a LENCO BearCat.

Searching with iRobot’s PackBot
On Thursday evening, the Tsarnaev brothers shot and killed MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, and then carjacked a vehicle, eventually releasing the carjacking victim at a gas station. Their violence that night would not be over, however, as they tossed IEDs from the vehicle as they fled police.

Eventually, the suspect’s car was found, but with those IEDs in mind, a law enforcement robot was used to conduct a careful inspection before officers approached it.

Charlie Vaida, a spokesperson for iRobot, told the Internet site Mashable that the PackBot was used “by local law enforcement early yesterday to inspect the suspects’ car.”

Airborne-Mounted FLIR Video
When the second bombing suspect was reported to be hiding inside a recreational boat perched atop a trailer parked at a private residence in Watertown, the Massachusetts State Police deployed their Forward-Looking Infrared (FLIR)-equipped helicopter to see beneath a tarp that was covering the boat.

The outline of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the wounded suspect, was clearly visible inside.

Tactical team members believed Tsarnaev was armed and knew he wasn’t bashful about shooting cops. They deployed an armored vehicle with a robotic arm to tear off the tarp and expose Tsarnaev without putting officers at immediate risk.

They then used flash-bang grenades to stun Tsarnaev before making their approach to take him into custody.

Photos, Videos, and Social Media
The Boston Marathon is a major event so lots of people at the finish line were taking video and photos. Some of these contained images of the bombing suspects.

Once images of the bombing suspects were identified from a store surveillance video, facial-recognition software helped to locate those faces in other still and video frames and tracked where they had come from and where they had gone after dropping their deadly backpacks.

Social media, Twitter, and Reddit in particular helped disseminate the suspect images to the public at a pace and scale far greater than all the cops in the United States could have done, though not without downside; Reddit notably misidentified several individuals as suspects, including Sunil Tripathi, the Brown University student who was found dead last week.

“It’s not the first use of private video from stores or other places to help solve a crime. That is a common investigative technique,” Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation and former police chief of Redlands (Calif.) told NBC News. “But it is without a doubt the largest-scale use of crowd-sleuthing that I’ve seen.”

Many technologies and equipment are often condemned as being invasive of privacy or elaborate toys, wasteful expenditures of taxpayer dollars. The events of the past couple of weeks demonstrated the value of these tools in quickly resolving an incident and mitigating further destruction.

Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia and Oregon. He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.