Law enforcement

America’s sheriffs are on a high-tech shopping spree

“Defund the police”? Not a concern at last month’s National Sheriffs’ Association Conference, where (sometimes questionable) commerce reigned.

Sheriffs at the National Sheriffs Association Convention in Phoenix, June 2021
Michael Luna Photography

“These won’t fit my wife,” says Jake Schmidt, an intimidating-looking man wearing Hollywood all-black and a sly smile, as he tries on the new-fangled handcuffs at the SpiderCuff booth.

He gets a mild chuckle from the marketing team and an eye roll from his pal Joe Curcillo, an impatient fellow with a Philly accent who just wants to know the price.

SpiderCuff’s pitch is that its product — engineered to prevent tight fits that cause the nerve damage physicians call Wartenberg’s Syndrome and detainees call an injury lawsuit — saves jails and police departments money because they’re “more humane,” according to the sales guy.

“Can’t be shimmed, either,” he adds, making Schmidt laugh. Schmidt knows a dozen ways to slip most handcuffs. Curcillo, a workplace consultant visiting from Pennsylvania, says that SpiderCuffs — at triple the price of conventional restraints — are “too expensive, period.”

It’s late June and 109 degrees in Phoenix, where I have traveled with Schmidt — a private investigator who happens to be my ex-wife’s cousin’s husband — from L.A. in his top-of-the-line Camaro to check out the 81st National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA) Conference, an annual American crime fighters’ lollapalooza popularly known as “the sheriffs’ show.”

Michael Luna Photography
Rex Weiner
Michael Luna Photography
Rex Weiner

The three-day conference and trade exhibition features the latest cop gear, gizmos, and technologies — from Smith & Wesson and Harley Davidson to facial recognition and AI software — and brings together 2,300 registered attendees, including hundreds of sheriffs, under-sheriffs, and deputies from across the nation. And almost no journalists.

Although the event coordinators were genial when I was making arrangements to attend, I draw side-eye from some of the staff when I pick up my press badge and ask if any other media people are here, like The New York Times or maybe a local newspaper or TV station.

“You call The New York Times ‘media’?” sneers one guy.

I am in fact the only independent reporter covering the largest law-enforcement gathering in the U.S. since the pandemic began, since the murder of George Floyd, since last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and since the failed January 6 insurrection.

Last year’s NSA annual summer event scheduled for Tampa was canceled due to the pandemic. It’s been a rough time for law-enforcement officers, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page tally: There were 369 line-of-duty deaths in 2020, twice the previous year’s fatalities; 240 of those were due to COVID-19. Opening ceremonies in the Sheraton Hotel ballroom feature a riderless horse, the traditional tribute to fallen comrades-in-arms.

With sessions titled “Preventing the Next Mass Shooting,” “The Rights and Limitations of the Public and Media to Film Police Officers,” and “Conversations About Race in America,” the seminar program and training sidebar highlight the nation’s social issues. As far as preventing the next mass shooting goes, the session’s guest speaker, FBI Special Agent Phillip Bates, takes a fatalistic approach, telling the crowd, “I’m a father. We know it’s going to happen again somewhere, unfortunately.” Gun control goes unmentioned.

Michael Luna Photography
Michael Luna Photography

In the other presentations I attend, I hear nothing about defunding the police or similarly controversial topics. This year’s conversations are relatively even-tempered, in the view of Michael Brown, a Black retired Maryland state police detective. As NSA’s director of professional development, Brown has organized the conference program for the past six events. “It’s more about how to bring the community and law enforcement together,” he says, “building bridges instead of defunding the police.”

But that’s no surprise. Any controversy is subsumed by the business happening on the sold-out exhibition floor at the Phoenix Convention Center, where vendors fill 309 booths. Whether your sympathies are red or blue, here the color of money remains green.

Michael Luna Photography

In the U.S. in fiscal year 2018, state and local governments spent $119 billion on policing and another $80 billion on prisons; budgets increase each year, despite declining crime levels over the past three decades. Operational costs such as salaries and benefits take the largest share, with only about three to four percent of the total spend going to facilities, equipment, and services — but that’s still a fat wallet to bring to a tradeshow.

