Building a Better Mousetrap
by David Griffith
Police inventors draw inspiration and dedication from a
to make life better for fellow cops.
For most of us the head-slapping moment comes as we lie in bed with insomnia or after a
late night and channel surf the tube looking for anything to pass the time between night
and day. These days the only thing on TV at 3 in the a.m. is an infomercial. So we stare
gape-mouthed at the screen as somebody shows us the Amazing Dog De-Barker, and we all
respond in unison as we marvel at its simplicity, I bet that guys making
millions. I could have thought of that.
Since Edison and even before, invention has
held a near religious fascination for Americans. And few Americans have been more
inventive than those who serve in law enforcement.
Its said that necessity is the mother of
invention, and thats clearly true for cops. Sent out on the streets with often
outdated or unproven equipment, cops, like soldiers, have been forced to improvise, tweak,
jury-rig, or just plain create what they need.
So it is that every day cops sit down to
sketch out ideas, then go back to their garages, basements, and even the corners of their
city apartments and actually design and prototype their inventions with dreams of bringing
them to market.
The following is a look at just some of the
many officers who have chosen to create police products. Theirs are stories of
inspiration, innovation, perseverance, and ultimately, triumph. And any cop thinking about
developing his or her own product can benefit from their experience and insight.
For ages now the moment of inspiration has
been imagined as a light bulb going off in the inventors head. That may work for the
general public but for cop inventors the eureka moment is more likely to come
in the form of discomfort, anxiety, or even pain.
Consider the case of Officer Tim Callahan of
the Minneapolis Police Department. His moment of inspiration came in the form of a sharp
folding knife slicing through the pad of his thumb. It happened in the late 1990s when
Callahan was removing a flexcuff from a subject. He didnt have a flexcuff cutter, so
he pulled his knife and went to work on the tough plastic. I was really pulling on
the knife, and it was a very sharp knife, recalls Calahan. It cut through the
Flexcuff but it kept going into my thumb.
Right then Calahan thought the words of every
inventor since Og the caveman chiseled a knife out of stone, Theres got to be
a better way. His invention, an easy-to-cut, disposable handcuff trademarked as the
Strap Cuff was conceived.
But inspiration doesnt always come in a
flash. For holster inventor and Boise, Idaho, cop Mike Lowe, inspiration came after a
lifetime of wearing sidearms in the Marines and as a patrol officer, investigator, and
police defensive tactics instructor.
Id see all these officers come in
for (in-service training), and it was pretty apparent that they were all experiencing the
same problems in terms of holster performance, says Lowe. I thought to myself,
Gosh, theres got to be a simple, practical solution to this problem. So
I just started giving it some thought.
Lowes solution to the problems that he
perceived with many duty holsters resulted in the Professional, a radical new holster
design, and it helped him launch a new company, Tactical Design Labs. The Professional
duty holster is designed to enhance officer safety by offering level three retention, a
natural draw, and easy reholstering. And it has garnered much praise from police tactical
trainers and duty equipment testers.
Its also forced Lowe to prematurely end
his police career so that he could dedicate his time to its production. But Lowe
doesnt mind. Hes a man on a mission. I was very content and happy being
a police officer, he says. But I feel so strongly about this that I just had
to do something.
The Drawing Board
An invention begins as an idea. It then
probably becomes a sketch or a drawing, but for it to reach market, an invention must
become an actual object. For police inventors, who are trained as law enforcement officers
and not as engineers or designers, this can be the toughest and longest part of the
Retired Cranston, R.I., SWAT officer Robert
Barber says that transforming his training safety product from thought to reality involved
many hours of trial and error. Barbers idea was to create a way to make sure that
live weapons could be operated and handled during force-on-force police training with no
chance of a live round being introduced into their chambers. The result was Ammo-Safe, a
combination of a caliber-specific plastic plug that blocks the chamber and a highly
visible plastic whip that protrudes from the barrel. Ammo-Safe allows the user to cock the
weapon and pull the trigger, but the plug prevents the chambering of live ammo and the
whip sticking out of the barrel tells everyone in the exercise that the gun is safe.
The idea was born in my head about a
year before I retired, and I kept working on it off and on in my basement, says
Barber. Over time I tried a lot of things. I even ran flexcuffs through the barrel,
but that didnt work because the weapon wasnt serviceable.
