The digital past, present and future: police smartphones, tablets and laptops

It’s 1985, and women’s fashion features shoulder pads big enough to work on the football field; Madonna is busy selling her Material Girl image; bands with really big hair and Spandex pants dominate the airwaves; and the Chevy Camaro IROC-Z is one of the hottest cars on the road. Less than half a million people in the U.S. own cellphones, but police routinely carry the handheld Motorola radios first introduced in 1978. A company called “Dell” releases its first computer. Police cruisers come equipped with lights, sirens and radios.

Skip ahead a decade. Now it’s 1995, and the sky-high shoulder pads have (thankfully) disappeared. The Spice Girls and boy bands dominate pop music, while the Mazda RX-7 burns up the asphalt. Cellphones become more common, but are still a long way from being “smart.” Motorola introduces its WirelessCommPad for public safety workers. Microsoft releases both IE 2.0 and Windows 95. Netscape’s stock soars. Police cars still lack onboard computers, but the role of computers in modern police departments nationwide is accelerating: Fat little beige or gray boxes sit on desks where officers call up reports previously entered by records clerks with the touch of a few keys. Tiresome chores such as checking pawn sheets for stolen property grow a little bit easier.

In 2001, Palm releases the first U.S. smartphone, a Kyocera model. Computers are now in standard use in departments nationwide, and in the early to mid-2000s, police begin to see growing laptop use in police cruisers. As smartphones progressively become more adaptable, they also evolve into increasingly police-friendly devices, with law enforcement-oriented apps and a ruggedness that make them more suitable to the demands of police work.

In 2008, Motorola’s two-ways will have both texting and GPS integrated into their design. Tablets are introduced into the mix and, although not currently standard in every department, their portability and escalating adaptability render them increasingly attractive to the needs of law enforcement professionals.

Law enforcement and computers seem like a natural match, and they’ve turned out to be helpful in ways no one could ever have imagined. Back in the days when Dell was a startup, officers hauled around handhelds the size of bricks, and owning a cellphone was a pricey status symbol. What officer in 1985 could have imagined automatically scanning vehicle registrations by simply driving a cruiser down a street? Who could have predicted police filing digital reports or retrieving information without having to go through records, dispatch or a return to the station?

Things that sounded like they were out of a Keanu Reaves’ movie 20 or even 10 short years ago are not only realities today, but they’re merely the tip of the technological iceberg. The stuff police have at their fingertips right this second will be made better and more efficient at a dizzying rate. It seems in today’s technological world what’s on the horizon may make what police use to fight crime right this minute as quaint as a detective sitting at his desk, pecking away on a manual typewriter.

Life in the fast lane

Technology doesn’t simply creep forward, it flies. In fact, one of the most frequent complaints law enforcement agencies have about the technology in which they invest is that it grows outdated so fast it’s almost obsolete before it’s installed. Because dollars are few and resources are dwindling, law enforcement executives try to invest in tech with the ability to expand and adapt to new uses.

Lee Reiber, director of Mobile Forensics at the security firm AccessData, spent 15 years dealing with computers and mobile devices for a law enforcement agency before moving into the private sector. Reiber says back in the day, detectives would look at the suspect’s cell phone and then thumb through the history.

“We’d write it down—the call history, the text messages—we really didn’t put a whole bunch of emphasis on…the data from cellphones because we (thought) we’d interview them and they’d tell us what we wanted to know. But my last few years with the police department, it progressed to where I had a case (in which) I ended up downloading and getting all of their contacts and (other data)…and all of a sudden everyone across the state is sending me their mobile devices,” Reiber says. The results: he found text messages from suspects admitting to the crimes with which they were charged.

“Thumb jockeying—just going through their phones—has now given way to using some software from Best Buy to today, recovering file systems, documents, spread sheets, photos, you name it,” he says.

Because the mobile devices criminals use are more sophisticated today, law enforcement finds it even more important to stay ahead of them. Instead of ordinary smartphones, tablets and laptops, today’s mobile computerized devices have to be adaptable to law enforcement demands and be twice as rugged as the equipment available to civilians.

But Reiber says the biggest challenge that’s faced law enforcement in adapting technology to its use is what he calls the “four-letter word in forensics:” time.

“Who has time to sit down and examine 64 gigabytes of information on an iPad?” he asks. Instead, police need computers that can sift the wheat from the chaff and do it for them, which is how many of the apps under development currently work.

“The tools have to focus upon, ‘How quickly can I get the information I need? With a mobile device we have to focus on what we think law enforcement and people who examine physical evidence need now,” he says. Reiber says the technology is already in that wheelhouse.

First responders can now pull information from mobile devices in the field, giving police a quick start in investigations. Digital fingerprints ensure for the courts that evidence pulled off devices for evidentiary purposes will withstand scrutiny for integrity. He likens it to putting the evidence into a “forensic container” that can be opened years down the road during court proceedings.

