Tracking Traffic-Stop Data

Racial profiling concerns prompt police agencies to adopt mobile applications.

by / August 31, 2001
When police officers in Montgomery County, Md., make a traffic stop, they dont just write a ticket or issue a warning. They also pull out a PDA and record the drivers race, age, sex and other details of the encounter.

Officers began using mobile devices a year ago to collect traffic-stop data as part of an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to resolve an investigation into complaints of racial discrimination. The department credits mobile technology with making data collection more efficient and improving officers acceptance of the new reporting requirement.

"We wanted to avoid any situation where we were asking our officers to fill out an additional [paper] form," said Capt. Bill OTool. "In this case, we were able to give each of our officers a pocket computer that allows them to do a lot more beyond traffic-stop data collection. They can keep court dates, calendars, telephone lists. They can import traffic fines, general orders and other things."

Montgomery County spent $370,000 to equip its entire 1,200-officer workforce with Compaq Aero PDAs. The department installed Mobile Commerce and Computings Traffic Stop software, an application that allows officers to collect data on mobile devices and download the information to a Microsoft Access database at the end of their shift.

Officers have collected data from 40,000 traffic stops so far, said David Linn, director of the departments Technology Division. The department uses the information to conduct its own analysis, and it also sends raw data to the U.S. Department of Justice and an outside consultant for independent review.

Growing Interest
Although systems such as Montgomery Countys are rare, they wont be for long as a growing number of jurisdictions address concerns that minorities are the targets of random traffic stops. Civil rights groups have dubbed the practice "racial profiling" or "driving while black."

Since 1999, 18 states have passed laws to address racial profiling by law enforcement, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Most of those laws require departments to collect and report demographic information on drivers who are subject to traffic stops.

Nebraska, for example, enacted LB 593 in May. The legislation, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2002, prohibits the state patrol, county sheriffs and local police departments from detaining motorists based on racial profiling. These agencies also must record the race and ethnicity of motorists who are stopped by law enforcement officers and forward summary reports of that data to Nebraskas Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice for review.

The Lincoln, Neb., Police Department intends to meet the requirement well before the deadline hits. The department is testing StopTracker, a wireless traffic-stop data collection application from Aether Systems, and expects to have the system installed in as many as 170 police cruisers by the end of this year, said Sgt. Todd Beam.

Beam said the project is being driven by citizen demand, rather than legislative mandate. "We had already been in discussions about adopting a package such as StopTracker independent of the Legislature," he said. "Even if the legislation was not there, we would still be doing this."

Unlike Montgomery Countys stand-alone system, Lincolns software will integrate with the departments existing mobile data system. Officers will enter data such as the time and location of the traffic stop and the race and ethnicity of the driver into wireless laptop PCs mounted in police cruisers. The system immediately will transmit information from the laptop to a departmental database via Lincolns 800MHz trunked radio system.

Beam said the department rejected paper forms being used to collect traffic-stop data in some other jurisdictions.

"Somewhere down the line, someone has to key that data in. Youre also seeing optically scanned forms, but again someone has to feed the form into a scanning machine," he said. "From an efficiency standpoint, we would rather have an officer quickly and carefully collect data right there, and be free to move on to the next task."

Easy to Use
Both Montgomery and Lincoln said officers required little training before using the data collection systems. They also readily accepted the new technology.

Montgomery County officers received three hours of training, said OTool. One hour was devoted to explaining the departments agreement with the Department of Justice. Another hour was spent explaining what data officers should collect and why they were collecting it. The final hour covered use of the PDA itself.

He said the countys adoption of mobile technology made the new requirement much more palatable to officers. "We handed everybody a nice box with a fairly expensive piece of equipment in it and said, This is your new computer. It will fit right in the pocket of your police uniform."

Besides training officers to use the Traffic Stop application, the department also showed them how to send messages, create crime-scene diagrams and use the PDAs other standard functions.

Linn, Montgomery Countys technology director, added that he was pleased by the systems straightforward installation. "Ive been doing this a long time. It very seldom works right the first time, and it very seldom happens quick," he said. "We did this in 90 days from the first time we sat down with the contractor until the time we had the first working system."

Lincoln police officers using the pilot version of Aethers StopTracker receive about 10 minutes of orientation, said Beam. "The application is designed to be very straightforward and intuitive. Its built so that youve got to complete the required fields or it wont send the information."

As in Montgomery County, mobile technology in Lincoln is smoothing the path toward traffic-stop data collection. "Officers understand that this is a necessity," said Beam. "And I think they understand that if we are going to do this, a wireless device is the best way to go."

Wireless Future
Montgomery Countys Traffic Stop application is an interim step that eventually will give way to a wireless mobile data system. The county is installing an 800MHz radio system and expects to outfit police cruisers with wireless laptop computers within several years, OTool said.

Traffic-stop data collection eventually will be integrated into the new system. But the current PDAs will remain in use for two to three years while the mobile data system is completed, said Linn.

"I suspect we will continue to collect this information on the [PDAs] until the summer of 2003," he said. "We did a cost/benefit analysis that showed us the payback on this would be less than year, compared to using a paper [form] collection system."

On the other hand, Lincoln expects to extend its StopTracker system to handheld devices to accommodate the departments bike- and foot-patrol officers. Beam said the department is in the process of adopting Aethers PocketBlue, which will allow it to deliver StopTracker and other mobile data applications to PDAs or Blackberry e-mail pager devices.

"We have a number of officers who arent in cruisers, so they dont have laptop computers," he said. "So I need a solution that also works on a handheld in a seamless environment, and thats what Ill have eventually."

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