One thing that a number of police inventors
have in common is that they have family members, friends, or friends of friends who are
engineers or craftsmen. Such was the case for Mark Tremblay, vice president of Tremco
A paramedic and a 10-year veteran of the
Billerica (Mass.) Police Department, Tremblay observed that ambulances and police vehicles
were being stolen on duty around the Boston area, and he realized that the reason for this
wave of thefts was that emergency personnel had to leave their vehicles unattended with
the engines running to prevent battery drain.
Tremblay believed that the solution to the
problem was an electronic system that would lock the shifter in park until authorized
personnel wanted the vehicle to move. He went home and presented the problem to his father
who was an electrical engineer and together they developed the Tremco Anti-Theft System.
Twenty years later, their invention is installed in more than 75,000 emergency service
Before you can turn an invention into a
product, you need money. Serious money. Police inventors tap their personal finances,
mortgage their homes, accept loans from relatives, and enlist investors, all in an effort
to make their dreams come true.
But the problem with such dreams is they only
come true after financial nightmares. Three years ago when Santa Barbara, Calif., police
officer Brian Quittner dropped a flashlight while writing a ticket on the midnight shift,
he had no idea that he would soon be risking his familys financial future on a
company called Quiqlite.
Quittners Quiqlite (pronounced
Quick Light) is an inexpensive, hands-free LED flashlight designed to clip
into an officers shirt pocket. Its a simple and ingenious solution to a
problem that plagues not only cops but soldiers, hikers, fishing enthusiasts, boaters, and
other people who work in the dark. But making the Quiqlite a viable product available to
police officers and the public worldwide was not so simple.
The development of the Quiqlite forced
Quittner to accumulate capital from the only source he really had: a second mortgage.
You really put yourself on the line (to start a company), Quittner says.
In my case, I put the house up. I put everything into this.
Palo Alto, Calif., reserve police officer Ken
Dueker agrees that starting a company and bringing a product to market is not for the
faint of heart. And Dueker should know. Hes started high-tech companies and
hes helped finance startups as a venture capitalist. Today, Dueker is the inventor
of a new police product called PowerFlare.
About two years ago, Dueker was working a
traffic accident and setting up a flare pattern when he had the eureka moment. It
occurred to me that there must be a better way to do this, says Dueker. So I
started doing some research to see if I could find something that could do the job, and I
found there really wasnt anything available to replace flares.
Most police inventors would have come home to
their garage workshop and started tinkering. But Duekers development model was
considerably more sophisticated.
I went to talk with my patent lawyer,
and I did some research about the economic and environmental issues involving fusing
flares. Afterward, we basically concluded that it was worth starting this business to fill
this market need, Dueker explains.
Dueker put together the financing; assembled a
team that included an electrical engineer, an optical engineer, and other specialists; and
set about transforming his invention from a concept into a product. The result is an array
of battery-powered LEDs encased in an aircraft-grade polymer disc that can be used to
replace traffic flares at accident scenes and marking flares at helicopter landing zones.
The U.S. patent office was one of the first
services provided by the federal government. A patent office was a fitting priority for a
new nation obsessed with innovation and technology. So its little wonder that
Americans have come to see patents as the gateway to wealth and success. Unfortunately,
the truth is not quite so rosy.
A patent is usually considered an essential
protection of the inventors idea and his or her execution of that idea.
Consequently, many people believe that you must have a patent before you attempt to bring
an invention to market. Thats not necessarily so.
Many of the inventors who agreed to be
interviewed for this story chose to establish their rights to their inventions immediately
with patents. Others chose to wait. And some even marketed their products without patents.
Which illustrates the diverse opinions that some inventors have about patents.
When Mark Tremblay showed his first anti-theft
device to a fleet manager for the Massachusetts State Police, the mans response was,
Get it patented. I want to equip the whole fleet. Tremblay obviously had a
reason to initiate the patent process and he did so.
But the patent process is not always easy.
Applying for a patent often involves a lot of documentation and paperwork. It also
requires the petitioner to conduct a patent search to ensure that the invention is truly
original. Preliminary patent searches can be conducted on the Web, but if youre
going to do it right, you need a patent attorney. I did a search on the Internet,
but the patent attorney I hired came up with five times more than what I found, says
Patents are a lot of trouble. Theyre
also not cheap. A patent attorney may charge an inventor as little as a few thousand
dollars to more than $100,000.
