Surveillance Policing, Digital Locating and Monitoring Essay

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Police surveillance  techniques  and crime mapping have advanced considerably from the days when suspects were physically followed by plainclothes detectives and crime trends were tracked using push pins and a paper map. Technological advances such as the development of the global positioning system (GPS) have made it possible for law enforcement  officials to electronically locate and monitor suspected criminals, though the legal ramifications of such surveillance tactics are still being debated.

Additionally, advances in information technology have led to the development of sophisticated crime mapping programs that can assess not only geographic trends in crime but temporal trends as well. Advances in information technology and advanced crime mapping have also led to the development of new administrative practices in the field of law enforcement such as Compstat, with police tactics and performance undergoing constant monitoring and assessment  by upper-echelon officials.

The term surveillance is ambiguous in that it can be applied to myriad methods of observation. In common usage, surveillance typically implies the observation of a person, a group of people, or an area, as in the case of law enforcement officials surveilling a suspected criminal or loss prevention professionals conducting surveillance of a department store. However, the term surveillance can also be applied to the indirect monitoring of the movement of a person, a group of persons, or even a social phenomenon.

With respect to the tracking of an individual person, during the 20th century the only means of following and documenting the movement of an individual was to physically follow (i.e., “tail”) that individual. One or more persons would have to follow and stay within eyesight of the individual being surveilled. Technology allowed for phone taps to monitor communications from a private phone or public pay phone, but there was no technology capable of tracking and documenting an individual’s movements.

Development of Global Positioning System

The situation slowly began  to change  in the latter decades of the 20th century. In the late 1970s, the U.S. military began launching satellites into orbit,  which broadcast radio signals that  made  it possible  for a specialized radio receiver, one capable of simultaneously receiving signals from multiple satellites, to use those signals to calculate its precise location. Owing to the limited number of satellites there were only certain times of the day during which this feat could be accomplished, but by the mid-1990s the military completed the system of 24 satellites which made it possible for any GPS receiver to calculate its location anywhere in the world at any time. Although the military originally fuzzed the satellite signals due to security concerns, this practice ceased in 2000 and the signals became publicly  accessible, fueling rapid  advances  in GPS technology as the demand for GPS receivers (from hikers, bikers, drivers, and many others) rapidly escalated.

As GPS technology became increasingly accessible and  affordable, criminal  justice  officials began utilizing the technology to monitor convicted offenders (e.g., persons under house arrest) as well as to track and locate suspected offenders. By means of placing a GPS device on a suspect’s vehicle, law enforcement officials could track the suspect’s movements without the considerable financial expense of assigning a team of officers to a surveillance detail. As this practice became increasingly common, arguments arose over the legality of such technologically enhanced surveillance. The debate was partially settled when the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of United States v. Jones (2012), ruled that the physical attachment of a GPS receiver to a suspect’s vehicle for the purpose of surveillance constitutes  a search under the Fourth Amendment and thus requires a court-issued search warrant.

Other legal issues pertinent to GPS technology, however, continue to be debated. For example, there is the question of whether law enforcement officials may legally access the GPS technology in a suspect’s cell phone or a suspect’s vehicle to locate or monitor the suspect without first obtaining a search warrant. With current technology, a law enforcement agency may contact a wireless service provider and submit an emergency request that a device with GPS be located without the user’s knowledge. This practice is known as “pinging.” The Supreme Court has not yet weighed in on this issue, but in the People v. Moorer (2013) a county court in New York ruled that the Fourth Amendment prohibition of unreasonable search and seizure does not apply to the tracking of cell phones,  the rationale being that the individual citizen (not the government) voluntarily obtains the GPS device, can choose at any time to turn it on or off, and thus, with regard to the issue of geographic location, has no reasonable expectation of privacy. However, this matter has yet to be fully resolved by means of legislation or a definitive ruling from the high court. Additionally, as there are forms of GPS technology that an individual may own yet have little control over (e.g., GPS technology in a vehicle or an automotive communication and security service such as OnStar), there is little question that the appropriate use of such technology for surveillance purposes will be debated for years to come.

Advances in Crime Mapping

The locating or monitoring of an individual suspect is by no means the only form of surveillance that has been enhanced by modern technology. As previously mentioned, there are many forms of surveillance,  inclusive of the monitoring of mass activity. For example, the term disease surveillance refers to the observation of the spread of disease within a human community or natural habitat, and the term biosurveillance refers to the observation of health-related data for the purpose of early detection or rapid assessment of a health hazard. In the same manner that epidemiologists conduct surveillance of the movement of a disease, law enforcement professionals conduct surveillance of levels and trends of crime. This practice is most commonly known as “crime mapping.”

Crime mapping efforts date back to the early 1900s, when officials in the New York City Police Department began using “pin maps”  (inserting push pins into a paper map to indicate the locations of crimes) to identify trends in crime, and sociologists at the University of Chicago began mapping patterns of crime and delinquency. While early wall maps of crimes—typically a large paper map posted on the wall of a police administrator’s office or a meeting room—marked a breakthrough in crime analysis, such maps were of limited use. Early pin maps allowed the police to examine recently reported crimes, but at the end of the month or quarter the map would have to be taken down so a new map could be put up and all the previous data (i.e., the pins indicating the locations of crime) were lost. Additionally, there were limits as to the types of crimes which could be mapped because inserting an abundance of pins into the map (e.g., trying to track all assaults, burglaries, and thefts) would render the map unreadable.

