When police equip their patrol cars today, they are measuring performance by the megabyte.
Baltimore City will install computer terminals in 160 cruisers this year, and Anne Arundel police have asked for 23.
Baltimore County, which pioneered high tech police cars in 1990, wants to replace its aging terminals with "smart" personal computers so that officers can take crime notes, fill out arrest documents, write reports in the field, and transmit them without leaving the street.
"It will be a great investigative tool," said city police Col. Steven A. Crumrine of his department's $3 million investment in new terminals, which are to be delivered by the end of October.
Colonel Crumrine said the order will provide at least one computer-equipped car for each patrol post. Eventually, he said, the department wants to order 40 units for detectives and supervisors.
Even the most basic units allow officers to exchange messages without broadcasting over the radio and tap directly into motor vehicle and driver's license records without going through a dispatcher. That makes makes the terminals ideal for fighting car theft, Colonel Crumrine said.
"To us, it's great, especially on the midnight shift," he said. "An officer can be proactive" by checking license tags during the hours when calls slow down. City units also will be able to trace stolen guns and other property, and eventually to transmit sketches of suspects.
Terminals will be fixed in the cars and won't have report-writing capabilities until new "Streetlink" software is finished, he added. Dispatching will continue to be done by voice but addresses will pop up on the car's computer screen, helping reduce mistakes.
In Baltimore County, the 225 patrol car terminals that were state of the art five years ago are crude by today's standards. They no longer are manufactured, and officials want to replace them with state-of-the-art equipment.
When the county makes its move, the big improvement will be that officers in patrol cars will be able to remove the computers for taking notes, filling out forms and filing reports without touching pencil to paper.
Maj. Ernest L. Crist, in charge of planning for the department, told the County Council Tuesday that the added computer horsepower would save the equivalent of a year's labor by 23 officers.
The problem is the speed at which these expensive, high-tech systems change and mature, said Budget Director Fred Homan, That's why the county wants to spend $146,000 to hire Mitre Corp., a nonprofit northern Virginia government consulting company, to sort through sales claims, hardware and software to find out what will work best and longest.
Major Crist said the county has applied for $500,000 in federal funds to help replace the existing terminals and buy 100 additional computers for detectives. The final cost likely will top $2 million, officials told the council.
One hurdle the county won't have to overcome is creating a computer-friendly patrol force. The department went through that angst five years ago.
"Now the complaints are when the computer system is down," Major Crist said. "The younger officers are getting computers as part of their education."
For the officer on the street, using a laptop computer to write reports and take crime notes will be a major change, said Patrol Officer Victor Dunaway, 36, of the Towson Precinct.
The so-called "dumb" terminals police use today are good for sending messages and checking drivers' license and auto tags, he said. But they aren't portable and have no significant memory and or report-writing capability.
"We spend a lot of time taking information down and transferring it to a report," Officer Dunaway said.
But taking notes on a laptop computer and filing from the car will save more than time.
"It would save the county a lot of money on paper," he said.
Anne Arundel County tested four so-called "smart cars" developed by Westinghouse Electronics Systems Group last year. The county wants to spend $929,000 to buy 23 more car computers for the fiscal year starting July 1, if the budget allows.