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December 22, 2014

New app turns smartphones into crime fighting tools

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Posted: Thursday, May 29, 2014 4:52 pm | Updated: 12:41 pm, Fri May 30, 2014.

The Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office will pilot a new digital crime-fighting tool through National Neighborhood Watch and National Sheriffs’ Association.

At a press conference on Thursday, Sheriff Larry Amerson introduced ICE Black Box, a mobile phone and device application that allows anyone who witnesses suspicious activity to upload video of it to both an online storage server and directly to 911 dispatchers. The acronym ICE stands for “in case of emergency.”  

The app is free on both the iPhone and Android platforms, with Calhoun County functioning as a pilot agency to introduce it to the public. Two other sheriff’s offices in Arizona and Minnesota will follow suit in the coming months, said John Thompson, deputy executive director of the association.

“Our policies have never changed, but technology is changing, so we ask, ‘What can we do to help citizens and law enforcement better fight crime?’” he said.

The association, which founded National Neighborhood Watch 42 years ago, aided in the development of this app in an effort to cut down dispatch time, Amerson said, and to provide a proactive measure to identify possible criminals

“This is going to change the game,” he said. “We all are dependent upon our senses to tell details to law enforcement. But how clearly you saw it, like tag number, color of clothes, that is hard to collect and we are dependent upon the witness when dramatic things happen.”

Amerson said the app provides a direct and accurate line to the public, which is crucial in promoting safety and crime prevention.

“We want to integrate this technology so citizens can communicate with us rapidly, easily and we will see what they see,” he said.

Amerson also said that advertising alone for ICE Black Box could serve as a criminal deterrent if shown in the county jail and other correctional institutions.

“The whole idea is for criminals to know there is that instant communication,” he said. “We want them to know what we have.”

While ICE Black Box is promoted as a tool for public safety, others view it as a cause for concern.

In an email statement to The Star, Susan Watson, executive director at the ACLU of Alabama, said that a tool like this has a strong potential for abuse.

“An app like this encourages selective recording where only part of the incident is captured ... not the whole story,” she said. “Do we really want to encourage a surveillance society with neighbors spying on neighbors, or using this type of technology to further private grievances?”

Ed Horcasitas, a technical adviser for the association and ICE Black Box, showed a two-minute demonstration video at Thursday’s press conference.  In the clip, a smartphone is used to shoot video of situations ranging from a domestic dispute to a possible stalker.

Horcasitas then said that it is important for people to understand the uses, so that reporting crimes can be made simple and effective for both usersand law enforcement agencies.

“This is what happens every day in America, so we wanted to show that,” he said in reference to the situations depicted on the video.

When using the app, Horcasitas demonstrated that each video is made in segments, to be more readily sent to police. While userscan take video of any suspicious or potentially dangerous situation, they are not required to send it to police, he said.

“In a situation like a child abduction, where seconds count, if an officer happens to be in the area, we are talking about a response time of 30-40 seconds versus having to explain what you saw, then they have to call local dispatch and, best case, that can take in between four to 10 minutes,” he said.

It is no secret that 911 phone lines are often misused, said Amerson, but it comes with the territory.

TheSheriff’s Office gets calls often from somebody who may just be reporting suspicious activity, he said. “I would rather get a call that turned out to be a non-emergency, than not get a call at all.”   

In her email statement, Watson wrotethat an app like ICE Black Box will not have the effect that its proponents claim.

“We do not understand how this could improve dispatch time,” she wrote. “Our dispatchers are already inundated with calls. Is the infrastructure really in place to where dispatchers can watch a flood of videos in real-time?”

Additionally, Watson wrote in her email that the protocols in place are a superior method versus jumping to a new invasive technology.

Thompson of the sheriffs’ association praised the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office for its enthusiasm and participation in the beginning stages of this app, which has been in development for the last three years.

“There is no other app out there like it,” he said. “We are really proud Calhoun County has always been at the forefront of piloting and testing things for this country’s sheriffs.”

Anyone with an iPhone or Android can download the app via the respective app stores, and when moving locations, videos and calls will be sent to the closest law enforcement agency.

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