Providentially, mid-event, the White House announces a financial boost for local law enforcement, encouraging states to use their $350 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds for hiring police officers, paying overtime, buying equipment, and supporting community-based anti-violence groups. Although no one is suddenly flying Biden / Harris flags, the announcement further banishes the dreaded “defund” word from the exhibition floor. Vendors are poised for a spending spree.

Open for business

Tagging along with Schmidt, I watch him do business. Normally, his clients are the stars of tabloid scandals — Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, Whitney Houston, a Kardashian or two. His sideline, using cyber skills from his Army intelligence past and private-eye know-how, is locating and rescuing kids abducted by estranged parents. This mission — purely a pro bono service (although the PR doesn’t hurt) — requires cooperation from local law enforcement, which is why he’s forked over $630 to meet and greet sheriffs from around the country who might be helpful to the cause.

Sheriff Billy Murray from St. Clair County, Alabama, is one of his contacts. Murray is here looking for a lot more than handcuffs. In addition to attending training sessions conducted by the NSA’s Homeland Security Committee, the 51-year old lawman is looking to make good on the campaign promise he’d made in his successful 2018 election as top cop in his rapidly growing county (population nearing 100,000): upgrade the department’s technology.

He’s already outfitted his 72 deputies with body cams and patrol-car laptops. Now he’s looking to equip the new $25 million, 400-bed county jail being built in Pell City — with everything from internet connectivity to CCTV surveillance. He is also kicking the tires of new digital communications networks to replace the analog one they’ve been using for years. “I’m open for business,” Murray tells me.

Vendors looking to buttonhole Sheriff Murray and colleagues include AeroClave, pitching “next-gen decontamination” — spray-mist equipment for disinfecting “vehicles, holding cells, locker rooms, gym, restrooms, and more” — with the pandemic a major selling point. Then there’s DetectaChem, a Houston-based company pushing “next generation” mobile app-connected drug testing kits meant to address the opioid epidemic. And Wrap (NASDAQ: WRAP), purveyors of BolaWrap, a belt-holstered device that shoots out a cord that wraps around a fleeing subject’s legs. The BolaWrap, according to the company website, “safely and humanely restrains resisting subjects from a distance without relying on pain compliance tools.”

Curcillo, browsing these booths, is dubious. Bottom line, in his opinion: a jug of Clorox and a mop for disinfecting, the state lab for testing that baggie of dope, and your trusty billy club for stopping power. Any extra funds, he figures, should go to revamp existing department computer systems.

One theme emerges quickly on the exhibition floor: The pandemic has accelerated law enforcement’s shift toward the digital. “A lot of judges didn’t like video before the pandemic. Now they have to use video,” says CourtCall sales guy Ron DaLessio at the company’s booth. Founded in 1995 as an audio-conferencing business, the California-based CourtCall now provides web-based video-screen kiosks that virtually connect civil, criminal, family, and probate courts with attorneys and defendants.

Why not just use Zoom, like the rest of us? DaLessio points to CourtCall’s customer support and training, which helps avoid costly delays and glitches, and embedded software like DocuSign. Saving taxpayer money is part of the pitch: DaLessio says that remote access reduces the time and expense of bussing in-custody defendants from jails to courts for arraignments, brief hearings, plea agreements, or difficult and often dangerous proceedings such as forensic mental-health reviews.

Just don’t expect remote strategies to deliver the same justice that is normally dispensed in person at full price. A 2020 report by the Brennan Center for Justice points to the “digital divide” in marginalized communities where language difficulties, scant access to broadband, and rudimentary computer skills are problematic. The report cites a study of immigration courts in which detainees were more likely to be deported when their hearings occurred on video rather than in person. Another study it cites shows that judges set higher bail when arraignments are held remotely.

Once you’re behind bars, jailors may issue to you a handheld device manufactured by TurnKey Corrections (“Unlock Your Facility’s Potential”) called Cel-Mate, which allows you to send and receive texts, set up family video visits, manage your commissary account, enlist in academic studies or anger-management programs, and even listen to music from your own customized (pre-approved) library.

