Aug 95

Level of Govt: State

Function: Criminal Justice

Problem/situation: Jammed police communication lines.

Solution: A digital radio network and PCs in patrol cars.

Jurisdiction: State of Washington.

Vendors: IBM, WordPerfect.

Contact: Trooper Mark Soper 206/972-3549 (patrol car) 206/464-6317.

By David Aden

Contributing Writer

A two-car accident on the expressway, a tire changer blocking an exit ramp, a delivery truck stretching across a downtown thoroughfare, a driver pulled over for expired registration, a possible stolen car pulled over for running a red light, three illegally parked cars that need to be towed, a group of teenagers harassing shoppers near the mall and two reports of drunk and disorderly.

Is this the story schedule for a week's worth of "Stories of the Highway Patrol"? No - more like a few minutes of rush hour in a typical major U.S. city.

If this scenario were real, each of these individual incidents would have to be assigned to an officer. Each officer might require access to information stored on local, state or national computer systems such as driver's licenses, outstanding arrest warrants, missing person reports, stolen vehicle reports, prior records, etc. Each requires some kind of incident or arrest report. Some may require that information be sent to the courts, to probation, to federal authorities, or to missing persons bureaus.

In short, each law enforcement task in the real world is reflected in administrative tasks in the world of information and reports.

Traditionally, much of the information flow from front-line officers to computer-based information has been through a dispatch center via two-way radio or car-based dumb terminals through which officers log onto centralized mainframes or mini-computers. When rush hour or other busy periods hit, dispatch radio traffic can begin to jam, raising stress levels for the front-line officers and the communications officers responsible for keeping the flow of information smooth.


The Washington State Patrol (WSP) first became interested in easing the load on the dispatch radio network by implementing a digital radio network prior to 1984, but things began moving more quickly in 1987. "Seattle being the metro area, our radio traffic was saturated," said Trooper Mark Soper, who has worked on the digital network since 1987. "Calls for service were clogging the network and they wanted to be able to free up some of the air time so they could do more driver checks, license checks, etc."

Grants were secured to do a test project which ran for about 18 months, and the results were taken to the Legislature. Based on the pilot, funds were allocated for the development and installation of 270 patrol-car-based units in three counties plus the central processing structure to support them. This represented the first of a three-phase plan aimed at developing and installing a digital radio network that would put PCs in patrol cars statewide, give troopers access to important state and federal databases and reduce paperwork by putting many reports and forms online. The network - dubbed the Mobile Computer Network (MCN) - is nearing the end of the first phase.

Currently, troopers can use the system to make data inquires on licenses, "check wants" (check if the person is wanted), and car plates. The system interfaces with several major statewide and national crime databases, all without intervention by communications officers, and without tying up bandwidth needed for vital radio traffic. The system also allows for car-to-car messaging so troopers can communicate directly to each other without having to go through the communications officer.


The basic patrol car set up consists of a laptop PC which slides into a docking station mounted near the dash. The

David Aden  | 
David Aden is a writer from Washington, D.C.