And what you really get for all that money and
trouble may not be worth it. A patent is a way of proving that you own the intellectual
property of an invention. It doesnt prevent people from stealing your idea. It just
gives you the right to stop them from doing so. Unfortunately, the only way that you can
stop them is by hiring a lawyer and taking them to court.
PowerFlares Dueker says that fending off
assaults from aggressive larger companies is a harsh reality that all inventors and
entrepreneurs should be aware of before they enter the market. There are a lot of
bigger companies, even in the public safety space, that have been known to play dirty
pool. And if youre going to be a startup company, it can be difficult sometimes to
swim with the big sharks.
Building the Dream
Perhaps no other point in the process of
bringing a product to market is more hazardous than the moment an invention goes from
prototype to production. At this juncture the invention is no longer a secret, so it can
be easily stolen, and the manufacturing process is expensive, so its likely to tax
the resources of the inventor.
Quiqlites Quittner chose to send his
flashlight prototype and engineering drawings to a China-based manufacturing company. He
was well aware of the dangers that posed to his dream, but he also knew that overseas
manufacturing was the only way to make the light affordable to every cop who wanted one.
I was so scared when I first started dealing with China, he says. You
hear horror stories. I spent many nights just lying awake. Other nights Id wake up
just freaking out. Fortunately, it all worked out.
Another common way that police inventors
handle the production side of the equation is to take themselves out of it. They license
their products to other companies for royalty payments.
Such was the case for Trooper Alan Beaty of
the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. Following the escape of a prisoner from the back of his
patrol car, Beaty spent some time thinking of ways to prevent a repeat. His solution was a
seat belt alarm that he calls the Trooper Trap.
But inventing the Trooper Trap created a
dilemma for Beaty. As a uniformed trooper of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, he couldnt
just drive around the state hawking Trooper Trap. First, there was some concern that to do
so might represent a conflict of interest. Second, it might interfere with his duties. For
these and other reasons, Beaty licensed his invention to another company.
Announcing Your Presence
Its never enough to just build a better
mousetrap. You have to let everyone know that you have built a better mousetrap, and you
have to convince them that it is indeed a better mousetrap. Police inventors have
accomplished this impossible mission through a variety of different strategies.
Some have advertised in specialty publications
like POLICE, bought booths at industry trade shows, and spent hours on the phone cold
calling colleagues across the nation. The most savvy of police inventors have done all
these things and more. But the real sales momentum happens when cops who buy their
products start showing them off to other cops.
Word-of-mouth is a critical marketing strategy
for police products because police officers are very skeptical about new products, says
San Jose, Calif., officer Ron Baldal who invented the Cool Cop, a device that allows an
officer to attach a hose to a cars air conditioner vent then thread the hose between
his or skin and a ballistic vest.
I have worn a vest since I started
working patrol in 1983, and I was always just hot and sweaty, so I made this for me,
says Baldal. Then I showed it to my friends, and they wanted one. I never really
intended to sell them, but one thing led to another.
Today, word of mouth is still working for
Baldal. When Baldal scores a sale to a small force in the South or Southwest, he says
additional sales from that small force are sure to follow.
Wealthy and Wise
Most people have visions of Bill Gates
money when they dream of turning some idea into an invention. Police inventors say the
returns are considerably less lucrative, but they can be very rewarding in other ways.
I could have started many other types of
companies to make money, says PowerFlares Dueker. But this product can
save lives. If you look at the statistics for line-of-duty deaths, automobiles are more
dangerous than guns.
Dueker is not alone in voicing such
sentiments. All eight of the inventors interviewed for this story developed products that
are intended to enhance the safety of or improve the lives of their colleagues. This was
clearly of equal or greater importance to them than making money on their inventions.
Asked whats been the best thing about
bringing their products to market, these eight officers universally exclaim its the
thrill of hearing that cops benefited from using their products. The real reward is lives
saved, prisoner escapes prevented, and even in some cases careers rescued.
I once got an e-mail from a guy in
Florida who said he was going to be taken off patrol because he couldnt wear a vest
in the heat, says Baldal. Then his chief found Cool Cop. That makes you feel