Putting a missing child's picture on a milk carton was never enough. The city of Alexandria Police Department is now pioneering a better way of pursuing these cases: installing computer data centers in squad cars that enable police to digitally transfer photographs of missing children.
The technology can be used to transmit suspects' photos as well. But using it to track missing children has stirred most of the talk in Alexandria, population 117,300, as the 265-member police force has established a link with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Arlington, Va., to enhance nationwide communications.
With the link, Alexandria police officers can transmit a current missing child's picture, which is then swiftly posted on the center's World Wide Web site (www.missingkids.com). The center, in turn, can transmit missing-child flier information to the city's police cars.
"This is exciting technology,'' said Ben Ermini, director of the missing children's division for the center, a nonprofit organization that is partially supported by the Justice Department. "It will have much impact on the national center. It's been a big problem for us to get a picture of a missing child to law enforcement agencies. The best we could do was overnight mail the pictures to them before.''
The center also has 33 kiosks throughout the country on which it can electronically post the information, and is seeking to install 400 kiosks in the next five years. The kiosks are located in airport terminals, shopping malls and other high-traffic sites.
"The name of the game for us - how we find kids - is face recognition,'' Ermini said. "The faster we can get the posters out, the wider the dissemination of the information, the faster we can find the kid.''
But because the technology is so new, most of the photo transmission among police officers remains within the Alexandria city limits. The College Station, Texas, police are also equipped for photo transmission. But the lack of other law enforcement agencies getting involved highlights the need to bring electronic communications in patrol cars into the 1990s, officials say.
"You can't go from one police car to the other throughout numerous jurisdictions with the current communications structure in place and be as effective,'' said Tom Steele, a civilian who commands automated systems for the Alexandria Police Department.
About 30 percent of the cars operated by sheriff departments, city police and state troopers nationwide have mounted digital terminals, according to International Data Corp., the Framingham, Mass.-based market research firm. Most, however, aren't hooked up for digital photo transmission. Law enforcement officials say the efforts by Alexandria and College Station are groundbreaking.
The Department of Justice is encouraging the use of the interactive technology among jurisdictions as it seeks to expand communications on the federal, state and local levels. Also, since the Clinton administration started the Community Oriented Policing Services/Making Officer Redeployment Effective, called COPS MORE, in 1994, the program has given $166 million to local jurisdictions for technology advancements.
"They want to transmit fingerprints to the police cars, back and forth, and images too,'' said Milford Sprecher, the program director at IDC who tracks state and local government technology. "That's where the world is going, and state and local departments are in the process of updating their technologies to be able to handle the data."
UCS Inc. of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was the project's integrator in Alexandria. Bell Atlantic Nynex Mobile of Bedminster, N.J., has provided more than 20 cellular digital data installations for police departments nationwide, including Alexandria's and many others on the East Coast. After a year-long trial, Philadelphia officials signed an agreement in May with Bell Atlantic Nynex to install the technology in 800 police vehicles. Officials hope successful uses of photo transmission in catching criminals will create more demand for the technology.
"Especially with missing and exploited children, the technology is very effective,'' said David Andersen, director of advanced technology for Bell Atlantic Nynex Mobile's Baltimore and Washington region. "You can pass around that photo of the child instantly to any police department that subscribes to the service.''
In Alexandria, police officials have sought to drastically improve technology communications within squad cars through its Tactical Computer Systems program. For sure, dispatchers there know where Car 54 is - and all the others out on patrol.
Since October, the department has installed Fujitsu 1000 digital laptop terminals in 42 squad cars. Officials have set a goal of having 90 cars hooked up to the technology by the end of the year.
Police officers write traffic accident reports using an electronic pen on the screen, which is then put into the system. They run data on suspicious car license tags through the headquarters' network. If they're unsure about procedures in a tense situation, they can call up the police department's directives on the screen. When they give presentations to neighborhoods about the importance of community policing, they can easily call up crime statistics specific to that area.
And this technology came at no cost to the city. About $700,000 of the computer systems' budget came from seized assets. The COPS MORE program has kicked in 30 lap tops.
On June 4, the department demonstrated the digital photo technology by transmitting a picture from Alexandria's historic Old Town to Fort Lauderdale. Then, it went to College Station, where researchers at Texas A&M have built the Advanced Law Enforcement and Response Technology, dubbed ALERT, squad cars, which are considered leading-edge, computerized vehicles. The photo then went to the national missing children's center in Arlington.
The demonstration took 80 seconds.
Alexandria police installed computer data centers in squad cars that transfer digital photos to help track missing kids or suspects.