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COPsync increases officer safety, adds high-tech tools to the squad car

On August 3rd, 2000, Texas Highway Patrol Trooper Randall Wade Vetter stopped a 72-year-old driver for not wearing his seatbelt. Unbeknownst to Trooper Vetter, the old man had been known to local officers for statements he’d made — he’d said he would shoot any officer who tried to write him a ticket for not wearing a seatbelt.

Trooper Vetter was attacked by the suspect, who had exited his vehicle and opened fire with a rifle. Trooper Vetter, struck in the head, survived for four days before succumbing to his injuries.

We will never forget Trooper Vetter.

Early History
Getting vital, real-time, officer safety information into the hands cops on the streets became a life mission of two Texas police officers after the incident that claimed the life of Texas Trooper Randal Wade Vetter. Shane Rapp, a law enforcement officer in the state of Texas for 13 years, and business partner Russell Chaney, an active officer in Texas for 20-plus years, at the time had been technology entrepreneurs with a venture that was eventually sold to eBay. That company, CARad.com, leveraged legacy systems within the auto dealer industry that enabled dealers to list their cars on eBay. Basically, with just with a few clicks of a computer mouse (and within about two minutes or less) a dealer could have a car listed on eBay.

Less than a year after launching their technology, Rapp’s and Chaney’s company controlled about a quarter of the cars listed on eBay — CARad.com was selling $30K, $40K, and $50K cars, meaning a tiny Texas startup represented a vast volume of eBay’s gross merchandise sales. For fairly obvious strategic reasons, the Silicon Valley giant practically had to buy out Rapp and Chaney to guarantee that eBay’s financial destiny remained squarely in the hands of Meg Whitman and Co.

“That kind of put us in a position to where we could come back and help our brothers in blue and also give us an opportunity to really improve the profession we absolutely love doing,” Rapp, who is Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer for COPsync, told PoliceOne in an exclusive interview.

“Like I said, that set us up to where we could pretty well do what we wanted to do, but law enforcement is our profession and we wanted to improve the profession,” Rapp said.

“During the build of that company, there was a Texas trooper who made a traffic stop on a 72-year-old man for a seat belt violation. Twenty-two seconds into the traffic stop, Trooper Randall Vetter lay on the ground fatally shot. That particular trooper worked in our county. I had dispatched the trooper for several years and worked with him out on the roads for several years. So of course working together, you develop that bond and that friendship...”

Recall that this 72-year-old suspect had previously stated that he was going to kill a police officer. This information was captured in a local database because he had made a threat to an off duty officer. The off duty cop went back did a report, putting it in the system to be disseminated it among officers in that department and quite probably to officers with the other departments in that area. Rapp and his colleagues believe that if Trooper Vetter had access to that information, the incident could have turned out much differently.

“This trooper had recently transferred to that county and did not get that information, and there was no way to notify him of it. So we said ‘absolutely not — this cannot happen ever again we need to do our best to keep that from happening’. It was a tragic situation and our way of coping with it was to develop something that would keep it from happening in the future.”

After spending 18 months on research and development, COPsync was launched in April, 2004.

How it Works
Rapp says that the whole premise behind COPsync was to build an officer safety notification system. He says that in doing the research to accomplish that, his team discovered a need to work with lots of other technology vendors. Unfortunately, he says, most law enforcement systems in this space are very, very proprietary.

“They don’t play well together and it causes issues amongst law enforcement agencies, so from day one we took a position that we will always remain neutral. We said, ‘let’s build for the mobile environment; let’s actually provide it to the guys that are riding around in the patrol car.’ And that meant we had to be hardware agnostic, vendor agnostic, and to be honest with you I could almost venture to say that we are technology agnostic. What I mean by that is, we built our technology from the foundation up to work with any possible system that is out there.”

“So you’re talking all sorts of database types — SQL [Structured Query Language], Unix, Oracle, Informix, you-name-it, we should be able to push data back to those databases. We’re working with systems that are written in many different languages. “We can transfer data using several different formats, as needed by third party vendors, including simple comma or tab delimited flat files, or XML based formats that comply with the Department of Justice’s GJXDM [Global Justice XML Data Model].”

So much for the “back end” technology that makes it go — what does the cop in the squad car or dispatcher sitting at a desk in the station see?  What tools does it put in the hands of law enforcement officers?

COPsync is primarily used with touch-screen laptops. The technology team listened to many officers in the field and from that feedback knew that the most useful way to utilize the software would be to just touch a button on the screen to navigate around and to enter keyboard strokes like license plate numbers, suspect names, etc. The buttons are very simple and easy to use. If you want to run a vehicle registration, you just hit the button that says 'Registration.' If you’re looking to do an 'Offense Report,' you hit the button that has offense report on it. 

