Toughbooks and cellular network increase police safety, productivity

Alexandria, Va., police force finds benefits ranging from reduced radio traffic to better information about possible dangerous traffic stops

"Mobile computing" usually summons visions of traveling business executives using laptops on airplanes or answering e-mail on their smart phones at intermission at a concert. But the Alexandria, Va., Police Department has taken the concept a step further, combining Panasonic Toughbooks and Verizon Wireless to turn its cruisers into mobile endpoints of its data network.

This allows the department to deliver more and better information to police on patrol, increase their personal safety and relieve them of some of their paperwork burden, making them more efficient. And while this is to some extent an extreme example of data networking, much of it can be applied to any organization that maintains a population of mobile employees.

Alexandria picked the Toughbooks -- after trying out alternatives -- as the perfect solution for the demands of police work, says Sgt. Jim Craige, head of the department's Tactical Computer System. "Commercial laptops have a lot of failures in police work, and I don't have the budget or the manpower to deal with that. This unit is tough." It needs to be. In an accident, it needs to survive a 200 mph air bag impact.

Not only are they armored so that when closed they resemble a small aluminum suitcase, complete with built-in handle, but inside the major components are cushioned to survive the constant shaking of riding in a police vehicle -- or, for that matter, a tank. They even have heaters to warm up their hard drives on cold mornings after a night in the cruiser. They have survived being thrown into a cruiser while running, being bumped around, even sliding off the trunk of the car onto the pavement. And their display is bright and readable in all lighting conditions, from total darkness to full sunlight, where most displays fade out.

In the cruiser, they clip securely onto a custom-made podium between the driver's and front passenger's seats and can swivel to face either seat. This secure mount is important, Craige says, because in a sudden stop or crash an unattached laptop becomes a potentially deadly missile. The Toughbooks have built-in Verizon cellular modems, and the podium connects them to an external cellular antenna mounted on the cruiser, although they also have built-in, extendable antennas on their cases. They also have built-in Wi-Fi, although Alexandria doesn't use that at this time.

They also feature touch screens, which the police department has put to good use by adding a column of buttons, sized for a finger tap, for common actions. "When an officer gets a call, instead of acknowledging over the radio, all he has to do is tap the 'acknowledge' button on the screen, for instance," Craige says.

And while that original call still comes over the radio, dispatch switches to the data network to send all the supporting information such as names and locations directly to be displayed on the officer's Toughbook. In some cases, the initial dispatch is the only information about the incident that goes out on the radio. This can prevent traffic accidents.

"Driving is distracting enough, particularly when you are responding to an emergency in traffic," Craige says. "Now we don't have to write stuff down and talk into the microphone while we drive. I used to write information down on my hand. Now I just glance at the screen."

This has reduced radio traffic by more than 50%, making the radio more available for emergencies while increasing privacy and security. While anyone with a police-band radio, including criminals, can listen into the dispatch radio, the cellular transmission is by its nature much more difficult to intercept. And to make that harder, the police traffic runs over a private part of Verizon's network. And if you do capture the right packets, they are encrypted.

Back at headquarters, the system automatically captures a time-stamped record of each item and acknowledgment sent and each message from each officer involved, creating a detailed record of what each officer involved did that becomes part of the case record. "Months later, we can see exactly what happened," Craige says. This automates much of the report generation on the front end and creates a detailed record to support the investigation that may become important when the case comes to trial.

Outside the cruiser, the Toughbook becomes the officer's constant tool and companion, as integral to his life as his badge and gun. It holds electronic copies of all the forms he needs and a complete copy of the Virginia statutes and Alexandria Police Procedures. He can use it anywhere and capture the information from his investigations directly into the correct forms. That information then immediately goes to the police database, where it is added to the electronic case file. This leads to more complete and more accurate information while eliminating lost or misfiled reports and handwriting legibility issues.

It also greatly speeds the distribution of information. For instance, an officer investigating a store robbery can send out a suspect's description, including a surveillance camera photo that can be distributed to all other patrols immediately, possibly allowing another patrol to apprehend the suspect within minutes.

It also has greatly speeded up the process of checking automobile license numbers. "Before we had the network, I might call in one or two tags a patrol, the process was just too slow and took too long to get an answer to be worthwhile most of the time," Craige says. Now officers type tag numbers directly against a database of auto registrations.

"I have the information before the car stops," Craige says. So he knows who owns the vehicle, whether it has outstanding tickets, and whether was reported stolen or has been involved in violent incidents, which can warn him to use extra caution. Police consider traffic stops to be a hazardous activity. Officers have been shot during "routine" traffic stops. And because it is now so easy, officers run many more plates per shift, increasing the likelihood that they will identify wanted vehicles.

When it is not otherwise occupied, the Toughbook displays the 50 latest warrants. "Officers used to have to go through the paper warrants at the start of their shifts and make notes," Craige says. "Now they have them with them, so they can know to watch for those individuals as they patrol. In some cases, the suspect may not know about the warrant yet, so he won't be on alert for us."

The Toughbook also displays a list of houses to check, areas of recent suspicious activity and other key locations in the officer's patrol area. As he checks each, he can mark it and add notes, which are then passed on to the next officer coming on that patrol at shift change. That used to be another paper form.

The idea is to bring data collection as close to the incident as possible both in terms of time and distance and make that information available universally inside the organization as quickly as possible.

"Now we can do the report right on the [victim's] kitchen table," Craige says. "That lets us get narrative information -- why and how the incident happened -- along with the usual who, what and where. That can help us solve the crime and later get the conviction. Once we have a suspect's name, we can look up his associates, case reports, notes on his general character and methodology, as well as his address and description. That can be very helpful."

Bert Latamore is a journalist with 10 years' experience in daily newspapers and 25 in the computer industry. He has written for several computer industry and consumer publications. He lives in Linden, Va., with his wife, two parrots and a cat.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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