Recently, I walked around a historical museum for the Phoenix (Ariz.) Fire Department and perused the various items on display. There was a section dedicated to early vehicle communications equipment. A dusty old mobile computer terminal (MCT) sitting on a shelf caught my eye—it reminded me of the one I used for the first time in San Diego in the early 90s. With its tiny screen that only spit out data in orange lines, a rudimentary keyboard and a few push buttons, it was cutting edge back then and also a reminder of just how far things have come since. Other than maybe Lo Jack, having a MCT was about all that was ever available, and only if you were fortunate to work for a big enough department.
More interesting is that, despite nearly 20 years of massive technology advances in patrol vehicle technologies, there are still many departments that don’t even have access to information that my old MCT did from inside the vehicle. That’s a shame because, while the needs of departments vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, one thing that never changes is the value of useful information to the officer in real-time.
For departments looking to create a “command center” from the seat of the patrol vehicle, the opportunity has never been better. Here’s a look at some core in-vehicle products to assist officers
on the job.
License Plate Recognition (LPR) has been in the U.S. for many years. It’s a proven technology that combines the computerized process of vehicle registration checks with the physical presence of the officer and police vehicle in a seamless manner. The “second set” of eyes provided by LPR, coupled with immediate and constant access to data streams via an MCT setup, increases the detection of criminal behavior and violator apprehension.
It’s also an officer safety enhancement for several reasons. First, the system is automatically checking plates, which allows the officer to keep their eyes on the road. Second, it identifies violators and provides significant information about the vehicle and potential intentions of its occupants so that officers can be prepared prior to initiating a traffic stop. This is especially critical when identifying stolen vehicles, AMBER alerts and other wanted vehicles. LPR also timestamps as it checks plates, which can be beneficial for investigative purposes when determining where a vehicle of interest may or may not have been in a given place at a given time.
LPR comes in several configurations, depending on your needs. Setups are available in fixed, portable and lightbar-mounted configurations from companies such as Autovu, Data 911, Elsag, NDI, PIPS, PlateSmart, Vigilant Solutions, and others.
Radar & Lidar
Radar has been around for a long time, and the basic principal of its operation hasn’t changed. What has changed is its size and functionality, as well as its integration with video and MCT configurations. No more hefty units that take up half the dash with thick wires running all over the car. Setups like this were not only a potential safety hazard in a collision, they also had a very basic operation.
Today’s typical radar control unit isn’t much bigger than a small notebook or a deck of cards. Add in the ability to have two radar antennas units that are compact to mount just about anywhere, plus operate independently of one another, and radar has been really pushed to the highest level of performance.
As an example, Stalker’s 2X model (size of a thick e-book reader) offers a dual-zone mode, direction sensing technology, automatic same-direction tracking, stationary direction control (closing, going away or both), rear traffic warning, a read-through lock, a cordless infrared remote, compensated true audio doppler, a digital antenna, a waterproof Ka-Band antenna, a small detachable display unit and computer/video interface. That’s an amazing amount of flexibility for officers. These types of features can maximize radar enforcement productivity.
Lidar is another technology regularly used by LE agencies. It offers precise detection when conducting traffic enforcement in a stationary mode. Some feature a laser ranging system that can detect speeds as far as 7,000 feet away with accuracy within one foot. Advantages of being a handheld device include vehicle-independent operation and capturing speed readings from multiple directions and angles. Lidar also features a “read” time of less than half a second and “crosshairs” or “red dot” in the viewfinder that clearly identify the violator vehicle.
Lidar is a fairly new technology. But in conversations with officers who use them, lidar makes their job significantly more productive and efficient. Best of all, as a supervisor or fleet purchaser, you don’t need to put one in every car. Instead, delegate them to specific officers. And, as officers, you don’t have to wait until your patrol vehicle has one installed—you can just get trained, grab and go. Overall, lidar provides results that are hard to dispute—which can be helpful in court.
Mobile Computer Terminals
The MCT is the heart of today’s vehicle’s data control network. Just about every piece of information-gathering equipment out there is designed to integrate with the MCT hub. Since there’s so much information and so many models in the marketplace, it would be impossible to identify the capabilities of each and every new model.
However, it’s important to understand that there are two aspects to MCT integration: the hardware and the software. With hardware, the choices come down to a hardwired system or a portable laptop or tablet. It really depends on the type of work your officers or you will do. With software, today’s MCTs offer GPS mapping, a bevy of information portals and dispatch connectivity, among other things. The MCT can also function as a report-writing tool as well as a video and audio management system. For example, the Hub-Data M6 Mobile Digital Computer allows departments to integrate the company’s Mobile Data Video unit directly for video capture, storage and wireless uploading with hard drive capacities of more than 1.5 terabytes, something unheard of just a few years ago.
Another innovative direction for future MCTs is the use of existing computer systems in modern passenger vehicles. Example: Chrysler is currently working with the LAPD to integrate their consumer U-Connect Touch infotainment system with the MCT operations normally associated with stand-alone computers. The test configuration features a much larger than factory (12.1- vs. 8.1-inch) screen that the LAPD hopes to integrate many of its traditional MCT operations into. Although the verdict is still out on this, it shows that the integration of highly sophisticated and powerful manufacturer-created data systems is becoming a reality.
In-car video is a bit of a misnomer these days because the technology has come so far since the days when I used to stick a clunky VHS tape into my system located in the back of my trunk. Now, with the ability to put a camera just about anywhere, more solutions are available to record every aspect of the officer’s day. The ability to accurately record the events of a traffic stop, pursuit, arrest, field sobriety evaluation, prisoner transport, combative subject and other opportunities makes it invaluable in court, report writing and for recalling and reviewing incidents.
Video capture is part of everything from Lidar units to flashlights to shirt pockets to more traditional mountings in the car. As an example, WatchGuard offers direct-to-DVD systems, DVR systems that stream to secure servers wirelessly when the vehicle is in proximity and portable wearable video cameras with internal storage for instances like SWAT operations and traffic stops.
One big advancement is high-definition recording, which significantly increases the resolution and clarity rate. This, coupled with high-fidelity wireless microphone systems, means that events can be recorded in a manner previously unheard of. Many systems on the market also seamlessly integrate with MCTs for viewing and storage options. Pre-event recording is standard these days, a feature that can be critical to explain the unfolding of events that older cameras simply couldn’t capture.
Technology won’t replace the officer. But it will continue to help make our jobs easier and more productive, and, as supervisors, more efficient. We have come a long way since that worn MCT I saw sitting on the shelves at the museum that day, but that’s a good thing because modern day technology options are the best links ever in an information chain designed to keep officers productive and safe.