Michael Luna Photography

The Wisconsin company, originally started by two brothers as a vending machine business, now has a high-tech piece of commissary sales that in 2016 was estimated at $1.6 billion per year nationwide. The pandemic has meant a business bump for the company, according to Paul Laney, a former Fargo, North Dakota, sheriff, and now sales vice president for TurnKey.

But critics charge that private businesses like TurnKey facilitate the exploitation of prisoners by helping to shift the costs of incarceration from the state to inmates and their families. According to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative, this can include gouging inmates for basic necessities like soap, shower sandals, and toilet paper, but also charging them for the educational courses and therapeutic programs that lower recidivism rates, as well as foods that are actually nutritious, instead of notoriously poor prison fare.

Privacy concerns

Nowhere at the sheriffs’ show is technology’s double-edged sword more evident than in the surveillance sector, where the balance between public safety and personal privacy is tilted by the push for profits.

One bestseller is AI-enhanced software sold by Dallas-based Evolon, embedded in CCTV systems around the world for “perimeter security.” Airports are big customers, and sales to military and government sectors are up 50 percent, marketing rep Mike Intag tells me. That’s despite the recent cancelation of a contract for the U.S. southern border, where the plan was to erect cameras on poles along stretches of Trump’s infamous, and now unfinished, wall. But, no, they don’t have to return the check. “We’re expecting the contract will be repurposed,” Intag says, meaning that the cameras will likely pop up elsewhere on the border.

Expressing a distinct disdain for “the media,” one vendor refuses to say what his company does.

I go around collecting brochures and hearing sales pitches from Smiths Detection (“full body X-ray scanner for inmate screening”), Stalker Radar (“Delivering Multiple Photo Speed Enforcement and Detection Capabilities”), and Grayshift (“same-day access, complete control, and comprehensive data extraction from mobile devices”). I hit a wall with Cowboy Concealments. “We don’t deal with civilians, only law enforcement,” says founder and owner Dale Crawford, a retired Houston cop, who expresses a distinct disdain for “the media.” He refuses to say what his company does or spend any more time on me.

Schmidt and Curcillo distract Crawford while I swipe a brochure that reveals the Cowboy Concealments story: “We provide fully contained covert and overt systems in housings that withstand harsh outdoor environments.” This means hiding battery-powered wifi-connected cameras in custom-designed, functioning streetlights and official-looking utility boxes to spy on anyone in the immediate vicinity.

Official investigative agencies such as the ATF, Border Control, Customs, Homeland Security, the DEA, and the FBI, the brochure states, buy the company’s fake street fixture camera mounts for the purpose of disrupting terrorists or drug- and human-trafficking networks. Think about it next time you’re lighting up a joint underneath that normal-looking streetlight.

A company called Strongwatch (“Never in the Dark”) displays a totally unconcealed surveillance system — a large, bug-eyed thermal infrared camera on an extendable 12- to 30-foot jib that swivels 360 degrees. It’s mounted on the back of a 4x4 pickup parked on the exhibition floor. Company literature says the unit is “deployed for border security, law enforcement, and mission intelligence,” with the tagline “Freedom on the Move.” Locals say the Phoenix Police Department freely rolls out their mounted Strongwatch unit for political demonstrations.

Michael Luna Photography

“This is a police department using a video camera, recording large numbers of people in public who are under no suspicion of a crime,” Will Gaona, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona, told AZ Central in an article linked to, oddly enough, on the Strongwatch website. “All they’re doing is basically existing, and being recorded by their government.”

The most terrifying technology displayed at the sheriffs’ show is presented at the exhibition’s Demo Den by Clearview AI, a New York–based company whose website boasts “the world’s first facial recognition search engine with over 3 billion images sourced from the public internet, including news media, mugshot websites, public social media, and many other open websites.”

