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Chicago PD Testing Samsung Phones to Replace In-Car Laptops

The versatility and computing power of modern smartphones could render older, bulkier devices obsolete, particularly for police officers and first responders who use computers in many different environments.

Police officers today use computers almost everywhere they go, whether they’re checking license plates from a patrol vehicle, taking notes or photos in the field or filling out reports at a station. This entails many separate devices, but the versatility of modern smartphones raises questions about whether all those access points could be consolidated into a single mobile device.

This is the premise of a pilot program announced Aug. 21 by the Chicago Police Department and Samsung. For the next few months, the department will remove the in-vehicle computers — or portable data terminals (PDTs), as they’ve been called for decades — from between 10 and 20 squad cars in Chicago’s 11th District and replace them with Samsung Galaxy smartphones, touch monitors and rugged keyboards which can be used together via Samsung’s DeX In-Vehicle solution.

The resulting setup could be cheaper and less cumbersome than modern PDTs, without losing any functionality.

Jonathan Lewin, chief of the Chicago Police Department’s Bureau of Technical Services, said the bulky old in-vehicle laptops are virtually obsolete. He said Chicago officers had rudimentary machines capable of text-based communication in their vehicles as early as the 1970s and dash-mounted laptops since 1995, and there’s nothing modern PDTs do that smartphones can’t.

“The concept is, you can create an ecosystem where this device can go with the officer where they go, and allow them to connect to the department’s information enterprise from a range of locations — on the street, in a car, at a police station, at another department facility. That flexibility, and reduced cost, is what’s important to extend mobility throughout the enterprise,” he said. “It’s a pretty elegant solution, and it’s one of those rare times when you’re reducing costs, improving functionality, adding efficiency and potentially improving compute power, all in one package.”

Initially released in 2017, Samsung DeX has evolved based on how users have consumed it, according to Reg Jones, head of public sector sales and solutions for Samsung Electronics America. With DeX running, a smartphone can connect to a display via HDMI cable for a PC-like experience, including the ability to multitask with multiple apps, resizable windows, keyboard shortcuts and drag-and-drop functionality.

Over the past two years, Jones said, Samsung has partnered with software providers and users to see how DeX might improve the work of peace officers and first responders. What Samsung came up with — the combined kit of Galaxy smartphones, docks, screens and keyboards being piloted in Chicago — has potential advantages in cost, ergonomics and mobility.

Specifically, Jones said most rugged laptops cost upward of $3,500, plus mounting and setup. A smartphone that retails for $700 to $900, with a monitor and keyboard costing between $750 and $1,500, adds up to $2,500 replacing at least $3,500 of equipment. The DeX setup also takes up less space in the front of a squad car cramped with other gear, is easier to maneuver with a detached keyboard and monitor, and enables officers to un-dock and continue using the same data and apps wherever they are, including switching squad cars.

“The flexibility of how you lay this out gives you a great deal more control over the setup in your vehicle,” Jones said.

Lewin said most of the anticipated cost savings from replacing PDTs with smartphones would come from hardware and monthly airtime charges, the latter because departments could reduce or eliminate the modem connection from vehicles, which are separate cellular lines.

“AT&T or Verizon or whoever your telecom carrier is will subsidize the cost of the phone, reducing it to either free or pennies, and you’re saving the entire cost of that big, rugged laptop. And you’re potentially saving the costs of some desktops as well,” he said. “If all your officers are equipped with smartphones, which is where we are eventually going to go, then you are not paying yet another telecom charge separately for the vehicle.”

Lewin recognized that desktop computers will have some presence for the foreseeable future, because certain applications just don't translate well to a smartphone. But when Lewin asked officers if smartphones helped them do their jobs, they told him yes, because quick access to ShotSpotter, a video camera and other apps was important. They also told him the in-car computers are cumbersome to use, being too big and difficult to position.

In light of that, and alternatives such as Samsung DeX, Lewin said that in-vehicle computers as we know them today might be on their way out.

“I think you’re going to see more consolidation of technology into fewer devices. I can’t speak to what other departments are going to do, but since we announced this, I’ve already gotten five or six calls from other departments, including big cities and states, that are looking at this,” he said. “There are a few other departments that are smaller that have been doing this for a little while, so while we’re not ready to make the full implementation decision, we feel comfortable with the pilot at this point.”

The Chula Vista Police Department in California announced a similar pilot earlier this year.

Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.