LEE COUNTY, Fla. — You aren’t meant to notice them. It’s the fire hydrant down the block. It’s the exit sign in your apartment building. It could be the piece of metal underneath your car. They are cameras, recorders and trackers – all ways law officers in Lee County are keeping tabs on suspects during investigations. Advances in communication, surveillance and tracking handed down by the military over the past decade have investigators operating at a higher level of sophistication than ever.
While new technology is rarely at top of the budget list, especially in times of fiscal constraints, federal grants over the past several years have allowed local detectives to expand their arsenal. “Citizens don’t know what we do,” said Lee County Sheriff Lt. Gary Desrosiers of the Technical Investigations Unit. “And that’s a good thing.” Always Watching, Sheriff Sgt. Ken Sonier watches those who don’t want to be seen. He and Desrosiers are part of the seven-member TIU, started in October 2005. His methods and devices are practically invisible.
He “builds” cameras into everyday objects. “Your imagination is the limit,” Sonier said. “That and our pocketbook. But even then, we find ways to make it happen.” Video from the custom-made cameras is then transmitted to a screen accessed only by detectives on the case. Sonier’s creations have been used in federal investigations by the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The annual budget for the TIU is about $10 million, but that includes salaries and maintenance on all the department’s cell phones, laptops and equipment. Most of the equipment purchased is with federal grants.
In Cape Coral, police accepted a $50,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security to purchase a Video Detective. It is capable of recording audio, video and stills from blocks away and can clean up images and sound recordings turned in as evidence. Now grainy footage of a bank robbery suspect becomes as clear as a yearbook photo. Like security cameras in a bank, some systems are meant to be noticed. The sheriff’s office purchased two alert systems to startle vandals. “One has flashing lights and the other has a loudspeaker and flashing lights and it takes their picture,” Sonier said. “It’s triggered by motion. A voice comes over the speakers and says something like, ‘Your picture has been taken. Leave the premises now.’ Their faces are like a deer in the headlights.”
But some investigations are built on more than what happens at a single scene. Tracking them down Police now have tools that used to be the stuff of comic books – night vision binoculars and heat sensors. Fort Myers police Lt. Dennis Eads said the department spends $4,800 annually for 16 night vision binoculars. The department received two thermal imaging cameras through federal grant dollars after officers attended two out-of-state training sessions. The binoculars and thermal imagers were originally used by the military in the 1970s. “If you’re doing any kind of surveillance or search at night — like a (marijuana) grow house – you can see things very well,” Eads said. “With the heat sensors, you can even see the heat transferred from a person to an object they may have been holding or leaning on.”
He recalled a traffic accident where the driver, who was drunk and hit a bicyclist, tried to explain the direction he was driving and where the cyclist entered the road. The heat from the tire tracks – detected with thermal imaging – proved the driver’s story was false.
Watching Your Rights
Advanced technology has helped to bring down drug rings, child pornographers and thieves at construction sites, officials say. “It really helps with getting confessions,” Desrosiers said. “It’s kind of hard for someone to dispute what you’re saying when you slide a picture across the table of them in the act.” Fort Myers defense attorney Michael F. Hornung said that is what concerns him. He said 15-20 percent of the average 250 criminal cases he takes on each year involve advanced technology. “I think the main issue is the balancing of the individual’s rights and their right for privacy vs. using the new technology,” Hornung said. “The courts need to make sure law enforcement doesn’t abuse that power because there is a fine line.” David Brener, another Fort Myers defense attorney, said it is important for him and others to be “vigorous” watchdogs in cases where new police technology is presented.
Sheriff Capt. Richard Schnieders said warrants, court orders and operating in public space protects officers from mired legal ground. But Hornung believes there are times investigators go too far. “No one wants to live next to a grow house or some other illegal activity,” Hornung said. “But sometimes good old-fashioned police work and investigation can have more of an impact in making cases stick.”
As advances in police technology bound ahead, so too do those of everyone else. In the computer forensics division of the sheriff’s TIU, the number of cell phone video recordings seized as evidence more than doubled from 90 in 2006 to 240 in 2007. One cell phone can yield hundreds of bits of information — names, numbers, images, videos, text messages, voice messages. Computer hard drives contain even more information. It’s important, Schnieders said, his unit keep up with all the blocks and barriers set up by tech-savvy suspects. Investigators at all three local law enforcement agencies keep up with trade journals and shows and are on the lookout for ways to do their job better.
One side effect of the Iraq war is military tools and tactics — sensors that can track gunfire, retina eye scans — are being even further fine-tuned. Still local law enforcement say some of it isn’t likely to hit the streets of Lee County for another decade, at least. “I think there has been a great deal of advancement in technology the last few years,” Eads said. “I think there’s a lot more we’ll have access to when the military wants to let it go.”
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