Mobile moves

     Before the Internet, and before computers became front-seat accessories, many law enforcement officers turned their patrol cars into mobile offices. Along with night sticks, flashlights and an extra set of handcuffs, their vehicles held a citation book, incident and accident reports, field interviews, pens, pencils, erasers, rulers, a clipboard and some scratch paper to write down little snippets of information, from quickly glimpsed registrations to the names of the drug dealers standing on the corner on Saturday night.

     Back in those days, information was passed along in roll call or on the radio. Sensitive stuff was usually conveyed on a land line to keep it off the air. On busy shifts, officers would hustle from call to call, then limp into the station, find a vacant spot and bring their paperwork up-to-date before calling it a night — or day. But even on the busiest shift, most often they could be found sitting in a parking lot somewhere, pushing a pencil, trying to stay even with their reports so they could go home on time for a change.

That was then

     Although there are still departments lacking mobile data systems, paperless reporting has become an integral part of the police landscape. It's economical, environmentally sound and convenient. But most importantly, mobile data terminals and laptops offer agencies a chance to get ahead of the curve. Because information can be transmitted quickly and quietly, reports can be filed instantly, suspects can be identified and records accessed by the officer with the touch of a few keys, police can decrease time spent on adjunct bureaucratic duties and put their efforts to much better use. Plus, the ability to quickly put intelligence into wide and almost instantaneous play makes the streets safer, both for officers and the public.

     Are computer-sourced informational systems in patrol cars here to stay? Sure they are. And they are getting better every day, with new features added so fast that many departments find their systems outdated almost from installation, but that doesn't mean they aren't worth investing in. Just the opposite is true — those who don't have them, want them and those who do, say they are the future of modern law enforcement.

     Because, this is now.

Officer.com asks, you answer

     Mobile data terminals and/or computers are taking over and, although not all agencies have converted to computerized systems, a surprisingly high percentage have made the switch, and many more are beginning to feel the pull of this growing technology — according to officers in the field.

     Officer.com (www.officer.com), the Web site owned and operated by the publisher of Law Enforcement Technology(LET), partnered with LET to produce an online poll to see where police agencies stand in regard to equipping their cars with MDTs and computers. The results shown in graphic on Page 58 clearly show that MDTs and laptops are becoming the standard, although some have still not made the jump.

     Of the 1,188 responses, 563 or 47 percent of the respondents said their agencies have laptops or mobile data terminals in their patrol vehicles and that the information systems are supported by both training and regulations. Another 12 percent (151 votes) said they also have MDTs and/or laptops, controlled by regulation only. Of the respondents who have MDTs and laptops, 3 percent, or 44 votes, say they have not been taught how to use the equipment.

     Another 14 votes (1 percent) say that only supervisors have MDTs/laptops, while 66 votes say "some of the cars have them" — which is 5 percent of the vote. Another 49 votes say less than 10 percent of the agency's patrol cars are equipped with either MDTs or laptops (4 percent) and a full 25 percent (301 votes) reflect agencies that do not have either laptops or MDTs in their patrol vehicles.

     With 75 percent of respondents to this survey showing evidence of some type of computerized mobile data system in their patrol vehicles, it is obvious that the move to paperless information has taken law enforcement — if not by storm — then in a steady wave. Like many other standards that have evolved in criminal justice applications, MDTs and laptops will soon be necessary in order to properly conduct police business.

     Another important aspect to computerizing information in field situations is the ability between responding agencies in emergency situations to communicate in more ways than simply though the radio. They also must be equipped to send and receive photographs, maps and other images, retrieve and share intelligence and access other information in a secure, but user-friendly format. When a large-scale emergency takes place, agencies without these abilities will find themselves incapable of responding with the same degree of efficiency as agencies that are already equipping patrol with up-to-date technology.

     But most agency heads aren't standing in the way of progress — they understand that outfitting their patrol units with the latest technological advances makes their department more efficient and better serves the public. Instead, shrinking budgets and high costs are usually the culprits for keeping law enforcement from entering the enlightened age of portable, cyber-based knowledge.

