When Hi-Tech Becomes No-Tech

It is not uncommon for an officer to return to the sergeant asking for a vehicle change because the computer in his assigned car was broken.

It was about 11:30AM on a weekday. I was out on the road and hungry, so I decided to stop at Wendy's for a grilled chicken sandwich and a salad. On entry, I noticed the place seemed especially quiet. Yet, I could hear the fries cooking in the grease and employees preparing food.

Before I could order, the clerk said, "We can't sell any food right now. Our computers are down." I was dumbfounded. They obviously had food. I had the right amount of money to pay. Yet, they were out of business. The computer had become the lynch-pin of their ability to operate.

In a similar situation, I recall my wife telling how she went to Wal-Mart for a couple of items. While standing in the checkout line, all of the cash registers simultaneously shut down, without warning. Seems that too was a computer glitch. Even though she had the exact change needed, the cashier refused to allow her to pay and leave with the needed items.


In my native Michigan, it is the norm for officers to be assigned a car at the beginning of each shift, usually during roll call. It is not uncommon for an officer to return to the sergeant asking for a vehicle change because the computer in his assigned car was broken. The car would be red-tagged and sidelined until the computer was fixed.

Thinking back about ten years ago, when I was in the early days of my law enforcement experience, I remember that actual in-car computers were quite a novelty. It was usually only the large departments that had mobile data terminals - and they were NOT computers. Cops could run vehicles and people through the state system and NCIC, but that was about it. There was no data entry, e.g. reports, etc. being done there.

Wireless data service came at a very high price because the agency had to install its own data radio system - usually costing a few million dollars to setup and it was very, very slow.

Only about 30% of the police cars in the U.S. had these terminals. Everybody else relied only on the radio.

I was talking with a cop buddy last night. He has about 6 years on. He told me candidly that when he must work without an in-car computer it results in a dramatic drop in his ability to do his job. His effectiveness and his productivity drop like a rock.

"I've become dependant on the electronic map showing where I need to go when responding to a call for service. Running people and immediately seeing their picture, knowing if they are local and if they have a criminal history has become a tool that I use constantly. It is important to me when I'm deciding whether or not to approach a subject. I can even know if our department has prior contact info on the guy before I ever get out of my car."


The in-car computer has become the MOST USED TOOL in the tool set of today's cops.

OK, if you want to include the vehicle he is driving, then the computer comes in second.

The computer is no longer a luxury. It is not an after-thought. It is not an option to a cop who has become dependant on having it. Dispatch will no longer tolerate the volume of radio traffic that would be needed to run, rerun, rerun again and then finally get the real name of a subject. The computer is a necessity that directly affects the cop's ability to do the job and in reality, will have an impact on his ability to survive the shift by avoiding negative surprises.

The advent of nation-wide wireless data from AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and others has put mobile computing within reach of every police department and yes - every citizen, as well. You can see people with an air card sticking out of the side of their laptop at most anyplace where folks gather (like airports and coffee shops).

The widespread proliferation of wireless data has changed our society and has certainly changed many of the fundamentals of policing.

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