Cops and Computers

Patrolling the streets of Sacramento is not easy, but it's becoming easier with the help of some technology upgrades.

by / October 31, 2002
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 program called ParoleLEADS, but that required the officer to go back to the station to use a computer. MobileLEADS sends all that information out to the car, including mug shots, pictures of tattoos, scars or other telling marks of the parolee.

Camous informed the gentleman that he was required to register as a drug offender every 90 days - something he had neglected to do for a year. Then we were off.

We listened to a call that went over the radio of "a man putting on and taking off articles of his clothing and touching himself in personal locations." But Camous had some routine paperwork to fill out so we stopped at the downtown station where I visited with Sgt. Roxane Lassen of the department's Crime Analysis Unit.

Lassen showed off some area maps with what looked like stars overlaid, all created by ArcView mapping software. Individual stars reflect a crime and a grouping of stars indicates a crime pattern. The software helps the police department decide where to allocate its resources.

"It's a whole different bird from the old pin maps," she said.

When the records-management system is up and running, officers will have access to those maps as they cruise the streets. They'll also be able to look up the crime histories of every address in the area, something that's going to require the department to capture and store a lot more data.

I was eager to get back on the streets, but as Jerry and I were leaving the downtown station, we ran into Mark Bateson, a senior solution architect with the new HP, and one of the brains behind the Sacramento PD's new technology push.

He and Camous took part in a little backslapping as they recalled the recent capture of a couple of bank robbery suspects who had nearly escaped with $23,000 from a local bank. Bateson was in a helicopter testing some technology and happened to spot the two robbers as they fled. He helped Camous and other officers track the two into a residence where they tried to stash the money in a washing machine.

"Ever count wet money?" Camous asked. "Took me five hours."

Bateson was in the air that day to test the chopper's Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) camera, which broadcasts live video to a 911 center. In its infrared mode, the camera has eyes for crooks, lighting them up like glow bugs. The department was about a week away from announcing that the helicopter camera will soon have the capability to broadcast that live feed to patrol cars on the ground.

With the first phase of the technology upgrade nearly completed, the department has put infrastructure in place to support "really aggressive" applications out to the car, says Bateson. "The transition from the MDTs to the mobile computer in the car and the new radio infrastructure gives them tons of additional future capability."

For Camous, the technology push represents a way to make a stressful job a little easier. "We're judged on split-second decisions by the press, the public, everybody," he said. "The thing about [the computers] is that it gives you a little more information to make those decisions."

As we headed back to the station, we eyed two passersby motioning furiously at Camous for help, and we quickly arrived at the scene of a work-related accident. Camous got on the radio and requested an ambulance for a "self amputated finger."

I didn't want to look but I did, and luckily all I could see was a hand wrapped in a bloody cloth of some sort. The guy was considerably more nonchalant than I would have been about having lost a finger. He sat on the curb apologizing to his boss on a cell phone. Then Camous asked him where his finger was.

He scanned the curb then turned to his buddy.

"Hey Dave, where's my finger at?"

His buddy hustled over clutching a small blue and white ice chest. Camous made sure they had the finger in cold water and not on ice, which could cause frostbite.

That's knowledge you'll inevitably pick up during 21 years on the police force.

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