Federal Crime Bill Seeds New Market

A Florida community attempts to create a fully wired police force

Local law enforcement could get a big boost as police departments nationwide install new technology designed to speed up response time and information dissemination.

"Better access to information allows crimes to be solved quicker and makes it safer for officers on the street," said Clearwater, Fla., Deputy Police Chief J.D. Eastridge. Clearwater is undertaking a $3.5 million dollar upgrade of its computer systems, which is designed to be completed in mid-1996. The new systems will make use of pen-based tablet computers in the field, with radio-frequency modems, computer-aided dispatch, automated vehicle tracking, database management for records and reports, and a pen-based computer parking ticket system.

Currently, less than 10 percent of police departments have computers in patrol cars, said Paul Wormeli, program director of the Public Safety and Criminal Justice division of PSI International, which is acting as systems integrator for the Clearwater project.

That number is growing as technology advancements and money in the federal crime bill are fueling law enforcement computerization. A program started by the federal bill recently received approximately 22,000 applications from law enforcement agencies nationwide seeking grants to fund technology improvement projects. Clearwater is funding its project internally.

Technology for pen-based tablet computers has grown more reliable over the last few years, and handwriting recognition is now good enough to be used, Wormeli said. However, only within the last year have the computers become rugged enough to hold up to the wear and tear of being used in the field, he said.

Computers selected for final use in Clearwater must meet certain "ruggedness" specifications, said John Dorsey, president of John Dorsey and Associates, a Birmingham, Mich., consulting firm hired to help the department develop and contract for the new systems. Specifications must be met for protection from moisture and dust, vibration, drops, and a wide temperature operating range.

Clearwater is field-testing five computers for patrol cars. The cars will have docking stations with keyboards and a modem contained in the radio. When officers leave the cars, they can take the screen part of the unit, which is about eight-inches long, and a pen or pointer device that lets them write on the screen to input information.

The department has been using laptop computers in patrol cars since approximately 1989, but they are "slow machines" with no hard drives or radio capabilities and with "cumbersome software," said Eastridge.

The new system will allow a dispatcher to immediately call up any historical information for that location, such as previous calls and whether they involved guns, said Eastridge. The database also can be used to give management reports, such as the number of calls in a time period.

The officers fill out their report and send it back to headquarters, where detectives can see it immediately. Currently, a disk is dropped off at a sub-station, and it might take three or more days before a detective can access a file.

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