Police and technology: The silent partnership
When a police officer stops a driver for speeding or other unlawful activity, he usually does not know exactly what kind of situation he is getting into. The person in the car could be a fleeing felon, a drug trafficker or merely a careless driver. But technology especially designed for public safety agencies can help law enforcement officers gain more information about the people they encounter before they have any physical or verbal contact with them.
Linking officers in the field with the same records available to dispatch agents and officers at police stations helps keep officers safe because it allows them to check criminal histories prior to leaving their cars. The technology also saves time, allowing for more productivity in the field and, ultimately, more arrests and a safer community.
Many city police departments are equipping police cars and motorcycles with mobile data computers (MDCs) or mobile computer terminals (MCTs) that allow for wireless access to local and national records, such as the National Criminal Information Computer (NCIC). Officers can use their MDCs to look for stolen cars, check identification and communicate silently with officers at their precincts and with other field officers.
Some departments also are using MDCs to submit electronic reports, saving officers the time of writing or typing them at the precinct. As officers move to an electronic format for submitting information, some departments also are digitizing their records to cut down on paper and create more efficient records management.
In the Lakeland (Fla.) Police Department, 48 vehicles have mobile computers with wireless access. The department will install an additional 110 computers from GTE, Stamford, Conn., with software from Cerulean Technology, Marlborough, Mass., in cars by fall. Motor vehicle theft patrol officers, street crimes officers and traffic officers are given priority for the units.
Currently, Lakeland officers without MCTs must radio a dispatcher to check license tags and IDs. According to Stephen Boyer, planning and research supervisor for the department, they must wait several minutes to get their information, depending on the number of calls the dispatcher is handling.
When officers are in critical situations, every minute counts, and the time delay has affected police work in the past, Boyer says. For example, on one evening, a narcotics officer noticed a van that was making frequent stops in a neighborhood well known for drug activity. The officer called the dispatcher to run a check on the license plate of the van. While he was waiting for the dispatcher, the van left the neighborhood, and the officer was unable to stop it because he had no hard facts.
In another instance, a motorcycle officer stopped a suspicious driver on a major highway and was nearly killed when the car turned back onto the highway and ran over him. The driver was later stopped and arrested. Had the officer had a computer on his motorcycle, he would have been able to determine that the driver was a felon with outstanding warrants for his arrest.
“There has been a huge demand for the mobile units to help officers do their jobs quicker, more efficiently and more safely,” Boyer says. “The patrol officers really need that mobile computer terminal accessibility when they come into situations in certain neighborhoods where they are at risk. With an MCT unit, officers can access records and get information within six to seven seconds.”
The Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) also has experienced time delays with dispatchers trying to relay information over radios. The department is adding more GTE mobile computers to cars this summer, giving it a total of 477 units. While the department will still use radios to impart basic information to patrol officers, the computers will provide officers with more details about 911 calls or other problems requiring a police response.
“We dispatch about 800,000 calls a year,” says MPD Commander David McDonald in the criminal justice division of the department. “The computer allows the officer to get a response in a matter of seconds, instead of waiting up to five or six minutes for a dispatcher to run the name.”
The department has had problems in the past with suspects or drivers attacking police officers and trying to escape. “If a person knows he’s wanted by the police and the officer runs the name, he’s not going to be sitting there. He may take action or try to escape. Now, officers can run a license tag before they even stop the car,” McDonald says.
All officers can be alerted on their computers when another officer enters a potentially dangerous situation. For example, if an officer checks a license tag that turns out to be that of a stolen car, other officers will be notified immediately that they may be needed for backup.
The department uses the computers to dispatch assignments, which can be helpful on drug-related calls, McDonald says. Some drug dealers have police scanners that allow them to monitor officers’ locations, travel routes and assignments. The computers, which transmit information over fully encrypted, secure digital channels, allow officers to respond silently to a drug complaint, boosting their chances of making surprise arrests. In addition, officers can use their computers on the scene to gain other helpful information, McDonald says. For example, if they are required to deal with hazardous materials, they can quickly access the proper protocol to determine whether to clear the area, use breathing equipment, etc.
“The information available to a street officer is incredible,” McDonald says. “In the past, it was what they could remember from when they were trained in the academy. And the laws change because of Supreme Court decisions and other things, and the officers may not stay up to date. If they use the computers, they stay up to date.”