Clearview Vice President Roger Rodriguez, a tough-looking retired NYPD officer who got his start patrolling the South Bronx, rolls the demo video on a large flat screen for a rapt crowd. He details an actual case involving a request from a Central American country to help locate an alleged drug cartel member known as “El Diablo.” Images show a birthday party with a happy kid and his mother — El Diablo’s wife and child — posted by Mrs. Diablo on her Facebook page. Clues contained in the images led to the gangster’s arrest, says Rodriguez.

Clearview AI Vice President Roger RodriguezMichael Luna Photography

Then Rodriguez directs our attention to a young guy smiling in the background of one of the birthday photos. Authorities ID’d him as “La Mano Derecha,” allegedly El Diablo’s right-hand man. Capturing his biometrics, Clearview’s search turned up Facebook vacation posts by the young guy’s girlfriend, and we see the couple in relaxed poses at a resort. Combing through its three-billion-image database, Clearview discovered a photo showing the cartel henchman preening in a jungle setting surrounded by drug-cooking equipment. The demo concludes with a photo showing the suspect in the custody of heavily armed men in fatigues, which should make anyone think twice about posting family photos on social media.

Clearview AI may have a free hand in Central America, but in a case that may wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court, the ACLU has brought a class-action suit in Illinois charging that “Clearview has offered access to [its] database to private companies, wealthy individuals, and federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies,” in violation of the state’s Biometric Information Privacy Act, which prevents a private entity from selling or profiting from an individual’s biometric data. Clearview has since narrowed its clientele to law enforcement and government agencies, and recently raised $30 million in equity funding, but is now under investigation in the U.K. and Australia for possible privacy violations.

Although The New York Times once called Clearview AI “The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It,” more than half of U.S. adults are okay with law enforcement using facial recognition, according to a Pew Research study. Rodriguez describes the current climate as “anti-police,” but he’s upbeat about the company’s future. Clearview has had a 28 percent surge in business, he points out, since the investigations surrounding the January 6 Capitol Hill riot.

Emerging tech

The NSA’s Emerging Technology Committee, a kind of sheriffs’ high-tech think tank, is charged with tackling thorny questions raised by new technologies. Initiated in 2008 as a subcommittee, meetings are now “standing room only,” according to the committee’s current chair, David Goad, who convenes an impromptu meeting for my benefit.

Any easygoing guy who could be your grandfather, Goad is a retired sheriff from Maryland, a founder of the committee and a past NSA president who freely admits he lacks an engineering degree or technology background of any kind. That’s also true of his colleagues.

“We didn’t grow up with this,” confesses committee member Eric Weaknecht, the 58-year-old sheriff of Berks County, Pennsylvania, who nonetheless touts his department’s mobile app for things like anonymous crime-busting tips and streamlined firearms licensing. Weaknecht has an official Facebook page featuring department news and lively comments by local citizens on the photos of recently arrested offenders.

The committee’s working groups study new systems like iris recognition, drones, and body cams, with a vetting process that sometimes results in endorsements. It manages partnerships with major tech companies Microsoft, McAfee, IBM, and Verizon, and works with federal agencies including Homeland Security, the ATF, the FBI, the National Security Agency, and the Department of Justice, with an increasing focus on cybercrime.

“Except for crimes of hopeless ‘knuckle-draggers’ and true crimes of passion, every crime now has a heavy cyber component.”

“Cybercrime is the future of law enforcement,” a homeland security investigations expert recently told the NSA think tank, according to a committee report. “Except for crimes of hopeless ‘knuckle-draggers’ and true crimes of passion, every crime now has a heavy cyber component.”

Until recently, cybercrime was considered the domain of federal crime fighters. Two resolutions issued by the NSA during the Phoenix conference, as per the committee’s recommendation, call on federal agencies to work with local sheriffs to stem ransomware attacks on utilities, municipal offices, healthcare networks, and private companies — not to mention online fraudsters robbing grandma of her life savings.

The committee members acknowledge the potential for abuse of some technologies employed by law enforcement, and the moral and ethical issues involved, but quickly dismiss any worries. “We take an oath to protect our citizens,” Goad assures me, “so we’re not going to infringe on your rights.”