By the  mid-1960s  and  1970s  advances  in computer technology made computer-generated crime maps possible, and by the 1980s technological advances made it possible to generate crime maps on desktop computers. Then, in the 1990s the National Institute  of Justice began funding research in crime mapping, and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services began providing funds to police departments to purchase crime mapping hardware and software. Advances in computer technology coupled with advances in printing technology (e.g., laser-jet and inkjet printers) made it possible for police departments to conduct a number of different types of crime analyses and rapidly produce easily readable hard copies of the maps.

The advances  in crime  mapping  were also fueled by developments in information technology, inclusive of advances in electronic record keeping and data storage and other advances in police technology, such as the development of enhanced 911 systems and computer-aided dispatch, which allowed 911 operators to immediately identify and record the location, date, and time of calls for service. Whereas crime mapping was originally a very labor-intensive process as the locations of crimes and calls for police service had to be manually mapped or manually coded and entered into a computer system one at a time, the advances of information technology  in the 1990s and early 2000s and the linking of databases greatly facilitated crime mapping.

Further fueling the development of crime mapping  was  the  development of the  geographic information system (GIS). GIS programs are designed to merge cartographic and statistical analytic techniques for the purpose of analyzing a variety of forms of data. GIS programs vary in terms of the types of data analyzed and the output generated, depending upon the needs of the user. In short, a GIS is often tailor-made for the organization that will use it. With regard to law enforcement  organizations and  crime analysis, GIS technology enhanced examinations of both temporal and spatial trends in crime. In other words, analysts can examine the times and locations of crime to gain a more detailed understanding of criminal activity. The customization of GIS is of special value because it allows crime analysts to use organizationally specific maps. For example, rather than having to map crime using census tracts or city blocks, crime analysts can customize maps utilizing the boundaries of a police precinct or even a police beat—information that is of great value to police administrators.

Crime mapping can be conducted for any number of reasons. In addition to examining trends in criminal activity and identifying criminal “hot spots,” crime mapping can be used to examine correlations between criminal activity and social conditions, such as the rates of unemployment and poverty in a given area; or it can be used to identify the sorts of businesses or services (e.g., bars, liquor stores) which may be associated with geographic trends in crime.

Data-Driven Police Administration

Advances in crime mapping had a major impact on police administration in that  highly developed crime mapping  capabilities  made possible the development of Compstat and other similar police administrative computer systems such as Coplink—a program which has advanced to the point that police officers can access it on mobile devices such as an iPhone,  iPad, or Android. CitiStat, a more general, municipal data analysis program, collects and analyzes data on crime and other problems such as potholes and vacant buildings  as well as data  on service provision (e.g., trash collection) and even employee absenteeism. Compstat and other similar systems facilitate data-driven administrative processes. Typically, police administrators (or other government officials) gather for weekly meetings to review the data on their performance for the week and to inquire with lower-level supervisors  about  new and recurring problems, efforts to address such problems, and the success or failure of the efforts to address the problems. It is advances in crime mapping  which made such administrative processes possible.


  1. Boba, Rachel. “Introductory Guide to Crime Analysis and Mapping.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2001. (Accessed March 2013).
  2. International Association of Crime Analysts Standards, Methods, and Technology Committee. “GIS Software Requirements for Crime Analysis” (White Paper 2012-01). Overland Park, KS: Author, 2012. (Accessed February 2013).
  3. National Academy of Sciences. “The Global Positioning System: The Path from Research to Human Benefit (Beyond Discovery Series).” Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 1996. (Accessed March 2013).
  4. National Coordination Office for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing. “The Global Positioning System.” (Accessed March 2013).
  5. People of the State of New York v. Devonte Moorer, NY Slip Op 23048 (2013).
  6. Perez, Teresita and Reece Rushing. “The CitiStat Model: How Data-Driven Government can Increase Efficiency and Effectiveness.” Washington, DC: Center for American Progress, 2007. http:// (Accessed March 2013).
  7. Roncek, Dennis W. and Pamela A. Maier. “Bars, Blocks, and Crimes Revisited: Linking the Theory of Routine Activities to the Empiricism of ‘Hot Spots.’” Criminology, v.29/4 (1991).
  8. Stroshine, Meghan S. “Technological Innovations in Policing at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century.” In Critical Issues in Policing: Contemporary Readings. 6th ed. Roger G. Dunham and Geoffrey P. Alpert, eds. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press,
  9. United States v. Jones. 565 U.S. (2012).
  10. Weisburd, David, Stephen D. Mastrofski, Rosann Greenspan, and James J. Willis. “The Growth of Compstat in American Policing.” Washington, DC: Police Foundation, 2004. (Accessed February 2013).

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