Amesbury, Mass., is a small residential town located on the New Hampshire border about 35 miles from Boston. But unlike the typical picture of a quiet village, Amesbury is on two major highways carrying traffic to coastal areas. This brings a mobile population, and a higher crime rate. So Amesbury, to help fight crime, began using some advanced information technology.
"We want to be a pro-active rather than reactive police department," said Police Chief Gary Ingham. He said the department has been able "to create a more active work atmosphere, and increase the ability of the officer in terms of safety, productivity and efficiency."
In 1994, the town appropriated $43,000 to equip four police cars with Compaq laptop computers running the PacketCluster system, a new technology from Cerulean Technology of Marlborough, Mass. A year later, after receiving numerous benefits from the system, town officials appropriated another $25,000 to equip the remaining four cars. The system has since paid for itself through an increase in fines, and increased officer safety. "It is incredible, it has changed the way we do things drastically," said Officer Bill Scholtz.
INFORMATION ON DEMAND
Amesbury's 24 full-time officers can punch license numbers into their laptop computers, and -- through a national network of motor vehicle and criminal history databases -- can locate drivers with outstanding warrants, expired or suspended licenses and many other things.
Scholtz said that when running a license number, the computer signals a "hit" -- or match with some item on the database -- with an audible alarm. "It ... puts information at our fingertips," he said, "it puts the officers in control."
The new system also improves officer safety. "Even though there is always the unexpected, the system gives us valuable information about the driver's history, so by the time we get out of the car, we know if we need to be extra cautious," said Scholtz.
The officers are now able to run their own searches without needing a dispatcher's help. "Before we had the computers, the only way we could find out if a person had a license or if there were any warrants for them was to go over the radio to the dispatcher," said Scholtz. "The dispatcher had to write all the information down and type it into the in-house computer and then radio it back to us. Sometimes it could take quite a long time, 10 to 20 minutes."
Rather than using open radio communications, police officers use their computers to communicate with each other via e-mail. Encryption makes digital transmission more secure than traditional radio communications. This way, criminals are not able to monitor police voice traffic.
According to Scholtz, during the last couple of years the department has not encountered any major problem with their system, and it's meeting his expectations. "It makes it almost fun, you go out and see what you can find just using the computer," said Scholtz, "to run things that don't seem right."
Even though the system has been in use for only two and one-half years, Amesbury has seen great results. "Our warrant arrests alone have doubled since we began using the system, and on our last trip to the motor vehicle registry we turned in over 100 licenses that were revoked," said Officer Tom Hanshaw.
Because of the system's flexibility and ease of use, it has been received very positively by the officers. Scholtz said even the "old-timers" like it. "They all use it and see that it is an advantage to have it out there."
Today, car thieves, wanted felons, uninsured motorists and others who once could breeze through small towns with impunity, may begin to think twice and keep an eye on the rear-view mirror. Today, even small town cops can have big-city information.