04/12/2004

Computers Help Cops Cut Legwork; DeKalb Officers Get Shortcut to Warrants

Computers Help Cops Cut Legwork;
DeKalb Officers Get Shortcut to Warrants

By Mark Bixler, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Ga.

Cops in DeKalb County have followed colleagues in Cobb and Gwinnett down a high-tech road to obtain arrest and search warrants.

Instead of making time-consuming trips to personally ask a judge for a warrant, DeKalb police officers can fire up a computer in several locations across the county and make their case in videoconferences with judges located near downtown Decatur.

Police say it saves time because they can request warrants from the precinct house without driving to meet a judge, letting them focus more on fighting crime than fighting traffic.

Officers in Cobb, Gwinnett and Floyd counties use similar systems.

"Once you figure it out, it's like, 'Dude, we should have been doing this a long time ago,' " said Cpl. Dana Pierce, spokesman for Cobb police.

State law once required police to ask a judge in person for an arrest or search warrant. Legislators changed the law in 1998 and 2001 to let police seek arrest and search warrants via videoconferences.

Cops in Gwinnett obtained their first video warrant in 1998. Cobb officers did it the next year. DeKalb paid $45,000 for a system that went online a year ago.

Police with probable cause for an arrest or search settle in behind a computer and find themselves looking at the image of a judge's face on their screen. Cop and judge talk to each other as if they were in the same room. If the judge finds probable cause to issue a warrant, officer and judge sign the warrant with an electronic pad.

DeKalb County police Officer J.E. Freeman said the system helps detectives based in Dunwoody and Lithonia, who would otherwise face a long trip to the judges' office near Decatur.

"Our police are becoming more adaptive to the electronic age," he said.

Rookies tend to adapt more quickly than grizzled veterans.

"The younger guys grew up on PlayStations," Freeman said. "They're more comfortable with computers."

Acting Chief Bill Shiflett of the Floyd County Police Department said officials there lobbied legislators for the power to obtain search warrants via video. Drug detectives like having that ability because it saves them from having to wake up a judge at his house in the middle of the night when they need to search a place in a hurry.

"We don't have to go to their home and interrupt their families," he said.

Instead, they can call a judge who has a camera-equipped computer in his house and ask for a warrant.

Frank Rotunda, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, said the system's popularity will attract attention from more agencies in the coming years.

"More and more departments will go toward video systems," he said. "There's no question about it."

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