Computer is police partner in crime High-tech equipment to help some counties map criminal activity

April 02, 1996|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County police and law enforcement agencies across the nation are replacing ticket books, note pads and lengthy report forms with high-tech computer equipment that they say will improve their chances of catching crooks.

Within a year, county officers will begin using laptop computers that eventually will be linked to a national crime information network, allowing them to quickly check for arrest warrants or determine whether a car has been reported stolen.

Officers also will use the computers to write and file reports, eliminating time-consuming handwritten reports and filing procedures.

Among the more sophisticated changes, some jurisdictions -- including Baltimore and Prince George's counties in Maryland -- are borrowing missile-targeting technology from the military, planning to use the computerized mapping systems to pinpoint crime "hot spots."

The technology is being used to change the focus of police department management from a reactive style to a more corporate technique aimed at supply and demand, marketing, productivity and customer service.

"There is a lot of technology out there," said Jack Greene, a professor and director of the Center for Public Policy at Temple University. "It all stems from the fact that police agencies have gotten smaller and they have to work smarter. They are moving from a responsive-driven agency to a more proactive problem-solving one that centers on knowing where to deploy their resources."

Computerized electronic mapping, for example, is one device that can tell police officials where in the community to send extra uniformed patrols or undercover narcotics officers.

Baltimore County police call their system that puts a computer in each of the nine precincts the Street Level Access Program. The $79,000 system will collect and analyze major crime reports, arrest reports and offense reports daily.

By the end of this month, the computers will be in place and officers will be able to print out maps that detail crime hot spots on their beats. They also will be able to enter information based on observations during their shifts.

"Not only does the computer let us know where to put our resources, it also tells us which communities we should alert to crime so they can work for us by reporting suspicious activities," said Phil Canter of the Planning and Analysis Unit.

Although analyzing crime is nothing new, this computer system that is used by dozens of big-city departments has the edge over analysts who toil for weeks or months compiling crime statistics to identify trouble areas.

"This is quicker and more graphic," said Richard Titus, a program manager in the Science and Technology Unit at the National Institute of Justice that monitors law enforcement trends.

Eventually, the electronic mapping system in Baltimore County will be linked to laptop computers that will be installed in all police cruisers, said Sgt. Charles Standiford, who is organizing a $900,000 pilot project that will put 45 laptops in Cockeysville Precinct and Western Traffic Division by next year.

Officers in Ocean City will have similar computers that are being paid for with a $168,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant. Each of the 40 patrol cars there will have the computers by late fall.

The lightweight portable laptops in patrol cars not only will allow officers to conduct Maryland and national criminal checks, but also will cut their report writing time in half.

Instead of spending hours writing reports in precinct stations at the end of their shifts, officers will file their reports to supervisors and the Central Records Division electronically.

The criminal check functions will save time, said Sgt. Bruce Blair, who heads a $500,000 pilot project in the Montgomery County Police Department, because officers will not have to call communications and wait for dispatchers to relay the information back.

The Maryland police departments with laptop pilot projects will join the ranks of dozens of agencies across the country that are using them, experts say.

"This is a technology that allows police to take more bad guys off the street," said Lawrence Sherman, a University of Maryland criminologist. "Without this technology, it's like patrolling blindfolded."

Eventually, officers will be able to swipe the magnetic strip on the back of a driver's license to get information by computer, much like a store scans a credit card, Sergeant Standiford said.

The state Motor Vehicle Administration began putting magnetic strips on cards Jan. 1, 1994, and by 1999 all Maryland licenses will have them.

By the year 2000, police agencies will have access to a national criminal check system that not only will provide a wanted suspect's name and description, but also a video mug shot and a device to scan a person's finger for comparison with prints on file in the national crime computer bank.

The system, called NCIC 2000, will have pictures of stolen property instead of just serial numbers and descriptions.

All of this new technology and the information it provides police probably will raise privacy and civil rights questions that will not always be easy to answer.

"It's clearly a dual-edged sword," said Stuart Comstock-Gay, director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"I think as time goes on, it's going to be harder and harder to hold the line on privacy and due process."

Pub Date: 4/02/96

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