Mobile data terminals can mean instant information at your fingertips. Miami-Dade PD has dramatically expanded the in-field capabilities of officers with its program. Photo Courtesy Miami-Dade PD
In Baltimore, Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealfeld has sought to get more police in the field and out of their cruisers. The solution: Mobile data devices that empower the beat officer with data traditionally limited to car-mounted laptops. Photo Courtesy Baltimore PD
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It’s no longer astounding that an officer in a patrol car has the ability to receive a dispatch call or access a subject’s arrest record via computer. For most officers, this is common practice these days.
But how about the thought of a detective fingerprinting a murder victim on scene and learning his identity instantaneously? Or an officer in Arkansas finding a missing person hours after an Oklahoma department posted the report—does it sound too good to be true? Cutting-edge departments are pressing the boundaries of what’s possible with mobile data systems.
Mobile data systems—secure wireless Internet connections between laptops or smartphones and an agency’s central databases—aren’t new anymore. The capabilities of these systems are increasing every day, as agencies around the country come up with new ideas for harnessing the power of data, and then sharing that data with other agencies.
Perhaps the most common use of mobile data systems is to allow officers in the field to instantly access information in their agency’s database. Sometimes they’re able to access the databases of other agencies, as well. Example: An officer pulls over a speeder and instantaneously views all available records on the subject from the department’s records database to find out if there are any warrants, previous arrests or stops, verify identification and more. Some systems will automatically dump the subject’s information into a new record, such as an accident report, thus saving time and effort.
The size and scope of available data in the field is growing. “The biggest advantage of our system is the incredible amount of data that an officer can receive out on the side of the road,” says Matt Jackson, Technology Services Department of the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office. “The capacity has gone from an officer being able to check data on eight to 10 stops per shift, to up to 200 vehicle or person look-ups, because the capacity to do the checks is practically limitless. They can also do more data dissemination.”
In agencies such as the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office, every officer using the mobile data system can see every other officer who’s currently on the system. Because all law enforcement agencies within Oklahoma use the same mobile data system, all on-duty officers in the state can track each other and send real-time messages (like instant messages) to each other, regardless of their location or department. This can tremendously speed up the search for a particular suspect or vehicle.
Having all data available to all patrol cars and even officers on foot in real-time can move some tasks into high gear—such as solving missing person reports and finding high-alert suspects. For example, Jackson says, “The shared data has helped us track down a sex offender within 24 hours. Before, we wouldn’t have had the means to find him so quickly.”
Data at Your Fingertips—Even on Foot
Mobile data systems are also available for smartphones, allowing officers the flexibility of accessing the same data without being stuck in or near a patrol car.
The Baltimore Police Department has equipped 600 beat officers with Blackberries connected to a mobile data system, and it plans to equip 2,000 more. “Our police commissioner has said he wants to get officers out of their vehicles and on the street,” explains Gayle Guilford, director of Mobile Information Services for the Baltimore Police Department.
The officers use their devices in the field to access such information as each day’s “priority warrants” and to verify subjects’ identities. It can also be used to access an individual’s records, including outstanding warrants and motor vehicle records—something they used to do by radio dispatch. Guilford estimates that switching to a mobile system saves each officer at least a half an hour per day retrieving data.
Data is retrieved in real-time from the department’s NCIC and motor vehicle records. “If an officer runs a check on someone, and it comes back with an open warrant, the system alerts not just the officer but the dispatcher and everyone else in the unit,” says Guilford. “Everyone can see right away that he’s got some potential trouble.”
Officers can also use their Blackberry’s camera and video camera to gather evidence on scene immediately, rather than waiting for forensics experts to arrive.
An added benefit for the department—and the officers—is a GPS application in each Blackberry that allows dispatchers and command officers to see where each officer is at all times and their availability to respond to a call. The agency plans to review this data to plan future deployments for large events, such as the Preakness horse race. The GPS also instantly pinpoints an officer in trouble: “As long as I can increase officers’ safety, I’m happy,” says Guilford. “Safety and access to information go hand in hand. If you don’t know who you’re dealing with, you’re in danger.”
