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Conn. Officers to Get New In-Car Technology

By Zach Lowe, Stamford Advocate

STAMFORD, Ct. - A million dollars can''t buy the gadgets you see on the "CSI" crime drama, but it will help the Stamford Police Department acquire in-car laptops and other technology upgrades officers say they need to catch up with neighboring departments.

The police union has been complaining about the "1970s" technology in the department since 2003, when laptops were removed from squad cars because the monitors stuck out in front of the air-bag deployment zone, said Officer Michael Merenda, police union president.

Officers in almost every surrounding town can type reports and call up criminal records of suspects while sitting in their cars. But Stamford officers sometimes write reports by hand and must ask 911 dispatchers to check license plate numbers, Merenda said.

That will change by the end of this year or early next year, Assistant Chief Richard Priolo said. The department is using $890,000 in federal grants, won in the past two years, to buy about 30 laptops and equip them with state-of-the-art software, Priolo said.

Officers will be able to download mug shots and bring up detailed maps of homes and office buildings in seconds, he said.

The department redesigned the mounts that hold the laptops so they do not intrude on the air-bag zone, Priolo said.

"We weren''t sure there was even a safety issue to begin with," he said. "But we fixed them anyway."

At least two officers were injured during car accidents when the air bag smacked into the computer screen and knocked it into them, Merenda said.

He greeted news of the laptops with skepticism.

"It would be a great tool for the guys," Merenda said. "But when we had them last time, it wasn''t really useful. It was all smoke and mirrors."

The first in-car laptops were installed in late 2000, Assistant Chief Frank Lagan said. The software did not link up with the department''s computerized records system, meaning officers could not type reports in the cars and send them into the system electronically, Priolo said.

If officers arrested someone, they could not log into the system to see whether the person had been arrested before in Stamford, Merenda said. They could not bring up mug shots or sketches of suspects to see whether someone on a street corner was a wanted criminal, Merenda and Priolo said.

"All we could do was run a license plate," Merenda said. "All smoke and mirrors."

About a dozen of the old laptops, which cost about $1,500 each according to Priolo, sit in dusty piles inside a yellow cabinet at police headquarters. The rest were given to officers for their desks, Priolo said.

The new laptops, which also cost about $1,500 each, will link directly to the department''s records system as well as state and national crime databases, Priolo said.

Police and the fire department said they hope to design a map that shows the sites of all hazardous material in the city, Priolo said. If there were a fire or a hostage situation in a building holding hazardous materials, officers would know where the danger is, he said.

"This could be vital for homeland security," he said.

Almost every nearby police department has used an in-car computer system for years. The Norwalk Police Department has laptops mounted onto a frame, Chief Harry Rilling said. The frame swings into the passenger seat, out of the way of the driver, he said.

Most Norwalk officers ride alone, but if two officers drive together, the driver can push a button that disables the passenger-side air bag, Rilling said.

Police in Greenwich and New Canaan avoided the laptop altogether and built screens into the dashboard.

Officers can connect a keyboard to the screen, said Officer Judson Van Ingen, a technician in Greenwich, and Sgt. David Ferris of the New Canaan Police Department.

Greenwich has used the system since 1999, Van Ingen said.

The New Canaan department choose the built-in screens because they were afraid laptops might interfere with air bags, as they did in Stamford, Ferris said.

Stamford officers will be able to push the new laptops out of the way of air bags, Priolo said. The laptops are the first of several upgrades that will transform the department into a faster, nearly paper-less organization, he said.

The department plans to buy software programs that will link to more crime databases and is in line to receive a new finger-printing machine.

"We''ve been spending like devils," Priolo said of the federal money.

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