Police tech: How cops use IT to catch bad guys

Videos demonstrate high-tech gear police officers use to fight crime and promote public safety

Ever wonder what that cop is doing in his cruiser that's parked behind your car with lights flashing -- while your heart is pounding and you're searching for your license and registration?

Off. Ed Burman demonstrates the Framingham Police Department's in-cruiser system for checking license plates and instant messaging among cars.

Most likely, he's researching you on his laptop, and finding a surprisingly large amount of information.

According to Lt. Paul Shastany of the Framingham, Mass., Police Department (FPD), laptops in the unit's 24 patrol cars are the most important recent technology innovation that aids police work.

"We will immediately retrieve information about license status of people we stop for violations, as well as 'wanted' status," Shastany says. "We're able to locate more wanted and missing persons because of the laptops in the cruisers." And much more information is available to patrol officers -- more on that later.

Technology does come at a price, though. Forget the futuristic lab layouts and flashy tech devices you see in all the CSI TV shows and other crime dramas. In real life, police make do with what cash-strapped municipal governments can spare, which often isn't much.

As Off. Ed Burman says, "You figure your average town-meeting member [says], 'Let's just cut the budget. We'll cut the technology budget. What do they need technology for?' They just want to see a police officer in a car out in the street; they don't realize what else you need to do, behind the scenes."

"Cost-effective" is a term Burman uses a lot when describing the department's use of technology, but with creativity, grants and donations, the FPD does a surprisingly good job of using what's available to perform its duties. The department has 121 sworn officers and 11 civilian support personnel, with an annual budget of about $11 million.

Until last summer, Burman says, the department was actually running its IT department on two old Alpha servers from the former Digital Equipment Corp. "When they were purchased in 1992, they were designed for five years," he says.

But with the help of a $150,000 upgrade, FPD officers now have an amazing amount of information at their fingertips.

It starts in the patrol cars, which are all equipped with Panasonic Toughbook laptops. With the help of applications from vendor Keystone Information Systems, officers can research suspects and transmit reports from the laptops back to headquarters.

Off. Ed Burman of the Framingham Police Department explains how cruiser laptops transmit reports to police headquarters.

Framingham is in the process of implementing a townwide Wi-Fi mesh network so patrol cars can be online at all times. But for now, officers fill out reports and drive to a Wi-Fi hot spot to transmit their data via a virtual private network. Burman says the department uses radio frequency rather than cellular technology, to eliminate recurring monthly costs.

When online, all officers in patrol cars can see at a glance where all other cruisers are and what they're doing. Burman notes that this is extremely important for officer safety.

Some of the more common duties of patrol officers, of course, are traffic stops and checking motor vehicle license plates. The officers have instant access to insurance information, stolen car reports, car inspection details and any outstanding warrants. And they can even pull up the driver's license photo of the driver. Shastany says an officer recently pulled up a driver's license photo and found it didn't match the person in the car, proving that the driver was lying about his identity.

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