On the dash

Dashboard iPads have moved into real time. JackBe Presto allows users to create dashboards that run on an iPad or tablet showing local crime incidents by location. “Historical data, residing in databases in data warehouses, has long been mined for patterns of incidents that might suggest future incidents and specific events where they might happen,” says John Crupi, CTO of JackBe. He uses the example of mining social media for formation of a flash mob.

“Detecting a 50-percent increase in the occurrence of the word ‘flash mob’ in the last five minutes coming from a one-mile radius around a specific location…is an indicator that a real flash mob is forming. This kind of real-time, descriptive intelligence gives law enforcement leverage to determine response before a situation develops—in this case, before the flash mob even forms,” says Crupi.

Xplore Technologies manufactures a tablet that’s both touch and stylus sensitive, with a price range of $3,900 to $5,500, with a sunlight sensitive screen. Like most models built for law enforcement use, it’s more rugged than the average tablet, built to withstand moderate drops on hard surfaces, with a long-lasting battery and adaptive to use in hazardous locations. Indications are that tablets will become standardized equipment for cops in the future, so expect growing emphasis from companies like Xplore, JackBe and others on acclimating this technology for portability, as well as durability.

Long-range use

Chriss Knisley, computer giant IBM’s Smarter Cities’ manager, says its computer systems are focusing on pulling together disparate information systems and integrating them in one place so law enforcement can access them from one consolidated format.

Knisley says officers generally access between 16 and 30 different databases in the course of a routine investigation. The goal, as he sees it, is to aggregate all of that information and make it more efficient for the investigating officer. He points to the NYPD as one of the most adept at putting computers to work.

“NYPD has a real-time crime center…that makes available 120 million records (from) their internal databases off of their mobile devices now,” he says. He also says that the Memphis Police Dept. has used their computer systems to aid in predictive analysis with the results that they’ve had a 30-percent drop in crime over a four-year period, which includes a 15-percent drop in violent crime.

“It improves the entire department, and Memphis is a great example,” he says.

Bob Schassler, Sr. V.P. of longtime police radio giant Motorola, puts it all in perspective with his example of how Motorola’s present technological capabilities can help officers better do their jobs: An abduction takes place and a bystander snaps a photograph or video of the incident, which is then transmitted to the command center. “They can start getting real-time feeds from cameras on traffic lights and on posts and start turning those videos on and streaming (them),” Schassler says.

Police can also send the aggregated information out to the right people and dispatch officers within a matter of minutes. He adds that the dispatcher can relinquish control of cameras to officers’ devices in the area, so they can control real-time video feeds.

“They have instant recognition of all of the information out there and it allows the dispatcher to deploy whomever happens to be in the area; and we also can connect up the 911 information that’s coming in,” he says.

Using cameras with today’s technology can add tremendously to law enforcement’s ability to do everything from catching red light violators to finding an abducted child.

In one case, a child’s abduction was caught by a bypasser who saw two white or Hispanic males take the child into a red pickup truck. Although the department did not have a registration, thanks to computer technology they were able to isolate in a matter of moments a number of local individuals who might own a truck that matched that description. One was a registered sex offender. He had apparently been listening to the police band and heard an APB go out for him, so he dropped the child off and took off, only to be apprehended later. The child was found alive and safe.

On the horizon

What do these industry experts see up the road in terms of technology aimed specifically at law enforcement officers and their very specific needs? AccessData’s Lee Reiber says he believes police will find a bigger concentration on the mobile device itself. Reiber also believes desktops and laptops will disappear like the floppy disk, giving way to enhanced tablets and smartphones.

“I also see a lot more of electronic wallets, and I see that software is going to have to evolve to understand more about applications,” he says.

Reiber adds that many tools now focus on social media, but he believes software in the future will shift to applications for analyzing banking tools and tracking and resolving identity theft. For example, he says, law enforcement will be able to track where the individual was when he or she opened a certain application.

John Crupi, of JackBe, predicts the future holds “more platforms offering ‘self-service’ options for creating dashboards, maps, charts and graphs.” Once built, he says, they’ll translate to mobile devices with no additional coding.

Chriss Knisley from IBM tells LET that he sees a wide-open future with agencies using analytics to understand patterns and trends, and then to put that data into operation. “To me, that’s the most exciting thing,” says Knisley.

The future could belong to biometrics, according to Motorola’s Bob Schassler. He says it hasn’t been well explored, but fire departments are using the new technology more and more, especially to save the lives of their firefighters when they are caught in a fire.

Schassler says police officers in the future can look for wearable cameras on remote speaker mikes and lapels, low power cameras partnered with computers and increased safety for officers.

In general all of the experts agree: information technology will become easier for officers in the field to aggregate, access and deliver. And what’s good news for law enforcement is bad news for criminals everywhere.


A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in patrol, forensics, crime prevention and criminal investigations, and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines. She welcomes comments at