Firearm 'Black Box' Would Monitor Police Shootings

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

Black BoxLondon ( - Police officers worldwide could find themselves accountable for every shot they fire, if a newly-developed, postage-stamp-sized data recorder -- designed to fit onto handguns -- becomes standard issue.

Like the "black box" fitted on aircraft, the recorder can accurately chronicle the exact time (to the millisecond) and the precise direction (to a fraction of a degree) of every shot fired from its host weapon.

The device is to be unveiled at a police weapons conference in the Netherlands next week, when senior British police officers will examine a prototype.

But a spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, Chief Inspector Mark Turner, said Thursday that there were "no plans to recommend them to UK police forces at this stage."

The data provided by the recorder will help investigators to reconstruct events after a shooting, explained Mike McBride, an international police firearms specialist.

Also, the device will provide a would-be buyer of a second-hand weapon with reliable information about its condition and use. It could also prove invaluable in police investigations of firearms believed to have been used in a crime.

McBride will discuss the "black box" and other developments in his field at next week's conference in the Dutch city of Maastricht, hosted by the Jane's publication group.

McBride said there may be a lack of enthusiasm in some quarters to using the devices, partly due to concerns that police officers will not operate effectively when placed under such an intense degree of scrutiny.

However police may soon be required to accept the recorders, because of growing political pressures brought about by human rights legislation and the increasing expectation from the public for more accountability.

In Northern Ireland, for example, controversies about a number of shootings by police officers could have been avoided if their firearms had been fitted with a recorder.

One Austrian gun manufacturer, Steyr-Mannlicher, is already incorporating a compartment in its latest range of handguns, eventually to accommodate a data monitoring device.

The most advanced version of the data recorder developed thus far is the 22.7-gram Accu-Counter, built by New Hampshire-based Sig Arms.

It is the size of a postage-stamp, and just two millimeters thick. The only way it could be disabled would be to wreck the firearm itself.

The Accu-Counter will be able to print out via a computer the exact time, direction, and elevation in degrees at the instant of firing, said Major Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's Police and Security Equipment.

The battery-driven integrated memory chip could record the relevant data for up to 5,000 shots. Even when the battery ran down, the memory would retain information on the last 500 shots fired.

Heyman said he thought police forces would show a great interest in the technology.

"The officers on the ground may be slightly resistant to having this, but at the same time police committees, management organizations will all want their policemen to be equipped with these, so that if lethal force is used, a scientific record which can't be argued is available."

Heyman said he was certain the concept would "catch on." In the future, one of the conditions for being issued with a firearms license could well be that the weapon is fitted with a data recorder.

He did not foresee a great reluctance among British police forces, where relatively few policemen are armed, and a small number of rounds are fired each year by officers, other than in training.

"In places like America it will be very different, as it will be in other countries in Europe, where policemen are quite heavily armed."

Turner of the UK police chiefs body said its committee on police firearms had been approached by "a company ... with a view to marketing" the data recorders.

After consultation, "no significant benefits were identified from the introduction of such devices therefore there are no plans to recommend them to UK police forces at this stage."

Asked about concerns that the use of firearm data recorders could affect officers' effectiveness, Turner said "the operational effect of any proposed new equipment would have to undergo rigorous scrutiny lest the professionalism and judgment of firearms officers be compromised."

Turner provided statistics showing that, during the 1998-9 year, police officers in England and Wales fired their weapons during only five operations, and that no fatalities were recorded.