Creating the mobile office

Oct. 1, 2007
Michigan departments take technology on the road

     No one knows better the pitfalls of outdated technology than county agencies patrolling large rural areas. They know what it's like to hand telephone rather than radio other agencies and the central office to track down information on suspects and in-field situations. And they know full well the pain of realizing that new technology is "out there" and available -- but potentially beyond the reach of their limited budgets.

     But in today's world, law enforcement needs technology that can facilitate rapid response to crimes and emergencies. Central to this is the effective deployment of mobile technology that gives officers fingertip access to local, state and federal data banks and new software applications while withstanding the rigors of the squad car environment.

     To this end, Michigan law enforcement agencies have banded together to improve data access and in-field operations through data sharing and mobile communications. In the process, they discovered that mobile communications facilitated not only in-field operations, but provided a foundation for new applications that would further improve law enforcement operations.

Sanilac County, Michigan
     In square miles, Sanilac County is the largest county in Michigan. It is also highly rural, with a population of 44,000 people, patrolled by 15 officers in 20 cars. Every one of the Sanilac County Sheriff's Office's squad cars is equipped with a rugged laptop for mobile computing.

     Dawn Cubitt is Sanilac County's director of Central Dispatch, which coordinates communications with both Sanilac County law enforcement and eight separate local law enforcement agencies. For the past year, Sanilac County and other local law enforcement agencies have worked with Core Technology Corporation of Lansing, Michigan, to implement mobile access to Michigan's law enforcement information network (LEIN), a comprehensive data repository. This databank contains vital information on suspects such as the number of warrants that are out, "hot files" on who to be on the lookout for, gun registration information and sex offender data. Officers can securely and reliably tie into this network from any geographical location to obtain "on the scene" suspect information.

     "One of the biggest advantages we now see in the field is the ability to instantaneously pull up images of driver's licenses and photos," Cubitt says. "These systems also interface with our computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system at the central office. This speeds up the dispatching of complaints from central dispatch to the cars."

     Before Sanilac County had total computerized integration with State of Michigan and central dispatch systems from the field, Cubitt says they relied on radio communications. But with such a large area to cover and only two radio towers in the county, there were invariably areas of poor reception for these signals. This impeded communications and slowed down the law enforcement process.

     "Now that we have wireless communications, information is no longer being dropped," she says. "The officers are also using their laptops to write their own reports. Formerly, they used to bring written information into the office, where we'd type up the reports."

Kent County, Michigan
     Kent County, Michigan, contains 22 townships and several incorporated cities, including Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. The Kent County Sheriff's Department fleet uses 50 rugged laptops in patrolling squad cars.

     This technology has beefed up these agencies ability to communicate, says Lt. Michelle LaJoye-Young, Kent County technology and communications director. "We went from 800-MHz radio frequency communications to rugged laptops in cars and two Blackberrys that are hand-carried by in-field detectives," she explains. "These new wireless systems connect law enforcement information repositories through the iServices Gateway for linkages to multiple databases and records management systems. The systems include LEIN, CAD, a sex offender database and Secretary of State information that includes driver's licenses and photos."

     Since this technology has been implemented, there have been several instances where officers were able to identify a suspect by using their mobile laptops and connecting to both in-state and out-of-state data repositories, according to LaJoye-Young. Officers were able to procure suspect warrant information from another state as well as pull up the suspect's photograph and demographic information. In one case, officers even discovered a couple of inaccuracies in descriptors found in various records.

     "We get suspects in custody and find that mobile technology with a broad range of database connectivity dramatically improves the entire process," says LaJoye-Young. "Before we had this technology, we had to do a lot of leg work, contacting multiple law enforcement agencies by phone to check on a suspect, and to track down alias information that could not be obtained in the field."

     The new mobile capability is important because LaJoye-Young notes it can be very common to encounter incomplete information on a given suspect. "Often, we have only a description of the suspect and no Social Security Number," she says. "With the mobile communications and database integration we now have, we can obtain fingerprints, warrants and other images. Our officers are very used to this new system, and it has enabled us to do a better job of suspect identification and apprehension."

St. Joseph County, Michigan
     St. Joseph County, Michigan, has a consolidated 911 dispatch center serving the county's 63,000 residents. "We have three supervisors and two part-time staff at the center, and we use Core Technology's Talon MDC (mobile data computer) software technology on 45 laptops," says Gary LeTourneau, central dispatch director for St. Joseph County. "Thirty eight of these laptops are in cars in the field, and we also have a number of handheld Panasonic F29 devices that we use in our narcotics operations. The Talon-driven laptops in the cars allow us to obtain online information on suspects and run identification checks."