“The [technology] is effective because it is a secure way for officers to communicate with each other and with dispatch,” says Pleasant Hill, Calif., Police Lt. Dennis Horgan. “They can still communicate with each other in case the radio goes down.”
The units also help minimize radio traffic and maximize confidentiality, says Donna Harper, computer technician for the Pleasant Hill Police Department. “Some information just should not be public, and the system cuts down a lot of unnecessary radio traffic so officers don’t have to listen to nonstop talk while driving,” she says.
In addition to assisting field personnel, technology can aid dispatchers, who can be busier than the officers sometimes. In the Tucson (Ariz.) Police Department, technicians will install 140 MDCs in patrol cars this year to cut back on radio problems. The department has used mobile units for several years but is upgrading its current setup.
“We have a limited amount of voice radio frequencies, and the call load has increased steadily in recent years,” says Lt. Robert Fund, technology project manager for the department. “It can take up to half an hour for an officer to get through to the dispatcher for information.”
If having access to databases while working in the field can save officers considerable time in gaining information about suspects, it also can help them complete the rest of their duties, including writing reports. With some MCTs, officers can write reports from their vehicles immediately after an investigation (while all the information is still fresh in their minds) and file the reports electronically, saving them a trip back to the precinct.
In Tucson, officers spend four to six hours a day writing reports, Fund says. Currently, when an officer submits a report, it goes to a supervisor for approval. The report then is loaded into the department’s records. That process takes about three days, but the department would like to cut that time.
“We want to go to the next level,” Fund says. “[The technology] will enable us to be more efficient in our duties and use our people more efficiently.”
Once officers have vehicles with MCTs, they should be able to cut their report-writing time to an hour, giving them more time to respond to calls, Fund says. And, as the department moves to an electronic report format, it will no longer have to store paper reports.
In Washington, the MPD also is filing reports electronically to improve its records management. “We’re getting away from the field reports on paper,” McDonald says. “Electronic reports are legible, they can’t be lost, and they’re easier to track.” MPD also plans to convert five years’ worth of paper records to electronic files to cut back on paper storage, a process expected to be completed by the end of the year.
Lakeland’s Boyer says he expects that the electronic reports will not only be cleaner and more easily managed, but they also will be better reports because officers have so much information at their fingertips in the field. “They can become ‘mini crime analysts,'” he says. For example, officers can review past records for repeat offenders and study other cases to help them complete their current reports.
In Tampa, officers currently are not filing electronic reports but plan to start soon, according to Police Chief Bennie Holder. The department also plans to add Internet access to the mobile units so that officers can view law enforcement or other related websites. TPD is always looking to improve its current setup as officers request modifications, Holder says.For example, based on officer requests, the function for entering license tags was modified to save a step. Officers later asked for the ability to view the list of emergency and non-emergency calls holding so that they could look ahead to possible response sites.
Lakeland also is continuing to tweak its system to maximize its usage. With the help of Huntsville, Ala.-based Intergraph, the department is integrating computer-aided dispatch, records management and report-writer functions with the city’s existing GIS. Eventually, Boyer says, it plans to add automatic vehicle locator technology to assist dispatchers in locating the nearest vehicle to respond to a call.
The time-saving quality of the MDCs gives officers more time to do their jobs and to perform tasks that were previously impossible. For example, in Washington, D.C., police officers are using the units to check license tag numbers at random. “Normally, officers wouldn’t do that because dispatchers are so busy,” McDonald says. In the first two weeks of deployment of the units, a single officer recovered eight stolen cars and made two arrests based on current warrants by using his computer to make random checks.
Naturally, officers are not supposed to work on the computers while they are driving around the city. Partners read and type information while officers traveling alone are required to pull over to read messages. The Pleasant Hill Police Department did have one accident because an officer was trying to read a computer terminal while driving and rear-ended a car in front of him.
Still, the downside of technology is comparatively minor when weighed against the benefits. Horgan says that his officers have grown so accustomed to the MDCs that they no longer want to drive cars without the units. Officers can still work the old-fashioned way with a dispatcher but prefer to access the database themselves. “Could we live without the system? Yes,” Horgan says. “But we could not do the job as accurately.”
The speed and the quality of information provided by MDCs play a significant role in making life a little easier for police officers. “The more information we provide to the officers, the safer and more efficiently they can do their jobs,” Tampa’s Holder says.