In 1995, Will Davis, police planning manager for the Scottsdale Police Department in Arizona, hunched over his computer and wrote a paper titled "Mobile Technology 101." While typing, Davis imagined how the application of burgeoning mobile technologies would change law enforcement before the rollover into the new millennium.
Surely it did not take much imagination to see that police officers would soon see their jobs transformed through the advent of mobile technology. However, in the five years that have passed, the use of mobile technology -- coupled with the power of wireless communications -- in law enforcement has failed to live up to its promise. True, hundreds of agencies nationwide have rolled out a startling array of laptop computers into their patrol cars. But, in many cases, the computer's power is barely tapped.
"Ideally, the patrol officer should be able to access crime maps, street maps and incident reports. They should be able to make queries from their laptops for license-plate, drivers'-license and criminal-history data, and they should have car-to-car messaging and vehicle locators that show them where fellow officers are at any given moment," said Davis. "This is where I thought we were heading five years ago, and it is still where we are heading today. But it has taken longer to get there than I expected."
That sentiment is echoed throughout departments nationwide. Few law enforcement professionals dispute the validity of the mobile-technology vision, yet the vision has remained elusive. The reasons are myriad -- everything from money, or lack thereof, to legacy systems has played a part in slowing progress toward the ideal mobile-patrol office.
The first mobile radios were installed in black-and-whites in 1936, and by the 1980s many patrol cars were utilizing mobile-data terminals. These mobile-data terminals (MDTs), often referred to as "dumb terminals," were green-screen technology with limited capabilities. Used by other public safety agencies -- like paramedics, ambulance companies and fire departments -- they primarily allowed for visual dispatching over radio networks. In most cases, the actual dispatch came both by voice and data because of the normally unreliable nature of the early MDTs.
Still, a working MDT allowed the user to refer to the dispatch address and to see where other units were going. For law enforcement, it was also the first effort at running tag and other basic data checks on suspects though, again, most officers continued to rely on the dispatcher for information.
"We have no 'dumb terminals' anymore," said a jubilant Davis, conveying the news that all of Scottsdale's MDTs had been replaced with fully functional Panasonic laptop computers. With 130 laptops in the field, it is a goal to be proud of, but this technology advocate is quick to note that the road has been long and difficult. "It has taken us years to get rid of the MDTs, and we are still not using the laptops the way we would like to."
In fact, some agencies point to the years of MDT history as being one factor in limiting law enforcement's full use of mobile computers.
"Those MDTs were around for a long, long time, and it has affected the veteran officer's perception of what technology can do," said Terry Armstrong, director of information management of the Monroe County, Fla., Sheriff's Department. Armstrong, who has been testing mobile computers in the Sheriff's Department since 1996, said he felt fortunate to have started with a clean slate. "We never had mobile computers until 1996, so the officers are open to playing with them and seeing what they can do."
Dollars for Tech Geeks
There is a certain sense of irony in realizing that in a decade when the Department of Justice has thrown billions of dollars at state and local law enforcement -- much of it