Two years ago, my force embarked on a complete technology overhaul. Recog-nizing that technology moves at lightening speed, our aim was to incorporate the latest advances that would enhance the transfer of information between the station and vehicles on the road and make everyone’s jobs more efficient.
In approaching such a comprehensive change, we tested a range of technology and products in order to determine what would be the most important criteria for the new system. In a way, it was as if we didn’t know what we needed until we realized what was available in the marketplace and tested a number of options. Knowing how fast technology changes, we wanted a system that was all-encompassing but yet flexible enough to adapt as our needs changed over the long term.
We had never used in-vehicle computer systems and quickly learned that having a computer in each vehicle would be a significant time and resource saver. The in-vehicle systems we installed, the Datalux Tracer systems, have turned out to be the most significant change we’ve ever made as a force. And looking back, we can hardly remember how we operated before.
We now have more than 100 Datalux Tracer computers installed in all patrol and traffic division vehicles. The Tracers can be used to call into the station, take calls in the field, run tags and licenses, pull photos / mug shots, link to e-mail and file reports from the field. The Tracer can perform some tasks formerly done by dispatchers at the station, saving time in the field and freeing up personnel to handle other pressing issues. We have also found that using computers helps reduce errors that might have occurred when information was transmitted by radio; having important details on a screen inside the vehicle is practically fool proof.
Our officers have a wide coverage area, and it is not always feasible to go back to the station during a shift. We can now see how much time and resulting resources were wasted in the past by all the driving back and forth. With the Tracer, all officers have rolling offices with all the capabilities needed to do their jobs in the field.
Because of the new system, e-mail has become our primary means of non-emergency communication with officers, saving time and resources all around. We were able to integrate a wireless network through our Internet service provider, a feature customized for our use. Other features officers have learned to appreciate include an easy-to-view screen, touch-screen capability, a screen dimmer for nighttime use, and the ease of removing and re-installing the unit when maintenance or repairs are needed.
Our force uses Chevrolet Tahoe SUVs as patrol vehicles; we are fortunate that we have more space for equipment than the typical police cruiser. However, having a streamlined computer / communications unit is still a significant feature in many ways. There are no other parts to attach to the car or cables to run to the trunk. The installation process is seamless with no drilling or running cables. The unit allows for a passenger to sit up front without obstruction, which is a key benefit when officers are in training or when two officers are needed on patrol.
Everyone on the force knew we were going to have a massive technology overhaul, but we were not sure how quickly everyone would adapt to the change. In order to make the changeover as smooth as possible, we installed about 85 units in one week as officers attended training sessions on the new technology. Looking back, the group approach was a key part of the success. Everyone was trained together, officers could learn from questions or challenges others had during training, and all officers received consistent information. Putting the technology in the field piecemeal could have meant inconsistencies in how people were trained and how they ultimately used the equipment.
Because installations took place while officers were in training, they were able to go directly to their vehicles and use the knowledge they had just received. All officers embraced the new system, even those we thought might be resistant to it. The learning curve was very short. A typical Tracer installation takes 45 minutes or less from start to finish, and the unit can be installed or repaired when vehicles undergo routine maintenance. As a result, vehicles do not have to be out of service during installation or upgrades to the system.
Tough Under Pressure
Another important feature for our force is that the Datalux Tracer does not interfere with airbag deployment. We have seen this benefit in action. One of our officers totaled his vehicle in an accident, but the computer was not harmed. We actually had to send someone to the body shop to retrieve the computer from the vehicle before it was dismantled. It was in perfect working order and was quickly re-installed in the officer’s replacement vehicle. Again, there was minimal vehicle downtime while equipment was being transferred.
In another case, the Tracer helped us get a violent criminal off the street. An officer had made a routine traffic stop where nothing suspicious came back through the system. But the very next day, the officer received notice through his Tracer that a murder warrant had just been issued for the person involved in the traffic violation. Because the officer had current information in his computer from the traffic stop, he was able to call for back-up and apprehend the suspect at home almost immediately.
The Tracer’s technology made a match between the warrant and the traffic stop and allowed notice of the warrant to go directly to that one officer, streamlining the process and getting a murder suspect off the street quickly. Not only did our force benefit from the technology, the community benefited from getting the suspect into custody.
As with any police force, our resources are often stretched to the limit. Our technology overhaul was a major expense, but one we approached with a long-term focus in mind. We chose a system that is flexible for future advances in technology or for future changes in how our officers work in the field. Instead of thinking about what it costs to implement, we now wonder what the cost would have been if we had not made the change.
Ken McGinnis is a 20-year veteran police officer. He is a graduate of Auburn University with a degree in criminal justice / law enforcement. He currently maintains the mobile computers for both police and fire and also helps to maintain the wireless infrastructure in Hoover, AL. Photos by Detective Mark Tant of the Hoover Alabama Police Department.