Topeka -- A case study

     Just as there are "different strokes for different folks," different agencies have different needs when it comes to mobile data systems. LET asked the Topeka (Kansas) Police Department to answer a few questions about its use of these devices. Here is what Lt. Phil Morrell of Support Services had to say about the agency, which has an authorized complement of 290 sworn officers and 40 to 50 non-sworn personnel:

     LET: What type of mobile data system does Topeka use and when was it implemented?

     Morrell: We began using mobile data terminals in 2000-2001. Initially, we started with the Motorola MW-520. We are now moving into the Panasonic CF-19 to replace the Motorola. It allows us to use a broadband service which is faster than the RF (radio frequency) network that we had to use with the Motorolas.

     LET: Do all your field units use them or are they confined to certain cars/divisions/ranks?

     Morrell: We have licensing for 100 units. This allows for all of our territory cars with the territory supervisors, and cars used for traffic and hit-and-run investigations. When we are finished with the current rollout of new computers it will also include some of our street commanders.

     LET: What are the general capabilities? Field reporting? Mobile dispatch? GIS? Could you talk about how your MDS works?

     Morrell: We do have mobile dispatch and CAD connection. There is also a messaging feature between units and dispatch. We are able to check tags and people for warrants directly through the computer. Supervisors also have the ability to check the status of units, the calls they are on and the locations. We are nearly to a place where we will be able to start using field reporting. We have had to wait for certain upgrades, but we are almost ready to turn on that feature. It will also have supervisor review capabilities. Our MDS is connected with the county and our communications center is part of the county. This makes us partners on all of our records management systems. We have to work closely due to that fact.

     LET: What has been the learning curve for officers?

     Morrell: Most of our officers are pretty comfortable with the equipment now. In the beginning … there were some training issues and that was due to a couple of things:

  1. Older officers were not as computer adept as younger ones, and
  2. The equipment was new and, as with any new equipment, it takes some getting used to before you see proficiency. Now that we are into the newer computers we have more 'younger' officers and the older officers have caught on to the use of the computer.

     LET: How do they like it?

     Morrell: The officers like to use the computer very much. They use it for a variety of tasks that they used to have to wait for dispatch to accomplish for them and then radio the information. We are also getting new cars now and there are situations occasionally where an officer's new car is ready for him to use except for getting it to IT for the computer, and they will choose to drive the old, beat up car so they can have access to a computer. This shows us how important the computer has become to them.

     LET: Drawbacks?

     Morrell: The main drawbacks are on the back end. We have the broadband service server and the updates to the computer and the records management software to keep up with. The officers have found few drawbacks to the use of the MDT once they have gotten accustomed to its possibilities.

     LET: In what way have they made your department a better, more efficient one?

     Morrell: By having the calls on the computer there is less miscommunication between dispatchers and officers. Supervisors like the ability to have the 'status update' for the cars and officers. It helps them to monitor activities in their zones and the safety of their officers. Officers like the ability to check tags and people for warrants without waiting for the communications center personnel, who may be busy. Notes about certain addresses where there have been weapons or problems in the past can be communicated to officers so that they are better prepared upon arrival.

     LET: Turn the clock back and start all over. Would you do anything differently?

     Morrell: It is easy to look back and say we 'should have' bought different types or more powerful computers, but the fact is with the budget available at the time and the information available to us when the decision was made, we probably did fine. The technology changes daily and our budgets never increase the way we would like, so it will always be difficult to keep up. It isn't easy to balance what we want or would like to see with what we can afford.

Getting technical

     Choosing equipment and programs from among the avalanche of systems and capabilities out there can be daunting, and as Morrell says, with tighter budgets expected to cover more territory, it's more important than ever to make the right choices for the jobs your department faces. And, choosing isn't as easy as it may seem with so much on the market — from basic systems to fancy add-ons that seem straight out of Star Trek.

