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Cop Cars: From buck boards to buck rodgers

Part 1 of the 3-part "Mobile Office Series" sponsored by Panasonic

Cops are constantly adapting their equipment to the environment. Our kit bags have grown larger and larger as we collected additional equipment to deal with the job. Our departments give us the basics, and as we face new situations we think about what tools could make tasks easier. Then, we go out and get them for next time. Much of the commercially produced police equipment used today was developed "on the fly" by those who walked the beat before us. The concept of the cruiser as a mobile office was developed by those of us who worked long shifts and thought, "What could be added to this car to make my job easier? Make me more comfortable? Help me to hunt down dangerous offenders?"

By looking at the historical development of technology used in our mobile office, we can gain a greater understanding of how to employ it, integrate it into our field tactics and investigations and look at possible future applications. This series of three articles will look at the historical development of the mobile office, the current tactical and investigative advantages of today's mobile officer and, finally, the future.

Mouse Ears and Bench Seats

My first patrol car was a 1979 Plymouth Fury. There were no rotating lights, just the two can lights on the roof … solid red to the front and flashing amber to the rear. They looked like ears on a black and white rodent, thus the term "mouse ears." Mounted between them was the siren which was much louder inside the car than outside. The Plymouth had a radio with a single-base frequency and two tactical frequencies. Mounted on the rear panel above the seats was the "cheater box" which allowed you to hear the uplink transmissions from other cops. The microphone weighed enough to be swung like a flat sap.

Once you got out of the car, you were out of contact with the station. As an adaptation between the complete demise of call-boxes and the advent of portable radios, we carried a dime in our speed loader, under our ammunition, to make emergency telephone calls. Yes, 9-1-1 was operational, but in a large city the lines were so clogged with calls that you were better off using one thin dime to call the watch commander's "inside line."

It wasn't all bad. The Plymouth could really move. Unfortunately, during a freeway chase you out ran your own siren. Throughout the 1970s, it was innovations coming from individual police officers and not organized efforts that improved our mobile offices. Indeed, President Lyndon Johnson's crime commission noted in the late 1960s that in the 30 years since two-way radios were introduced into police vehicles, law enforcement had not adapted many other technologies. The first adaptations to our mobile office were fairly basic. One, for instance, was that someone cut a length of radiator hose and clamped it to the inside panels of the front doors providing us with a place to put the baton.

The Age of the Add-on

Beginning in the 1980s, larger agencies began to introduce portable two-way radios and computer terminals in vehicles. These early Mobile Digital Terminals (MDT) - or Mobile "Dumb" Terminals - provided officers with access, through their agency, to motor vehicle information, some wanted persons databases, like the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), and local stolen vehicle information. The first computer terminals were "dumb" because they were were simple gateways to whatever mainframe computer your agency was using. Unlike your desktop PC, laptop or the computer you likely have in your cruiser today, MDTs could not perform simple computing tasks like word processing or even act as a calculator.

There were tons of challenges to the early MDTs. Through the 1990s, installation of new electronic equipment was done on an ad-hoc basis. Because new technology was being added into the police cruiser as an after-thought, it was spliced into existing systems. Splicing could create officer safety problems like getting your feet caught in wires protruding from under the dash. Splicing also exacerbated maintenance problems because more connections meant more failure points and more places to check for them. Moreover, previous ad hoc installations tended to over-tax the vehicle battery. So, you ended up with wires going everywhere. In today's mobile office the police vehicle is pre-wired to accept additional new technology. By the late 1990s, the installation of computers, radios and high-end light systems was accomplished by a specially designed wiring harness.

The advent of the wiring harness was a larger leap that you might think. Of course it simplified after-market installation and maintenance by greatly reducing the number of electrical connections and potential failure points, but, it also greatly enhanced your communications platform. By having the wires leading from the computer, radio, lights and siren take defined paths, departments were able to reduce signal interference. Think about driving along in your personal car and listening to your AM radio. If you pass underneath electrical transmission lines you often hear interference. Before the use of wiring harnesses and specially adapted cables, power for lights and sirens were often run along side cables, cords and wires used for your radio, causing interference.

This type of serious adaptation of electronic equipment to withstand the rigors of police work is generally referred to as "ruggedization." At first blush, some police officers think it would be relatively simple to just install a laptop into their vehicle. There are a lot of technical concerns, including ruggedizing the equipment to survive you and the job.

Wiring the vehicle isn't the only practical problem. Early police vehicles had bench seats, so, terminals were mounted on a pole in front of the dashboard, between the passenger and driver. In order for the driver or the passenger to access the terminal it was mounted on a swivel. At first, a resistance ring was used so that the terminal did not swing freely. Consider that most police cruisers are run like "hot bunks" on a ship…that is, once you're done with it the next person moves in, leaving little time for the bunk, or the car, to cool off. Police work is 24/7 and, except for maintenance periods, cop cars are often handed off from shift to shift. Constant use weakened the swivel resistance mechanism so that it wasn't long before the terminal swung with the motion of the car, occasionally striking your knees.

Police equipment is exposed to extreme temperature variations and constant use. Because of this and the wiring issues, you just can't slap your laptop into your vehicle. Today's technology has been improved and adapted so is highly usable in the field. The ad-hoc period of police mobile computing wasn't all bad. It brought about many of the innovations you use today like real computing power in the vehicle, technology adapted to your environment, and improved maintenance.

From Free-Form to Icons

Almost everyone uses icon-based Graphical User Interface (GUI) software. This is the "point and click" or touch screen technology. An icon (a symbol on your computer screen) represents a task you want your computer to perform. Today, you click or touch and an NCIC or motor vehicle input screen appears. It wasn't always so. Early terminals used a Disc Operating System (DOS)-like software system. In early MDTs, the screen was blank. You typed the command string (to run someone for warrants it might look like this - "@Nsmith,john@D010160@h509@w165@hblk@eblu@rw@sm.") After typing the command string, you hit enter. Of course, one wrong field identifier or a bit of mis-typing and you either received an error message or did not get appropriate results. In contrast, today if you want to run a license plate you like click an icon or push a button--or if you're really lucky, touch the screen-- and the proper format appears. The progress from a DOS-like environment to a GUI environment was a major step forward for law enforcement. The GUI environment undoubtedly increased the amount and accuracy of our mobile office data systems.

Tactical Applications Today and in the Future

There are many aspects of technology that have improved police work. Perhaps more importantly, there are some aspects of technology that tempt us to violate basic officer safety field tactics. Now that we have a little understanding of how the historical development of mobile computing technology in policing advanced the idea of adaptation to the environment, or "ruggedization," we can look at integrating field tactics and investigations in our next article.

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