Fifty years ago, if you were to ask people to describe a specific police officer, chances are they would outline his facial characteristics, tell you his name and know the approximate route he pounded as he made his rounds. These days, however, the image is often far less personal. Few could describe the features of local officers, never mind name them.
Police departments around the country are now attempting to reverse this trend through community-oriented policing activities. At the Sacramento County Sheriffs Department in California, a program called eCop is helping the agency harness wireless and handheld computing technology to empower deputies to operate efficiently in the field while away from their vehicles.
"The dynamics of law enforcement are on the street, not in the briefing room," said Chief Deputy Scott Harris. "We are encouraging our officers to get out of their cars and back into the community, talking to residents, merchants, teachers and the kids at schools. The introduction of handheld devices plays an important role in achieving our community-oriented policing goals."
Police Technology Evolves
Before World War II, radio equipment was small enough to fit inside cars and revolutionized police dispatch systems. The last decade saw the introduction of computers small enough to fit into cars, and police are leading the way for in-vehicle computing.
These vehicle-mounted technologies created tremendous operating efficiencies, but they also forced officers to stay near their vehicles. Dispatch and identification systems relied heavily on transmitting calls to vehicle computers, with radio channels left free for all but high-priority and emergency calls.
Now computers have become small enough for individuals to carry while connecting wirelessly to networks.
"Police officers tend to maintain a dependency on their vehicles," said Robert Schultz, technology manager of the Sacramento County Sheriffs Department. "In our community policing efforts, weve done a good job of getting cars into the community, but things tend to break down when it comes to getting officers onto the streets. It takes wireless handhelds to bridge the gap."
Take IT to the Streets
With eCop, the Sacramento County Sheriffs Department intends to use handheld computers to decentralize policing over the 900 square miles it serves. With more than 1,700 sworn deputies, the planned technological improvements will help the agency deploy patrol deputies and deputy detectives more efficiently.
To keep costs down, the county is working with Microsoft to use existing IT infrastructure and databases, as well as associated state and federal justice systems. "We wanted eCop to tap into current systems without the need for major changes or complex interfaces," said Schultz. "It operates like a search engine for law enforcement."
eCops strength is that it is essentially an inquiry process that extracts data from other sources. It does not involve the reengineering of business processes, nor the long-term development and training lifecycle normally associated with replacing core business systems. Rather than following the point-to-point central repository model, eCop was developed using an Internet model. This means that once security and data-transfer protocols have been established, multiple agencies, cities and jurisdictions can participate based upon their own funding capabilities. Each agency hosts its own sites and is responsible for their update and maintenance.
Additionally, the system was developed with minimal interface requirements. Queries provide only key information that is supported by a series of hyperlinks to other systems. Because just a small amount of data needs to be predefined, the application doesnt require the massive data standardization efforts that were common in the 1990s.
Essentially, the system returns two sets of data: identifying information such as a drivers license number, Social Security number, name, birth date, physical description and county, state or federal ID; and security and system-routing information about the person performing the inquiry. Information critical to officer safety is transmitted directly to the initial return screen. Users may access additional data through Web hyperlinks.
By replacing a cumbersome paper-based field ID system, eCop could save detectives hundreds of hours of labor each year and help them solve cases more quickly.
Deputies use the field ID system whenever they come across a suspicious person or situation but no arrest is made and the matter does not merit a formal report. Under the existing process, photos are taken and clipped to a card containing other identifying information. These cards are dropped off at the stationhouse and filed manually. When a major crime takes place, detectives typically go through these files looking for suspects.
Sacramento County estimates that the paper process captures field IDs in less than half of the situations that warrant them. And for detectives, using the paper files typically demands two stationhouse visits and many hours of research for each investigation.
Using eCop, officers file field IDs electronically, submitting them wirelessly to the main database. These records are available instantly in a searchable format on the detectives desktop PC -- a feature that could help the department solve cases much more quickly.
One recent occurrence highlights the systems value to cops on the beat. Deputies were serving a warrant at an apartment complex and knocked on a door. A parole violator across the hall heard the knock, thought he was being apprehended and attacked the deputies. Had eCop been available, the system could have provided deputies with information about the individual they were serving, as well as potential dangers such as nearby parolees.
The Sheriffs Department is also developing a built-in camera for its handhelds to speed up the identification process. Currently, when an officer stops someone who doesnt have identification, the officer either lets the person go or, with probable cause, hauls the suspect to jail. But it takes the department four hours to verify a fingerprint identification with the state Department of Justice. Field photograph capabilities quickly let officers know if they are being lied to, greatly increasing the chances of apprehending guilty citizens while leaving innocent citizens alone.
eCop aids police in missing persons cases, too. Currently, to get a photo out to all points requires printing it at the stationhouse and distributing it at the briefing on the following shift. In the case of missing children, some detectives say law enforcement agencies have as little as four hours to look for the child. Beyond this time, the likelihood of saving a life diminishes rapidly. Therefore, the capacity to immediately transmit a photo to all officers increases the chances of success.
eCop gives deputies on foot, motorcycle or horseback mobile access to justice databases for the first time. The automated system allows them to search criminal justice and DOJ records; verify drivers licenses and vehicle registrations; and identify suspects.
The project has passed the prototype stage and has entered a pilot phase. The county currently is testing the systems mug shot features.
"We want to test it thoroughly to resolve issues, such as wireless coverage, speed of download and any other challenges," said Schultz. "Once the pilot is completed, we will roll it out across the entire county."
When fully implemented, the system will allow officers to spend more time with the public. Schultz estimates eCop will save each officer 1,824 hours per year.