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October 03, 2007
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San Diego PD patrols with gun, badge and a PDA

By Tony Manolatos
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO, Calif. The idea came while watching his 15-year-old son use a laptop to talk to other players during an interactive video game.

Assistant Police Chief William Maheu wondered why his officers couldn’t use their cell phones to listen to the police radio?

His epiphany would eventually put specially programmed PDAs in the hands of San Diego police officers. It would also land the department on the wireless map nationally.

The department took the top spot this year in Computerworld magazine’s ranking of private and public businesses using technology to mobilize field workers.

“No one is pushing the wireless applications like we are anywhere in the country,” Maheu said. “We are literally on the cutting edge of technology.”

For officers who don’t have access to in-car computers, the personal digital assistants are the latest addition to a growing list of technical enhancements that some cops can’t imagine living without.

The handheld computers, which double as cell phones, are used by officers on foot, motorcycles and horseback. The devices can verify the identity of suspects who say they do not to have ID or give false names. Officers can send and receive still images, including mug shots and driver’s license photos, and listen to radio calls.

Within the next six months, the PDAs should be able to receive live video from police and fire helicopters.

They have become a model for some agencies.

It all started three years ago when Maheu found his teenage son in his living room playing a video game with people from opposite corners of the globe. He was using Voice over IP software, which allowed him to talk to the other players, all while instant messaging and running other applications. He was doing all of this on a wireless connection from a laptop his parents bought him.

Wireless companies told Maheu that he couldn’t merge police radios with cell phones, so he put his Internet Technology team to the test. The team created software that did the job.

“I knew we could do it,” Maheu said. “I kept telling my tech guys, ‘If my kid can do this stuff, we should be able to.’ ”

Last year, the Police Department became one of the first in the country to turn PDAs into crime-fighting tools.

The devices Sprint PocketPCs and Palm Treos cost the department $300 apiece. The Verizon wireless connection runs $60 a month per subscriber. The department has 400 PDAs, all of which are in use.

One is assigned to Officer Roberto Delgadillo, a member of the Mounted Enforcement Unit.

“It’s a good tool,” said Delgadillo, whose unit patrols Balboa Park, the beaches and other parts of San Diego by horseback. “It really helps us quickly identify people.”

Before the PDAs, Delgadillo said he would routinely have to release people after writing them tickets for littering or drug use or being drunk in public.

Numerous tickets went unpaid because the suspect used a fake name after claiming not to have identification. Delgadillo requested background checks radioing dispatch or a nearby squad car but help was tough to find sometimes.

“Many times, if I really didn’t have much to go on other than what the person was saying, I would have to let them go,” he said. “Most of the time when people are lying about their name they’re wanted for a more serious crime, and you end up arresting them for that because of the PDA.”

Maheu said a motorcycle officer once used his new PDA to catch an ID thief.

The officer pulled over a driver who said she didn’t have her license or registration. She did give him a name, but when he typed it into his PDA it was clear from the driver’s license photo that popped up that the woman wasn’t who she said she was.

Maheu said the woman was stealing identities, which police learned after searching her laptop. She was charged with impersonating another person, a felony.

Sgt. John Stricklin, a 25-year veteran, remembers life without PDAs, and even in-car computers and cell phones.

Back then, officers used pen, paper and a radio. They lugged around stacks of blank reports, each color coded, and matching Wite-out to correct mistakes. Green was for traffic accidents, tan for crime reports, blue for missing children, and so on.

“There was green-out and tan-out, blue-out and yellow-out,” said Stricklin, 50. “We were never allowed to use pencil. And when the report got too heavy because of all the Wite-out, we would have to start over.”

Although the department has used desktop computers for years, life for beat cops wouldn’t get any easier until cell phones and in-car computers were introduced in the 1990s.

“Cell phones have really helped us,” Stricklin said. “That, and, of course, e-mail and texting. It’s nice to get that real-time information, especially on a crime in progress. And there’s some things that really don’t belong on a radio for tactical purposes.”

The program that put laptops in squad cars began 11 years ago. The Panasonic Toughbooks let officers perform tasks simultaneously, and templates modeled after Microsoft Word documents replaced the color-coded reports.

Reports are filed electronically, often from the car, to a records clerk, who forwards it to a detective if necessary. A process that took days now takes hours.

“I can’t even imagine doing it by hand,” said patrol officer Tom Paul, 34, who has worked for the department for about three years.

To help prepare Paul for a system failure, an occasional occurrence, his training officer shut down his laptop and forced him to use his radio, a Thomas Guide map book, a pen and a notebook. Paul said the process was excruciating.

With the laptop, details of a police call appear on an officer’s screen almost as soon as the dispatcher radios the information to the field.

A map link gives directions, and new cars are equipped with GPS, so officers can see their vehicle moving across the screen. Another recent software addition lets officers send text messages and locate backup.

“You can just look at the screen, hit the map button if you need it, and it’s all right at your fingertips,” Paul said.

Officer Sandi Lehan said most of the younger officers “don’t know what to do without their laptops and PDAs.” Lehan led the team who developed the software for the PDAs, which officers also can use to access work e-mail.

“That’s huge, because they can get all their updates and information in the field,” said Lehan, the department’s special projects manager for new technology. “The motor(cycle) guys are very old school, but they’re using these PDAs all the time.”

The Carlsbad Police Department is close to using PDAs modeled after San Diego’s, Carlsbad Chief Tom Zoll said.

“Other departments are starting to share in the success they’ve had with that technology,” said Zoll, who is also chairman of the county regional communication systems board.

He said most police departments in the county are ahead of the technology curve, primarily because officials from separate agencies are sharing ideas.

“There are many, many more things that will be put to use in addition to the PDAs,” Zoll said.

Locally and across the country, law enforcement agencies have worked to improve their use of technology after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

A wireless network designed for police and other emergency responders is being built in New York City, and one is set up in the nation’s capital. In both places, first responders had difficultly communicating during the terrorist attacks.

In San Diego, there isn’t enough money for the city to build a wireless network, which is why the Police Department contracts with Verizon.

Meanwhile, Officer Lehan is busy tweaking the PDAs, and Maheu is swapping ideas with Washington, D.C.’s IT team.

As Washington’s chief technology officer, Robert LeGrande oversaw the design of the wireless network there. He used words like “phenomenal” and “rare” when discussing San Diego’s PDAs.

“I would say it’s the future for public safety,” LeGrande said.

“It’s leveraging what’s already there for our citizens,” he said. “It’s exactly what we should be doing, which is providing our first responders with the best available communications technologies.”

Copyright 2007 San Diego Union-Tribune

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