The Miami-Dade Police Department is breaking new ground by using mobile data for instant identification. The agency has 13 mobile data devices that are smartphones attached to a small fingerprint scanner. All of the devices access the department’s local database, and three are also hooked into the Florida Rapid Identification System.
“We’ve had mobile data since January 2007. We implemented it for the Super Bowl and had it at the command post there,” says Glen Calhoun, superintendent of the department’s Fingerprint Identification Section.
“We use them for our specialized units, like robbery intervention detail or prostitution—situations where people don’t have an ID,” Calhoun explains. “The officer can scan a fingerprint, send it to the database and get identification in real-time. Prints are run through the local database and, if the subject has ever been arrested, a match will be found.”
The benefits are immediate: “This really saves officers a lot of time,” explains Calhoun. “Dade County covers a large area, and not having to drive to collect the identification can save them two hours sometimes.”
Miami-Dade has begun to use the data devices to ID corpses. “We did an experiment with our medical examiners’ office and used the scanners on unidentified cadavers,” says Calhoun. “We weren’t sure it would work, but it was pretty accurate—it does pick up the ridge detail.”
Calhoun doesn’t know of any other department using mobile data for this purpose, but adds, “It really does have an application for the deceased.”
Calhoun speculates that the next big breakthrough in mobile ID technology will be facial recognition software followed by tattoo recognition software. In the meantime, his department hopes to begin sharing data with neighboring Broward and Palm Beach Counties. Although Miami-Dade’s database holds approximately 1.3 million records, expanding or sharing data among all three counties would allow officers to pull from roughly 3.8 million records. Calhoun envisions a future where his department and all other agencies in the area will be able to access information from federal databases through the Florida Rapid Identification System.
Data Across State Lines
Many agencies are beginning to discover the advantages of sharing data, even across state lines. The Fort Smith (Ark.) Police Department (FSPD) has partnered with the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Department, located just across the state line. Officers in both agencies use the same mobile data systems and can pull data from both agencies.
“We’ve set up a site-to-site VPN (virtual private network) between the two locations,” says Alvey Matlock, IT manager for the FSPD. “We call it I-40-CLES.” I-40 is the interstate that runs through both jurisdictions, and CLES stands for Corridor Law Enforcement Sharing.
“We originally wanted to share [records management system] information on bookings and active warrants,” says Matlock. “But we were intrigued by the results, even before we finished the testing period. We selected a few test subjects, and one of the first individuals we saw was a homeless vagrant who was a registered sex offender. He was arrested here, and then just nine days later he was arrested in Fort Smith.”
Matlock explains, “When an officer runs a check on a person, they’ll not only get any of our warrant or records information from our databases, they’ll get information from Oklahoma’s databases as well. They’ll see stuff that’s not generally found in our records—and they’ll see it all on one screen.”
The two departments now share data including most recent inquiries (MRI) and field interview cards. “We hope that we’ll be able to use this for drug interdiction,” says Matlock. “We can look for patterns that would eventually predict a drug route.”
The final phase of the Fort Smith-Oklahoma County partnership is waiting for upcoming releases of their mobile data devices and systems. Called C-Link, it will allow officers from either department to talk to each other over the system. “This will allow us to coordinate chases, events, etc., in real-time,” explains Matlock.
Testimonial from a Baltimore PD officer during the pilot phase of the department’s mobile data system, Side Partner:
“ In one instance, a person was detained for trespassing. The officers ran his name and found the person was indeed who he claimed and had no outstanding warrants. The officers were about to allow the man to depart when the officers noticed a group of children playing within 20 feet. The Side Partner had returned information that, although this individual was not wanted, he was a registered sex offender. The officers determined that his trespassing was in order to get closer to the children, and they arrested him for an offense they may have allowed him to get away with if they did not have the Side Partner.”
As you can see by these four agencies, mobile data systems have already revolutionized the daily work of many law officers. The future is sure to hold more changes, with broader data-sharing, new software advances and interagency communications on the streets and sidewalks of communities around the country.
Work with your IT department and the agencies around you to see if you can improve communications—between jurisdictions, data systems, dispatch and officers. Improved communications will lead to a more accurate picture of the challenge. What does this mean? Answer: Improved officer safety and more efficient policing.