Cruiser control: Cops with laptops

Computers in cars give officers information at their fingertips

By Delano R. Massey
Herald-Leader, Lexington, KY

Speeders and red-light runners, take note:

New computer technology in Lexington police cruisers will put that ticket in your hands in no time.

"Who wants to be held on the road for 20 minutes?" asked Sgt. David Lyons.

Since February of last year, Lexington police have been using a mobile data computer system, allowing them to retrieve motorists'' registration information within seconds.

Now, police are using the Panasonic Toughbook laptops to write reports, keep logs, send messages from car to car and look up state laws.

The paperless reporting system is almost fully operational after a roll-out that began in January.

The computers save time for officers. They allow them to confirm vehicle registrations, run stolen vehicle checks and do driver''s license searches for "wants and warrants" locally and nationally.

On busy nights, one officer can receive up to 25 calls during a 10-hour shift. In the past, an officer would hear a call over the radio and try to jot it down or memorize the details. Now, the computer does the work for the officer. The touch screen allows the officer to take the call, give the time he or she will arrive at the call and clear the call -- which frees up the radio.

Out of 280 cruisers, 190 are equipped with the computers, mostly for first- and second-shift officers.

The computers were funded by nearly $3 million in federal grants. It costs about $10,000 to install the modem, mounting and computer in each cruiser.

More computers will be purchased when funding becomes available, said Lyons, who services the computers.

Officers spent about 11 hours in classrooms for certification and training. Field reporting will add six hours to their training, Lyons said.

The next step will be adding a program for collisions that has a drawing tool, eliminating the need for hand drawings. And because of staffing concerns, police might stop responding to non-injury accidents. The police Web site already has a link to download an accident form.

Eventually, Lyons said, the department will be able to exchange photographs of missing children and suspects.

It''s a bit of a change from the "Dark Ages" when Lyons started working as a patrolman about 12 years ago. "That was back before we had flashlights, and we used to light torches," Lyons joked.

In the ''90s, Lyons said, police officers had to switch to radio Channel 1, which was the information channel, to call an operator.

The operator would call back with the information, but it often would take 15 to 20 minutes because the line would be flooded with calls, he said.

So, "a lot of time, you just didn''t run things because the wait was too long," he said.

Information-gathering technology appears to have arrived.

Sacramento police use car-mounted mobile data computers, and officers have PDAs and Tablet PCs to communicate with the main databases to check the ParoleLeads system, which tracks parolees.

In Wilson, N.C., firefighters use mobile terminals in fire trucks to access the department''s Geographic Information System, which can help locate fire hydrants with inadequate flow rates or map homes that should be evacuated in the event of a bomb scare.

Brian Lehmann, senior director of Global Government Solutions, said his company has provided the New York and Los Angeles police departments with hand-held mobile data computers that cost up to $4,000 apiece.

In New York, officers can scan registration information, and the computer can print the ticket, decreasing the number of tickets that were thrown out in court because they were illegible.

Ultimately, Lehmann said, the key is to devise a plan that will allow federal, state and local agencies to share information, which would help improve homeland security.

A majority of agencies have little or no technology because of the cost, said Keith Singleton, founder and president of Armada Group Inc., which provides technology to police departments for criminal justice information.

"There are agencies all over the country converting to paperless reporting," Singleton said.

But, "What might work really well one year, might not be there in three," he said.

Seven out of 10 departments back away from paperless reporting because it requires a lot of data network upkeep and takes "a large organization to run it," Singleton said.

Lyons said he does not see that as being a problem in Lexington.

"When we go into something, we really go at it hard," Lyons said.

Officers appear to enjoy the new technology.

During a test run last month, Sgt. Jeff Davis called in a license plate to headquarters. Meanwhile, he keyed in the plate on his computer.

Within 17 seconds, his Toughbook sounded off four loud beeps and displayed the motorist''s information, including whether there were outstanding warrants.

"It''s a real big safety issue for us," Davis said. "In this business, any time you can get information faster, that''s a good thing."

When Davis joined the force 14 years ago, he used to scribble down the information as it came across the radio.

He doesn''t miss those days, but cautioned that there is no substitute for paying attention to details.

"If technology fails, we still need to be able to do our job," he said. "All the equipment in the world can''t replace an officer and his experience."

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