Mobile Computing and Law Enforcement

Most people probably wouldn’t think of the local police as one of the vanguards of mobile computing technology, but the Police in Memphis, Tennessee are pushing the envelope, and its saving them time and money.The first big sea-change in Law Enforcement technology was the two-way radio. It transformed policing from a slower-paced “walk the beat” model to the so-called professional model, wherein citizens call into 911 and officers are dispatched to respond. As time went on, and radios moved from the car to the belt, officers depended on them more and more, using them in much the same way that Officers on the Starship Enterprise used their computer, by talking to dispatchers and getting results back. If they pull someone over, arrest someone, or take a witness statement, they would be able to radio details back to the station, where someone would look through the records and find out if there were outstanding arrest warrants or other pertinent information.

Over the past couple of decades, mobile computing has been creeping into this process. If you were to peek inside the window of your local police cruiser, there’s a good chance it would have a laptop mounted in it. These days, when you get pulled over, and you have to spend a few minutes in the hot seat, he’s typing your license plate into the computer. Then he takes your license and types that in too. Those numbers are run through various local, state, and federal databases. This avalanche of data has become one of the cornerstones of modern police work. Unlike on Star Trek, however, calling numbers into a dispatcher isn’t very efficient, because it requires a bunch of people on the other end of the radio. The laptop method is more automated, but it requires that the officers be tethered with a mountain of bulky and expensive computer and telecommunications equipment.

Verizon xv6700
This is where Memphis’ mobile computing project comes in. Their officers carry a relatively ordinary Windows Mobile smartphone from Verizon, the XV6700, with a slide-out Qwerty keyboard. The mobile device gives the officers an interface to enter in the identifying details of the automobile or suspect, then displays all of the pertinent information, then pre-populates the correct paperwork with the appropriate details from the database. Routine reports can be substantially filled out by just accepting the pre-filled information and selecting a few menus.

For some reports, however, there’s a fair amount of information that needs to be entered in. In the olden days, the officers would write down their notes in a notebook then go back to the station and type up the full reports. There are several reasons why this was a crummy method. Nobody likes transcribing notes, and from the time that the notes are taken to when they’re transcribed, memories fade, handwriting becomes unrecognizable, etc. Plus, who wants to save up all the paperwork for the end of the shift to do all at once, when you’re tired? Memphis’ method is for officers to submit the complete report right away, where it’s submitted over the network and available to the rest of the agency within minutes. The only problem was that, as any road warrior knows, it can get annoying to type a long narrative with a tiny keyboard. Officers complained not just of thumb strain, but also of eye strain, from peering into the small display.

Memphis’ mobile strategy was rolled out two years ago, and thumb and eye strain notwithstanding, it’s been a successful and popular program. Right now the agency is rolling out a substantial upgrade to the program: a portable terminal device called the REDFLY that doesn’t replace the smartphones, but rather extends them with a larger keyboard and monitor, making it easier to do long-form data entry. With the REDFLY available, officers can still just carry the small device around, but pull out the big keyboard when they need it. The terminals can connect to the handhelds over USB or Bluetooth, and are netbook-sized, with a 7 inch 800×480 display and five hour battery life. They have no CPU or memory. They’re just a terminal for the handheld, which makes them more durable (more disposable) and inexpensive. MSRP is $199.

Jim Harvey, Memphis Police’s technology manager, who we interviewed for this article, said that if they were to go the laptop route instead of the mobiles, it would be very expensive. The industry standard is a hardened laptop like the Panasonic Toughbook, along with costly mounting hardware and labor, totaling several thousand dollars each, not counting wireless network fees and ongoing support. In contrast, through their volume deal with Verizon, the agency pays less than $40 per month for the data service and the XV6700s are free. So it’s a good deal for the taxpayers. Now throw in another $200 for the REDFLY, and the cops are happier and can type faster, and it’s still not breaking the bank.

One of the most interesting aspects of Memphis’ system is its surveillance camera support. Like many cities, Memphis has a program that allows both public and private video surveillance cameras to stream their feed to the police department. These feeds can be brought up on screen in the agency’s control center, so, for example, if there’s a robbery in progress, personnel back at the station can see what’s happening if there are any area cameras pointed in the right direction, and many cameras can actually be remotely panned, so local cameras can be trained at the action. This is where the mobile strategy comes in. Live camera feeds can be sent to individual officers’ handsets, so officers who are responding to a call or are about to enter a building can view video of the scene on his or her handset device, to get a better idea of what they’re heading into.

In conclusion, Memphis Police Department seems to have brought law enforcement into the future without making radical changes to the way its officers do their everyday work, and without spending a lot of money. Their success has mostly to do with a well-organized rollout and well-designed software. The REDFLY is a very interesting product that promises to overcome an inherent deficiency in the mobile hardware, namely the small screen and keyboard. We’ll be interested to see how well that new product works under real-world conditions.


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