In the instance where you’re not looking at a menu of buttons, the interface presents information in a large, easily-readable font. In addition to the “at-a-glance” usability of the visual display, the system also “speaks” to the officer. But unlike most computer voices, this one is not an irritation or a distraction — the technology here could easily have been the system’s downfall but the engineers and developers clearly had the eyes AND EARS of the street cop at the tops of their minds.

Speaking of himself and partner Chaney, Rapp explains, “We’re both still active officers in the state but we didn’t know everything there was to know about law enforcement, so we actually brought some consultants. We brought in a veteran of the Texas Highway Patrol, brought in a veteran of the La Port Police Department, and then we brought in a criminal district attorney as well as a reserve deputy sheriff.  That way we could kind of cover the whole gamut from an officer’s perspective.”

In addition to some of the more basic features provided in the COPsync solution (such as secure, private Instant Messenger and e-mail), there are many reports and other functions that can be accessed from a rack-mounted laptop in the squad car that’s running COPsync. There is a comprehensive breakdown of features on the COPsync Web site but just a few examples of the system’s capabilities are:

• The COPsync e-Citation module, which was “created to provide a simplified, time saving method of capturing citations real-time in an electronic format.” The company says that “capturing this data electronically allows for immediate transmission of the citation data, making it visible to other officers immediately.”

• The COPsync Crash Report Builder, which provides a “standardized interface for completing state mandated crash reports.” The company says that states with Crash Reporting Bureaus which are equipped with “electronic submission capabilities, the information can be electronically transmitted to the bureau immediately upon completion and agency approval of the report.”

• The COPsync DUI/DWI reporting module, which collects information about all people associated with the case including the driver, other occupants of the vehicle, witnesses, etc. The company says that “information obtained from scanning the Driver's Licenses is used to auto-populate not only the DUI/DWI report, but also citations, vehicle tow sheets, jail forms, court required complaints, offense reports, government (local, state, and federal) mandated forms, and more.”

• The COPsync Law Reference Library module “houses a complete set of state-specific statutes and traffic laws, with enhanced and simplified query capabilities.” The company says that “officers are frequently asked by citizens about certain laws; even as simple as what type of restraint their child is required to have. The Law Reference dramatically simplifies finding these answers.”

One of the most impressive capabilities, however, goes right back to officer safety. If at any time an officer enters information on a subject who has a BOLO, an arrest warrant, or any history of violence against an officer included in the system records, a subtle but unmistakable audible tone is emitted within the squad car. It’s enough sound to alert the officer, but not enough to be heard by the subject outside, and it’s sheer genius. If you (or your kids) play video games, think about the sound you hear when an enemy fighter has “missile-lock” on a player, and you get a pretty good idea of the type of sound we’re talking about.

Furthermore, as soon as that audible tone and visual alert happen in the squad on the scene, the system automatically transmits an officer safety alert to all COPsync-equipped patrol cars within a 50 mile radius regardless of their jurisdiction.

“As you know across the Unites States there are many places where a Sherriff’s Deputy may be patrolling and his closest backup may be a city police officer or a state officer,” Rapp explains. “So we made it to where it will even cross jurisdictions. Basically we just want to get somebody there as fast as we can. And so the system can go out within that 50 mile radius and notify those other units.”

The Future
Rapp concludes, “There are three pillars that we look at now. Once the product was developed we kind of honed in and this was our focus: Officer safety being number one, information-sharing being number two and officer efficiency being number three. So by collecting all the data in a standardized format we now share that data across any agency that’s on the COPSync system as well as if they use our mobile piece we will push it to their records, their jail, and/or their court system.”

The company and its technology have evolved over the years, and the COPsync team continues to innovate. Many of those innovations come from the interactions that Rapp and his colleagues have on a daily basis with cops on the streets.

“We recently received a phone call from Chief Deputy Kurt Fisher in Rains County, Texas. They had an officer who basically went into distress — they couldn’t raise him on the radio and they couldn’t raise him on the cell phone. Basically he’s missing in action. No radio contact, no cell phone contact. They were able to use the COPsync system to know exactly where he was through our AVL and GPS capabilities, and actually get an officer to his location. One of the new things that’s coming out in the next release of the product — if you’re familiar with the etone button that’s on radios you’ll know what I mean — COPsync as a result of this particular situation will now have an officer-initiated etone-like button. If he does go into distress he can hit that button and it takes care of business, and he knows that help’s on the way. A panic button if, you will.”

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