Hidden Costs of Technology

March 19, 2020
The patrol technology requiring constant data connection continues to grow and the costs for such are not always clear or predictable. Here are a few things to consider as you plan and budget data connectivity.

Some retired or senior ranking officers working today easily remember a time when the only piece of equipment in a patrol vehicle that needed connectivity was the radio, and it just needed a tall enough antenna. Even the idea of personal computers was distant and certainly no one was thinking about putting them in patrol cars back in the 1960s and 1970s. When laptop computers started to become more common, then usually known as mobile data terminals, very little was being stored on them and the connectivity was a simple cellular connection. Those were the early days before software suites were readily available to generate reports, write tickets, and more—back when a lot of paper was still being used. 

Today’s law enforcement technology world is vastly different and with all of the super efficient integrated tech comes something a lot don’t think about. All of the data has to be transferred, coordinated, stored, accessed, controlled, managed, redacted, and—to put it simply—dealt with.

There are devices that create data in our patrol vehicles and on our person, as well as the devices that require data transfer and how that data gets stored. Recognize each service or operation that may have a cost attached. There are several and usually not discussed.

The laptop

The most obvious piece of equipment requiring data connectivity is the laptop. With software suites now encompassing everything from report writing to suspect investigation, there’s no doubt that the laptop is almost constantly generating, sending, and receiving data. The good news is that the large bulk of it is simple text and not large volumes. The bad news is that it’s constant and includes any necessary audio and video. No matter how much we compress the data for audio and video it’s always going to be more than sending simple, even formatted text.

Laptops can also control emergency equipment—lights and the siren—and some control suites collect and store data for when the equipment was activated, deactivated, whether it was automated or manual, etc. That may not be big chunks of data, but it’s data just the same and for agencies with such control suites, it’s not often thought about because it seems so minor an amount. If this accounts for 1% of your data transfer use, it may not be worth noticing in the overall scheme of things. However, if you have ten systems that all use 1% then you need to pay attention to them. Awareness of data creation, use, transfer, etc. is what we’re after here.


Beyond the laptop there can be several cameras mounted in/on the vehicle and worn by the officer that generate data as well. For decades, there have been dashboard or rear-view mirror mounted forward facing cameras— “dashcams.” They have proven of value over the years but were also limited by the restrictions they faced. They were mounted and immobile. The camera may not be facing anywhere near the officer after they exit the vehicle. The microphone was usually inside the vehicle and couldn’t pick up any audio to go with the video. To overcome some of those challenges, body worn cameras carried the advantages of more accurately depicting what the officer saw/heard. Both of these camera systems create fairly large amounts of data. That data has to be moved from camera to storage unit. Whether that’s temporary in the patrol vehicle’s trunk or more permanent back at the station, the data transfer still has to occur and that’s more data moving across the cellular data carrier waves.


The next two items we’ll point out are far from the last items in a patrol vehicle that may use data. The GPS tracking system and any license plate recognition (LPR) systems both represent open two-way data exchange as a requirement for function. The GPS system doesn’t use a large amount of data. The open back-and-forth tracking system uses relatively small bits of data to update the vehicle’s location at whatever frequency of timing the system is set up for. In today’s world, it’s almost always up to the moment.

LPR systems are entirely different by comparison. With (usually) two cameras scanning every vehicle passed, recognizing the license plate number, sending out the request for data based on that number and then getting back all of the related data—it’s both on-going and fast if it’s to be of any value.

While all that data transfer could add up to impossible-to-estimate costs, those costs are usually limited thanks to service providers offering flat rate costs per unit for unlimited data transfer. As an example, if a service provider specified $45 per unit per month, the agency could estimate monthly, quarterly and annual costs as a total based on the number of patrol units in use. That said, there is no way of estimating without a documented historical reference what those totals will be month to month.

Once that data is gathered at the various operational locations, not to mention the data that gets built at the station (or collection of district stations), it has to be stored, collated, managed, mined, copied, redacted, etc., as necessary. Agency policy would determine how long the data has to be stored, but much of it has to be securely stored for a minimum and a maximum—whether that be a three-month minimum or up to 25 to 50 years. That 25 to 50 years might as well be forever when you look at the cost of long term storage for the data. The data would include simple text bits but also images, audio, video and collections of reports for given incidents.

In today’s law enforcement world, body worn cameras, dash mounted cameras, digital reporting and citation systems, LPRs, radio systems and more all use data transmission bandwidth. All of that and the storage/management of the data as it’s created has to be taken into consideration for budgetary planning purposes. The costs should be estimated out per month, per quarter, per annum and, in some cases, out five and ten years. The data will continue to grow and that growth will accelerate as they agency grows or the calls for service increase.

About the Author

Lt. Frank Borelli (ret), Editorial Director | Editorial Director

Lt. Frank Borelli is the Editorial Director for the Officer Media Group. Frank brings 20+ years of writing and editing experience in addition to 40 years of law enforcement operations, administration and training experience to the team.

Frank has had numerous books published which are available on Amazon.com, BarnesAndNoble.com, and other major retail outlets.

If you have any comments or questions, you can contact him via email at [email protected].

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