The New York metropolitan area contains nearly 20 million people, many of whom own and drive automobiles. On a typical day, more than 1 million cars line the streets and fill the parking lots of New York City. As the number of vehicles and vehicle-related violations increase, law enforcement has been hard-pressed to keep up, especially since Sheriff's Office personnel has been reduced 50 percent since 1985. Last year, unpaid parking tickets exceeded $1 billion per year. More than 100,000 vehicles were stolen, but only about one-third were eventually recovered.

Until 1988, the city provided each parking enforcement staff member with a book of license plate numbers several hundred pages long. Enforcement personnel would look up license plates to identify stolen vehicles or parking scofflaws. The books were printed and distributed weekly.

Eight years ago, in an attempt to automate the clumsy hard-copy system, the city purchased mobile data terminals (MDTs), which made accessing the information quicker and more reliable. Staff typed license plate numbers into MDTs in their patrol cars. This accessed a database maintained by American Management Systems (AMS) in Texas, and took less than a minute to verify if the car was towable. "This is precisely the benefit of an electronic inquiry," said Peter Talamo, undersheriff, NYC Sheriff's Office. "It can sort through the records at tremendous speed, instead of someone with very thick fingers looking through a book."

However, air time was expensive. "Here in New York City it is absolutely difficult to get radio frequencies," said Talamo. "Some outlying or more rural areas probably can operate with low frequency radio waves, but here in the city, it's very difficult." In addition, the Sheriff's Office paid charges for every inquiry, whether or not the car was towable. Only one out of every 200 vehicles checked was found eligible, so 99 percent of the $2 million-per-year access charges were wasted.

You do the math.

TOWIT

As the city looked for a way to reduce communication costs, recover more stolen vehicles and increase parking violation revenues, it wanted a more portable way of checking licenses. With MDTs, deputies drove down streets slowly and covered less territory than they would otherwise. They also needed devices that would work well near water, surrounded by buildings or in tunnels. What the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) found was a small, palm-sized solution called TOWIT.

TOWIT (TOW eligibility Interrogation Terminal), a palmtop PC-based system, locates vehicles previously reported stolen or with $230 or more of unpaid parking tickets. The deputy enters a suspect license number into the palmtop, where it is compared with a database of towable plates. The database is self-contained, so no radio frequency charges are incurred. If the palmtop finds a match, it beeps instantly, and the officer uses the MDT system to obtain more information. The palmtop's 16MB database is refreshed once a week with current information. This saves 99 percent of the formerly wasted radio frequency access charges. Plus, the one-minute wait time per entry is eliminated.

Once the sheriff verifies the vehicle is towable, the information is transmitted to the Department of Finance, and the MIS division will automatically input the information into NYSPIN (New York State Police Information Network), noting there is a hold on the car. Through a central number, owners can find out if their vehicles were stolen or have been seized by the city.

"With the TOWIT system you dramatically reduce costs and increase productivity because you can do the screening off-line, off-hours, and you don't have database access and radio charges," said Joe Bernstein, MIS director for the Department of Finance parking violations division.

In addition, the palmtops are lightweight, work well in any environment, are less costly to replace and allow deputies and marshals to cover more territory because they are portable and small enough to fit into a jacket