LAW:Literally Arresting Wireless

While some in law enforcement have embraced mobile technology and wireless applications, others are feeling handcuffed by history and an unwillingness to change.

by / November 30, 1999
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.

Dumb Terminal

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 earmarked specifically for mobile and wireless technologies -- a lack of funds may be the primary roadblock to law enforcement being completely wired.

The COPS MORE grant program -- the primary funding vehicle for technological advancements in law enforcement for many years -- was structured so that generous grants were easy to land, and has certainly furthered the high-tech transformation in law enforcement. The problem, though, is that the grants program funds hardware and software, not "people-ware."

Most police and sheriff's departments struggle daily with putting enough officers on the street to combat crime directly and ensure a highly visible presence to the public. Back-office personnel, the records clerks, civilian management and information technology personnel necessary to keep a modern agency humming along, are situated far down the financial food chain when elected officials vote on annual department budgets.

Simply put, a police chief has a much better chance of getting money for two more sworn officers then he does for a single programmer. The grant money keeps coming in and departments keep launching new tech projects, but the same small team of IT professionals is expected to shoulder the load of increasingly complex implementations. It should come as little surprise that the projects often stutter and stall.

Scottsdale has a records management system (RMS), a wireless system, computer-aided dispatch and a laptop project all under way. "Every time a grant opportunity came up, someone applied and we got all of them. Ideally, we should have a separate project manager over each one. Instead, I run them all," Davis said.

What Davis didn't mention is that while running four or more major implementation projects, he also continues to act as the department's troubleshooter and help desk for all technologies, and the coordinator for the department's Y2K preparations and response team.

"We get by with temporary-duty (TDY) personnel mainly," said Karl Maracotta, a police officer and temporary-duty assignee in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Police Department's MIS department. Fort Lauderdale is shouldering a tech-implementation load similar to Scottsdale's. "It would help if we could at least get long-term TDYs but, mostly, they come and go."

A Living Legacy

Given the staffing load, it is a wonder many of these projects have made it to implementation. In fact, while it is more the rule than the exception to find officers with a laptop in their cars, the level of use varies widely.

In many departments, the computers act as little more than an MDT -- allowing for simple license-plate and name search engines through National Criminal Information Center and state databases.

In a few departments, the computer has the added capability of offering a redundant dispatch system, in which an officer receives a radio dispatch and a digital dispatch on the computer, and officers can also send car-to-car
messages. In a handful of departments, the officer can also write his reports in the field, saving numerous trips to the department headquarters.

In a very few departments, if any at all, that report goes directly into the department's RMS. And in none are officers regularly able to remotely access digital images, such as maps or mug shots. The main obstacle to this next generation of law enforcement technology is the legacy systems currently in place.

"The officers can do their reports in the field and they can wirelessly transmit those reports to the office," explained Sgt. Michael Gregory, who is in charge of Fort Lauderdale's technology projects. "But then they are printed out on the laser printer and records clerks enter the reports into the RMS."

Fort Lauderdale is striving toward having those reports move through a paperless approval process and straight into the RMS, but like many departments -- Scottsdale included -- there is no adequate translation technology to interface new report-writing systems with an old, closed architecture RMS. That next step of seamless data translation will have to wait until departments manage to replace their old RMS with modern, open-architecture systems compatible with their laptops and report-writing software.

"Right now, our officers print reports out in the office, using an infrared port. Eventually, the goal is to send it electronically," added Davis. "We just haven't been able to manage the data mapping necessary to get our report-writing system to communicate with the RMS."

As for the transmission of highly complex data over the wireless networks, the challenge is even more daunting.

"About 13 years ago, Scottsdale invested in a new, multimillion-dollar wireless infrastructure for dispatching and radio communications. That system is now also the backbone for our wireless laptop communications," explained Davis. "The transmission rate on the system is 4,800 baud and if we tried to send huge amounts of data -- like maps or photographs -- it would just clog and stop. But covering the expense to replace the system is something that is quite a ways off yet."

CDPD Solution

For some departments, the solution to overloaded radio networks has been to turn to cellular digital packet data (CDPD) technology. CDPD offers several distinct solutions for law enforcement and a low entry cost, but it also can be a tough political sell.

"You just pay for your modems and pay a monthly fee," said Sgt. Jeff Pauley of the Maryland-National Capital Park Police and a strong CDPD advocate. "On top of that, there are zero maintenance costs; the transmission rate is consistently fast -- easily able to support graphical data; and it provides a redundant back-up to your traditional radio dispatch system."

Still, for a lot of departments, especially in lightly populated states, there is just not sufficient private tower coverage to support CDPD. In those that have the coverage but still shy away from CDPD, it is often because the department is reluctant to develop a reliance on a privately-owned network over which they exercise no control and where the cost is ongoing. For CDPD advocates, however, these objections hold little water.

"Wireless radio networks cost millions. If you build it and find out you have a blank spot in your coverage, you pony up another bucket of money to build an extra tower," said Pauley. "If I have a blank spot, I just complain to the provider and they put up the tower out of their pocket. When technology advances, who pays to upgrade the network? They do. No more getting trapped by a legacy system that becomes outdated.

"For 10 years or less use, a private CDPD network subscription is more cost-effective than a publicly owned wireless radio network," Pauley said. "What we have seen is that the effective life of any network, given the pace of technological change, is certainly 10 years or less, so we chose CDPD."

We Shall Overcome

Despite the obstacles, local law enforcement continues to move forward into a wireless world. Florida, with its statewide criminal justice intranet (CJ-Net), built and maintained by the state's Department of Law Enforcement, is surfing on the crest of the wave. Over this backbone, local agencies have access to each other's criminal-history and graphical databases through Web-browser technology. Other states, like Kansas, have built or are in the process of building similar networks.

"The state pays for it, maintains it and provides the backbone free to us -- that is the key," said Monroe County's Armstrong. "We use the backbone to get into Miami-Dade's criminal history [database], because a lot of our criminal traffic comes from there -- and Key West uses our mug-shot and criminal-history data. In addition, we wrote a line-up program in-house that resides on our server and is available to any agency in the state over CJ-Net."

Perhaps Jonathan Zittrain, executive director of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, summed up the sometimes glacier-like process best when he observed: "Government has not moved into the digital age as quickly as private industry. Sometimes, it is a question of money; sometimes, the lack of the profit motive to spur faster change. But it is always moving. I wouldn't take the fact that the justice community's early steps have been particularly fitful to mean government will always be in the technological swamp. Remember, the Internet is only 4 to 5 years old and it has already changed the world; and we haven't seen anything yet."

Justice and Technology Editor Ray Dussault is also a research director for the Law Enforcement Technology Acquisition Project. E-mail