     St. Joseph County also uses Deerfield Beach, Florida-based Advanced Public Safety's (APS) electronic ticketing program. With this system, officers can run license plates and subjects. They can verbalize that a subject is wanted and relay driving details to the system without having to use a pen or keypad. "This verbal information automatically populates the traffic citation," says LeTourneau. "The officer fills out the remaining fields of the citation and prints out the ticket on the spot via a portable printer in the car."

     The county also uses a GPS system that allows law enforcement to see the locations of patrol cars throughout the county. "There is a GPS modem in each car that sends data to the department server, and a server-resident application which then maps the data," says LeTourneau. "Our desk people can see squad car locations at all times and this will eliminate our old polling equipment. Unlike polling, the new GPS technology does not allow anyone but us to see our in-field cars and their locations."

     The GPS system is propelled by orthographic data collected by the county every three years for mapping. The information is gathered from planes that fly overhead, mapping terrain. "This is especially useful if you're performing surveillance on a house, and you anticipate having to enter," says LeTourneau. "In advance, we can see the tree lines and the ridges, and any other relevant features about the surrounding environment. We can also locate an officer if the sheriff needs to know where the officer was at a given time."

     St. Joseph County officers also have fingertip access to extensive online systems and data that they can tap into remotely. "Officers in the field have access to everything that we are working," says LeTourneau. "They can check their schedules from their cars. They can check an array of records on individuals and even animal control records on stray dogs and who they belong to."

New generation mobility applications
     In addition to meeting some immediate needs, mobile technology is paving a road into new applications that will further facilitate in-field law enforcement, with companies like Hewlett Packard providing rugged laptops with digital pens and GPS/mapping for airborne operations. Other companies are looking to add on applications that can be used with the mobile technology being employed by the above departments as well as other mobile technologies. One such example is APS Systems' mobile voice response solution.

     "One area that was especially critical was the ability for an officer to use voice response instead of standard keying on his laptop while in his vehicle," says Jeff Rubenstein, APS CEO and a former Del Rey, Florida, police officer. "With voice response technology, the officer can run a series of license plates and identification records on his laptop while he is driving. The system verbalizes the records and the officer in turn can instruct the system verbally which records to focus on."

     APS also provides Pocket Citation, which improves ticketing times, officer safety and ticketing accuracy for agencies.

     "Pocket Citation works especially well on a handheld device, so it can used on foot, on horseback, or anywhere you want to use a cell phone," Rubenstein notes. "The application reduces work because it instantly accesses information about a violator that an officer would normally have to hand-write on the citation. The officer can make one query on a person or vehicle license, and the citation can be populated with the data that comes back from the query." Traditional ticket handwriting takes as long as 15 minutes, but the Pocket Citation automates the process into a 60-second timeframe. The data collection automation also reduces the officer's exposure to the violator.

     Just as important for agencies and their jurisdictions is the legibility of automatically generated tickets. In the past, as much as 20 to 30 percent of all handwritten citations were thrown away because the handwriting on them was illegible. Part of the complication involved officers having to look up statutes, and then record the statutes that had been violated on the citations. "Now all the officer has to do is pick a 'ran red light' option on his handheld device and the ticket is automatically filled in with the appropriate statute," says Rubenstein.

     Greater data access and mobile communications also enable law enforcement officers to tie into information repositories beyond those typically available at the national, state and local levels of law enforcement. Data providers such as LocatePLUS of Beverly, Massachusetts, serve more than 16,000 clients throughout the United States and aggregate public records from 10 to 15 discrete databases, including records from collection systems, court systems and insurance companies. The LocatePLUS data engines can search by name, Social Security Number, phone or cell phone number, vehicle or corporation. It has the flexibility to return results for searches on partial license plates -- or to locate relatives and neighbors for requested individuals. "Our goal is to deploy in-depth information to any device," says Laura Stanicek, channel relationship manager at LocatePLUS.

Future mobility directions
     Regardless of the application, mobile technology providers are taking a hard look at law enforcement field needs to ensure that mobile technology is optimally tailored for day-to-day field conditions. Here is what law enforcers embracing mobile technology can look for in the future.

     High usability: "The usability that we build into our products is actually defined by law enforcement officers," says Rodney Ford, vice president of sales at Core Technology. "We communicate with law enforcement agencies monthly and actually reissue product just as frequently. In this way, the process improvement of the product is continuous, and law enforcement can rapidly gain access to the latest features through monthly Web distribution of the software, which automatically downloads into the client machines connected to the network -- whether they are fixed or mobile."

     Ford explains that when a law enforcement officer uses a handheld device such as a Blackberry, the officer uses a scrolling mechanism. "Because we know that scrolling is so much a part of the Blackberry, the menus on our Blackberry software interface are also scrollable," he says. "On the other hand, in a car, the software interface has bigger buttons, fonts and thumbnails with pictures to facilitate ease of use. There are also not a lot of folders on the car-based rugged laptops, since a field officer would not use folders often."

