Officer Jerry Camous logged onto the computer affixed to the dash of his police squad car. "My first goal today," he said as he began his 6 a.m. shift, "is a cup of coffee."

So the first stop on my ride-along with the Sacramento Police Department was the nearest Java City. After that, we set about patrolling the streets of downtown Sacramento, Calif., where Camous kept his eyes peeled for anything out of the ordinary, and I observed how he used technology to conduct police business.

Right off the bat I could see being a cop is not for everyone. For one thing, it requires ambidexterity, as Camous demonstrated by pecking at the computer keyboard with his right hand while gripping a 16-ounce cup of coffee and a steering wheel with the other.

"Just because you graduate from the academy doesn't mean you'll do well on this job," he said. "Until you've done this, you just don't realize how many things we have to deal with."

Camous' 21 years on the force - he started as a community service officer at age 19 - have taught him the value of remaining calm in preparing for just about any eventuality. Some of the younger officers tend to get too hyped up, and Jerry says being relaxed leads to better decision making.

In addition to the obvious stress of dealing with the criminal element on a daily basis, some young officers can struggle with the simple things, like report writing.

"Now, we'll have one more thing," Camous said, referring to technology that will allow officers to file reports electronically, which should be operational by the end of the year.

The electronic report filing, along with a mobile records-management system, will constitute phase two of a three-phase program the department has undertaken to provide its officers with some upgraded technology and replace the antiquated stuff.

The first phase started with the disposal of the old, worn out Mobile Data Terminals (MDTs), which offered a screen about as big as saucer and allowed officers to send and receive information from the station, but virtually nothing else.

Those were replaced by Compaq Pentium III computers like the one nestled alongside a shotgun in the trunk of Jerry's car, and Northrop Grumman LCD touchscreens that are larger and easier on the eyes. With the old terminals, an officer often had to cup his hands to shield light just to read the screen. To complement the new computers in the cars, the city took part of the nearly $10 million COPS MORE grant it received and designed and built its own 800 MHz data radio system.

The final phase of the program will be the integration of a new computer-aided dispatch system, which will be similar to the current one only faster and with integrated mapping.

A "camper," who had picked the parking lot of a business for an overnight stay, gave Camous an opportunity to showcase the new computer. The sleepy gentleman had a driver's license so that made accessing his criminal history a snap, thanks to a pilot project called MobileLEADS. The man, a 51-year old registered drug offender, was on probation, which - judging from the length of his file - was something he'd probably grown accustomed to.

MobileLEADS immediately provides information like the individual's probation status, which required a significantly greater effort before. Now, when Joe Blow tries to lie about his identity - as crooks are wont to do - the cops can rely on more than just intuition, and they don't have to keep Mr. Blow company while a clerk back at the station checks to see if he is who he says he is. The officer can check himself.

The parolee information had previously been accessible through a

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor