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Tex. officers chasing information through high-speed networks

By Kirk Ladendorf
Austin American-Statesman  

AUSTIN, Texas — Mobile computers and online access have transformed the way countless Americans do their jobs. Now the technology is pushing rapidly into law enforcement.

Austin police officers are using rugged laptop computers tied to a fast wireless data network to get information more quickly as they respond to emergency calls.

The Austin Police Department's $5.5 million Mobile Data Computer project is designed to deliver digital maps, mug shots, updates from dispatchers and up-to-the-second locations of other police cars.

The department is using more than 400 Panasonic laptops mounted on patrol car dashboards and linked to a secure broadband data network run by cellular provider Verizon Communications Inc. The new system runs rings around the older mainframe-based data network that could deliver only a limited amount of text information to patrol cars.

For Lt. Sonya Gil, who heads the department's technology unit, more information delivered more quickly is a powerful tool. "This is the biggest impact on the officer in the field that I have experienced," said Gil, who has worked in the department for 24 years. "It really is helping people do their jobs better."

The computers contain specialized law enforcement software that uses color codes to separate calls by priority and status. Officers can even pull down a history of police calls to individual street addresses.

"If I want to see a (dispatch) call, I just touch the screen," said Sgt. Derek Galloway, who has used the system in the field, but now works with Gil in the department's technology unit. "If I want to go to the call, I just touch it. I don't have to talk to the dispatcher. It saves radio traffic. And I can see where everyone else is" because all the police cars are tied to a satellite tracking system that continuously updates their position.

As police offers respond to calls, the computers can deliver updated information almost as soon as the dispatcher gets it.

For example, Galloway said he responded to a 911 call this year about an armed intruder, but before he reached the scene, his computer told him the armed man had left. The updated information let Galloway reassess how he would handle the call.

The program is part of a coordinated effort by the Police Department, the Travis County sheriff's office and other agencies that stretches back to the late 1990s, said Peter Collins, the city's chief information officer.

"Our job is to get the police and fire departments as much information as possible at the minute they need it," Collins said.

Collins and his department considered but rejected the idea of building a city-owned Wi-Fi data network that would cover the entire county. Instead, they decided to rely on the emerging high-speed data networks being constructed by cellular companies, including Verizon Communications, Sprint Nextel and AT&T Wireless.

Verizon says it provides similar network services to the Travis County sheriff's department, the Round Rock Police Department, City of Temple, and other state and federal government agencies. The company said it set up a two-way messaging system with Austin that lets city workers report network service glitches. Verizon provides regular updates on service work and fixes to part of its network, including work done on individual cell towers. Sprint Nextel and AT&T Wireless provide data services to other city departments.

The city spends a little more than $400,000 a year total with those three carriers to supply data networking services to the police, fire, Emergency Medical Services and other departments. The city holds the companies responsible for maintaining very high levels of service and quick response to any network glitches.

The system works well, Collins said, because the cellular providers have the incentive to perform well or lose the city's business to a competitor.

Collins, a former Austin police officer, acknowledges that technology is not a cure-all, and it doesn't take the place of a police officer's awareness and judgment in the field.

But it can help.

After responding to a call, officers can use the mobile computers to file electronic case reports wireless from the field. "The idea," Gil said, "is to give them as much functionality in the car as possible, so they spend more time on the street."

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