     Add-on applications: With the ability to tap into multiple databases now in place, agencies seek to further automate in-field operations such as the issuance of traffic citations and the production of accident reports. "We want to go to automated ticketing in the field, scanning driver's licenses and importing data into the citations," Michelle LaJoye-Young says. "We also want to increase the automation of accident reports and our overall communications bandwidth so we can handle even more information transfers." St. Joseph County also sees the benefit of electronic ticketing, which it says has reduced the process from an average of 7 minutes to under 2 minutes. The information is imported directly into St. Joseph's central server, where it resides on the county's records system.

     System reliability, security and compliance: Homeland security and other federal, state and local agencies have strict security requirements and data interface specifications that must be complied with for data access. Law enforcement technology providers must meet these requirements with their systems, while also providing safe and secure access.

     Cost control: Mobile technology is not a trivial investment, and many law enforcement agencies are challenged when it comes to funding new initiatives. Homeland security grants have been helpful in underwriting the deployment costs of mobile technology, but so have creative pricing models offered by vendors.

     "We recognize that cost is an issue for many agencies," Ford says. "This is why we offer a service bureau solution that approximately 20 percent of our customers use. A service bureau allows agencies to pay monthly for mobile data access instead of coming up with a major upfront investment. It also gives them the ability to use our technical management resources instead of their own. This is important for small agencies, which may not have a dedicated IT person."

     APS works on cost and return on investment (ROI) models to assist agencies with budget justifications. "We have found, in particular with mobile ticketing, that we can return the initial investment to most agencies in a one- to two-month timeframe," Rubenstein says.

Mobile tech pays off
     Law enforcement is very complex in the post-9/11 era. So much depends on timely information and on secure and sophisticated ways of getting it. This is what makes mobile technology indispensable to law enforcement. For this reason, mobile technology pays off most when internal business processes are reviewed and those responsible for implementing and participating in those processes understand exactly how mobile technology will benefit them.

     "Implementing any new technology is always a process," Cubitt stresses. "It has its successes but also its bumps, especially when first starting. At the onset, we had many officers who resisted changes in workflows and methods of doing things. However, we have seen the difference that mobile computing makes. All we have to do is take it offline, and immediately we get the calls from the field wondering where the system is."

Best practices for mobile technology
     Mobile technology can speed suspect apprehension, and it can solve major cases that would have proven elusive without fingertip access to a cross-section of information from agencies at many different levels of jurisdiction. Day-to-day field operations such as electronic ticketing are delivering processing reductions of up to 200 percent. Nevertheless, there are still challenges when it comes to mobile technology adoption and deployment.

     Here are several best practices for agencies considering mobile technology:

  1. Set goals, measure and develop a roadmap. There are many mobile technology choices in the marketplace. Before acquiring a mobile technology, understand how you are going to use it and set targets for productivity and effectiveness that you feel you should be able to attain. From the business side, you should define how these results will enhance your agency's operations -- and set metrics to measure how a mobile technology or application is helping you achieve these goals. From both the administrative and the field sides, it is also important to develop a technology "roadmap" that spans three to five years for the agency and lists new applications you plan to add to your mobility platform. The more these items are articulated in a strong business plan, the easier it is to convert that plan into a grant application for funding.
  2. Enter into effective partnerships. At the agency level, this means partnering with other law enforcement agencies for new technology acquisitions, grant applications and deployment, At the technology acquisition level, it means partnering with proven technology vendors who understand law enforcement, the daily challenges that central office and field law enforcement face, and the values that mobile technology can deliver.<
  3. Carefully pilot any new mobile technology. Most new technology deployments also have an upfront "tune-up" and problem resolution period before the technology runs smoothly. Negotiate with your vendors for technology "burn in" and trial periods in order to ensure that your goals for the technology will be met. Often, a small pilot of new technology will enable you and your vendor to learn specific things about how your people use the technology in the field -- and the vendor can tailor the product to best fit your operation.
  4. Confirm usability as well as new functions and features. Officers in the field and personnel at headquarters are already overloaded with priorities and workloads. It comes as no surprise that many law enforcement agencies say one of their greatest challenges is getting officers who are used to doing things one way to change how they work. The mobile technologies and applications that you bring into your operation should be easy to use as well as useful.

     Mary Schacklet is president of Transworld Data. Prior to founding the company, Schacklett was vice president of product research and software development for Summit Information Systems and vice president of strategic planning and technology at FSI International. She has a master's degree from the University of Southern California, where she taught for several years.

Sponsored Recommendations

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Officer, create an account today!