     Rick Hundstad, data product manager of Tyco Electronics' M/A-COM, a Lynchburg, Virginia-based supplier of critical communications systems and equipment, says many departments choose wireless for its speed. "Little consideration is given to all the factors that make for the best end-user experience," Hundstad says.

     Here's what Hundstad says to consider when choosing a system:

  • Data speed. "The laws of physics tell us that the faster the data speed, the closer you have to be to the tower and the smaller the coverage footprint." He says that since data is typically not viewed as critical as voice, many agencies are willing to sacrifice coverage for data speed. "Some users have spent the extra money to implement middleware, so they can have the speed of public carriers where they have coverage, and use their existing voice and data's wide area coverage as fill-in coverage at slower speeds, giving the best of both systems."
  • Data handling. "Data speeds over the air are not the entire picture of the end-user experience," says Hundstad. "Data protocols, handling of reservations or users on a channel, timing getting onto a channel and data block size can all enable a system with the same speed to support 10 times as many users."
  • Fine-tuning system and application. Hundstad says the system's fine tuning and software can be more important than the system's speed.
  • Application efficiency and effective use of over-the-air bandwidth. "Application developers have to understand the wireless environment they work in. No wireless system will be fast enough if the application requires way more information sent over the air than needed." Hundstad points to lengthy or complicated log-in messages as an example. "Every bit matters, especially when you have hundreds of users coming out of turnover meetings at the same time and all (are) trying to log onto the system at … peak load (time)."

     Another problem Hundstad notes is that there are countless CAD (computer aided dispatch) and RMS (records management system) vendors in this country alone. "So clearly one application does not fit all needs," he says. "We've worked with one software vendor that has developed the tools to read and write to anyone's database." Hundstad says that's what's ahead in the not-so-distant future in the world of mobile data.

What else is on tap?

     What's up the road for MDTs and laptops used in patrol vehicles? Hundstad says to expect high demand for better streaming video.

     Other innovations may include riffs off mobile data innovations such as the one used by the City of Santa Monica. Safe Egilmez, a crime analyst for the Santa Monica Police Department, says the city is using a mobile data collection system developed by Austin, Texas-based Xplore Technologies to identify and locate graffiti. While city crews handle the clean-up, the data is transmitted to Egilmez so he can use the intelligence to track area gangs and often see who — or what — they are targeting. "Until now, the police department didn't track graffiti," Egilmez says. But the department has found the technology — which operates off Wi-Fi — very useful.

     Another California agency, the San Jose Police Department, has joined the list of criminal justice agencies supporting so-called "e-ticketing" of traffic violators.

     The San Jose system works like this: Officers enter the citation on the handheld device, then issue a citation to the violator. The citing officer uploads the citations to the central server.

     "This data is processed, updates the current records database and after a 48-hour wait period, they are electronically sent to the Santa Clara court system," says a spokesperson for the company that manufactures the device, TicketWorks by 3i Infotech of Edison, New Jersey.

     Eventually 600 San Jose patrol officers will be equipped with the devices, which also capture information in the field, including fingerprints and photographs for not only citations, but accident and other reports. The big plus for San Jose has been the reduction in the number of man-hours and personnel required to input data into the system. Since the information bypasses the additional bureaucratic layer, San Jose has been able to reduce costs associated with citations and, claims the company spokesman, boost accuracy.

     Of course, e-citations, graffiti abasement and streaming video are simply examples of the kinds of emerging uses for patrol-based MDTs and laptops. With rapid advances in the field, the sky is literally the limit. For agencies making the move to MDTs or mobile laptops, the big challenges will be integrating upgrades as they are introduced — the same problem that plagues every computer user.

     Tomorrow promises to be an exciting, demanding time for agencies that are hooked into the latest technology as long as they are willing to stay even with the ever-changing parameters of mobile technology.

     Carole Moore has served in patrol, forensics, crime prevention and criminal investigations, and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines.

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