But where to draw the line? It’s hard not to wonder, as committee member Sheriff Michael Mastronardy, of Ocean County, New Jersey, shows me a phone video of a tethered drone with a public address system, operated by his officers, hovering over a BLM protest. Drones are everywhere at the sheriffs’ show, and the patchwork of complicated and often contradictory rules governing their use from state to state, and even county to county, is a big topic of discussion here. Mastronardy’s complaint is that Federal Aviation Administration rules won’t allow geofencing measures to ward off attacks on his drones by anti-drones.

“But, hey, we’ve just bought two super-drones,” he says, grinning.

Michael Luna Photography

Mastronardy also laments that his department can no longer use Geofeedia, a program that monitors social media for keywords alerting authorities to potential dangers. He says it helped to prevent several suicides in his jurisdiction. However, I later do a quick Google search that shows the darker side of that tech.

In 2016, Geofeedia’s so-called proactive policing tool, originally marketed directly to law enforcement, lost access to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram data streams and laid off half its staff after the ACLU charged that police departments in Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities were using Geofeedia to keep tabs on activist organizers by mining social media posts for keywords such as “blacklivesmatter,” “boycott,” and “revolution.” There was also the troubling issue of investment in Geofeedia by a financial arm of the CIA, which is prohibited by law from engaging in domestic spying.

Mastronardy says he’s aware of those problems, but he insists, “We used the program in a positive way.”

Changing times

Sheriff Danny Glick from Laramie County, Wyoming, the committee’s past chair, says law enforcement is still trying to get a handle on technology. Sporting a classic handlebar mustache and a broad-brimmed Stetson, the 40-year career lawman from Cheyenne recently announced his retirement at age 67. He calls tech “one of the biggest changes in law enforcement today.

“If I don’t understand it, I’m doing a disservice to the people I serve,” he continues. “I look for people who understand it who will dumb it down a little bit, so everybody understands it. My age is against me.”

Age may be a critical factor in determining the future of law-enforcement technology and who is entrusted with its law-abiding usage. “These technologies are ahead of the brains of the decision-makers,” says Curcillo, surveying thinning crowds on the exhibition floor on the show’s final day. It’s a procession of aging lawmen leaning slightly forward into old injuries, leaning away from wounds never quite healed, shouldering goody bags full of pens, branded shot glasses, and other freebies to take home. “I have to educate the decision-makers before they can possibly become buyers,” he says.

Michael Luna Photography

Schmidt lingers at the Zero Motorcycles booth, checking out their electric motorcycle despite a lifelong Harley commitment. Hitting the same “safe and humane” theme as other tech companies here, the Zero sales director says the bike is favored by search-and-rescue teams because without the roar of a gas engine “you can actually hear someone calling out for help.”

The private eye considers the quieter, planet-friendly, plug-in bike, and the new image it might evoke, but of all the whizbang stuff he’d seen — including the sleek POF AR-15s and the latest Sig Sauer handguns — he most likes the “wellness” software app that allows you to track your moods hourly. With cases piling up back in L.A., Schmidt’s in the mood to hit the road.

Private eye Jake Schmidt takes aim.Rex Weiner

Sheriff Murray is heading back to Alabama with a stack of brochures he’s going to study, with the aim of equipping his department with “the latest and the greatest.” “The vendor floor was impressive,” he says, “and we need all the best technology and the training that goes with it.”

Brown, the NSA’s director of professional development, is already looking forward to next summer’s sheriffs’ show, which will be held in Kansas City, Missouri. He discloses that he’s in touch with the Woodson Center, a conservative Black community organizing group allied with the Koch brothers. The founder, Robert Woodson, recently penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal against defunding the police. Brown might include the group in next year’s program. “Everyone agrees that something needs to be done,” he says. “Not everyone is sure what.”

That said, one thing is certain: Law enforcement’s embrace of ever-more pervasive — and invasive — technology in the name of progress and public safety is matched only by the tech industry’s eagerness to make some deals. It’s not hard to imagine those transactions leaving the rest of us in a world of high-tech restraints — or what SpiderCuff calls “21st century handcuffs.” It’s an innovation, the company’s ad copy reads, that users say “is faster, easier, helps stop the struggle.”