These Officers Like The New Smart Phones

CRIME BEAT

Crime Scenes

September 04, 2009|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Peter.hermann@baltsun.com

The Western District officer said he was responding to a drug complaint, but the man being stopped insisted he was being harassed.

"Happens every day," the 22-year-old suspect complained after Thursday morning's encounter on Lafayette Avenue that ended with no drugs and no arrest.

The two men, officer and suspect, did, however, agree on this: The officer using his BlackBerry loaded with a new PocketCop program sped through the name check and, finding no outstanding warrants, climbed back into his patrol car and drove away.

"It was quicker," conceded the man who had been stopped.

"It goes quicker than the computer in the car," the officer agreed.

PocketCop, the officer said, "is a good tool. You can use it out of your car. With the computer, when you're out of your car, it's useless."

That is one of the prime reasons Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III is giving 2,000 patrol officers the new technology after a trial run in the Western District. Soon, officers all over the city will be carrying BlackBerrys, downloading mug shots, running record and license checks from the palms of their hands.

On Wednesday, police detailed the new program, paid in large part with $3.5 million in federal stimulus money, to help a department that works a dangerous area but is among the most technologically deficient forces in Maryland.

Still, the announcement brought its share of naysayers, including officers who posted their names and complaints on the city Police Department's public Facebook page, calling the pending purchase a waste and noting that the cash-strapped city can barely keep enough batteries on hand to keep their police radios running.

Six officers interviewed at random in the Western District all said the devices helped, but they declined to give their names because they weren't authorized to speak to the news media. The man they stopped also refused to give his name.

Baltimore is one of a few departments in the country using this specific PocketCop technology; one of the first was the tiny police force in Soldotna, Alaska, where 12 officers and the chief patrol a 7-square-mile community of 3,500 residents about 150 miles south of Anchorage.

That department's grant-writer, Kalie Klaysmat, said officers do a lot of walking around campsites, parks and streams. "Officers needed to access information while they were out of the squad car," she said.

Another smart-phone feature, one that is particularly helpful in Soldotna, is the GPS tracking device that allows not only commanders but other officers to see where each cop is standing at any given moment. Klaysmat said that helps her department because officers can often be out walking in the wilderness and away from their patrol cars, and it's important that everyone knows where everyone is.

A Baltimore police spokesman said the city's BlackBerrys will have the same technology, which can used to quickly track an officer who's in trouble as well as track one who's not where he's supposed to be. Bealefeld told reporters on Wednesday he doesn't plan on using the system to spy but to ensure accountability.

Officers "think there's all this Big Brother stuff, that I'm going to be sitting here watching everyone all night," he said, motioning toward two large flat-screen TVs on the wall of a conference room. "They should be more concerned with whether they're walking and talking to the people they serve."

The GPS is a great tool for deploying officers and quickly updating them on with crime trends, but internal investigators will most certainly also use the technology to target corruption and sloppy police work. And now citizens will have a new question to debate after the next big shooting: Where precisely were the officers standing, and were they standing in the right place?

None of the officers interviewed on Baltimore's west side expressed such concerns. On a routine Thursday on a routine stop on West Lafayette Avenue, PocketCop simply helped a police officer be more efficient and a suspected bad guy get on with his day a little more quickly.

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