Laptops help to make police more efficient

Officers on patrol get data quickly, have less paperwork

March 11, 2007|By Will Skowronski | Will Skowronski,sun reporter

Within 15 seconds of pulling over a black Jeep Wrangler in Clarksville for running a red light, Howard County Cpl. Victor Broccolino knew the year of the car, whether the tag was valid and whether the owner had any points or an outstanding warrant.

He knew because a robotic voice told him.

That voice came from a rugged-looking laptop, the Panasonic Toughbook, which is encased in metal and thick plastic. Every Howard County patrol car has a portable computer, which is mounted on the center console.

"I can't say enough about having the computers in the car," Broccolino said. "They really make the job much easier and you're much more efficient."

While patrolling Clarksville and Highland, Broccolino uses his computer to check records, monitor calls in progress, talk with other officers and see where other patrol cars are, using a Global Positioning System.

Information sent from police dispatchers appears immediately on patrol-car laptops. One-touch buttons on each laptop allow an officer to let the dispatcher know that a call has been received, that the officer is responding, and when the officer has left the scene.

"It cuts down on the air traffic and leaves it free when the officer or dispatcher needs to get on there and say something important," said Lt. Glenn Case, commander of the 911 center. "Back in the old days, you were basically just waiting in line until it was your turn to call in. To be able to do this on your own now makes your job much easier as a patrol officer."

Broccolino, who was acting squad leader, was able to make sure his officers were responding to the calls for assistance just by looking at his laptop.

He could also talk to them over a system similar to instant-messaging services. The officers communicate with abbreviated language, typing "k" for "OK" and "t 4" instead of "ten-four."

"Having these things at your fingertips is incredible," Broccolino said.

Tech. Cpl. Mark Hart of the Computer Operations Unit said officers have "a lot of balancing" to do between driving and using the computer.

But Broccolino said multi-tasking in the car "wasn't too difficult. ... Over time, you really pick it up."

And safety, Broccolino said, is a top priority.

"The main thing while driving is driving," he said.

The computers were formatted to "speak" in December 2005 to ensure that patrolling officers did not miss information while checking a license number. The laptop pings to alert an officer of a violation and then explains out loud.

"It was a Christmas present that year," Hart said.

Lt. Alvaro Bellido de Luna, a watch commander, said the computer also offers advantages for supervisors.

"I'm a 20-year veteran, and I gotta tell you I don't think we'd be as effective without them," Bellido de Luna said, referring to his ability to track patrol officers. He can see where his officers are on a digital map and check how long it takes them to respond to a call.

"It's hard to believe how we did police work in the past," Bellido de Luna said. "[The computer] serves a million purposes."

The computers are packed with guides for officers and formatted documents that have streamlined paperwork.

While facing unfamiliar situations, officers can access guides that explain how to respond. For example, if there is a hazardous spill, an officer can find out how dangerous the substance is and how far to evacuate people by looking at a chart on the laptop.

Officers also can fill out reports, court forms and arrest warrants using preformatted files, then print them out at the station.

"How do you make it easier for the guy out on the street? That's always been the question," said Hart, who is responsible for installing and maintaining the computers.

The department has 324 laptops, which cost about $9,000 each, including the software and additional hardware, Hart said. Intergraph Public Safety provides the network software, which Hart installs along with the Howard County police documents.

The police cars also have to be outfitted with the docking station and a GPS system.

"It does consume a lot of time and effort to get it going," Hart said.

The Howard police installed their first patrol car laptops in 2001, earlier than other departments in the area, Broccolino said. The laptops replaced computers that were built into the car in 1999 and did not have the same capabilities.

The Anne Arundel County Police Department began installing laptops in 2003, said police spokeswoman Cpl. Sara Schriver. The department owns 536 laptops and soon plans to install 110 more, giving every officer assigned a patrol car his or her own computer.

The Baltimore County Police Department began installing 450 laptops in January 2006 and finished in November, said police spokesman Cpl. Mike Hill. Every patrol car has one.

The Baltimore City Police Department owns 184 laptops, said Matt Jablow, a spokesman. Officers use 104 of those, the rest are being repaired or have not been distributed. Seventy-two of the computers are used in patrol cars and the rest are used for special operations.

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