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LAPTOPS TO GO ON POLICE PATROLS; COMPUTERS SET FOR FIELD TEST TO FIGHT CRIME.

Byline: Jesse Hiestand Daily News Staff Writer

Sometime this week, Simi Valley police Officer Bruce Wilson plans to meander down city streets in his patrol car, sending random messages from a laptop computer to the dispatch center across town.

And if all goes well, he'll get some sort of reply.

The message traffic is designed to test a promising new communications system that would allow officers to use laptop computers and cellular airwaves to quickly access a suspect's vehicle registration, warrant and criminal history from the field.

``Trying to get all these things to work can be just a nightmare of technology,'' Wilson said. ``One thing we've learned is that if you get a load of grant money and try to do too much with it, it just bogs down. So we're going to try to do things incrementally.''

Currently, officers have to communicate with the dispatcher via radio, which Wilson said can be an inefficient and time-consuming process because patrol units have to wait their turn for the information.

The new system, being tested by Simi Valley police and other Ventura County agencies, would give patrol officers simultaneous access to information in local, state and federal crime databases.

The potential of this new crime-fighting tool has piqued the interest of police agencies nationwide, Wilson said, although some of them have run into problems implementing the technology.

As a result, local representatives have spent the past year visiting other departments in California to learn about problems - and solutions - they encountered while using laptops for police work.

They did not have to look far for one lesson.

The Ventura County Sheriff's Department spent $60,000 last year on a pilot program that put laptops in 10 patrol cars in a bid to cut down on the amount of time deputies spent writing reports.

But the software proved difficult to use and was returned to the manufacturer for modification, said sheriff's Capt. Brent Morris.

Harry Allen, a county network manager, said the pilot program was successful in that it allowed technicians to evaluate the benefits and flaws of the field report-writing system.

``We're trying to be real methodical and not waste a lot of time so we're doing a lot of testing,'' Allen said.

Most of those laptops are being used for routine computer tasks, but a few have since been outfitted with cellular modems to see how well they retrieve information from the field. The Simi Valley and Oxnard police departments are conducting similar tests as part of a joint effort to ferret out bugs in this technology.

The eventual goal, ambitious as it may be, is to have all county agencies use wireless laptop systems that are compatible with each other and with the Ventura County Integrated Justice Information System. That system would allow electronic information to be shared among police, courts, prosecutors and defense attorneys.

``We've been looking forward to something like this for a long time, but it takes a lot of work to make sure we don't spend a lot of money and it doesn't interface,'' Morris said.

The first step is to establish a basic communication link between a laptop and a department's dispatch centers.

An officer would be able to type a suspect's name, driver's license number or license plate number into the computer and find out immediately if the person has an outstanding warrant in Ventura County or another jurisdiction.

Eventually, technicians hope to give officers access to state and federal crime databases, known respectively as the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System and the FBI's National Crime Information Center.

Since there would be no waiting for a dispatcher to fetch this information, it is believed an officer could check perhaps 10 times as many license plates as they currently can each shift, looking for vehicles that are unregistered, stolen or owned by wanted persons, Wilson said.

The wireless laptop system may someday give patrol units a computerized readout of what all other units are doing and where they are. This is known as computer-aided dispatching.

And police officials still hope to use these laptops for field report writing, although that is not a high priority at this time.

Simi Valley and other agencies will seek federal grants to pay for these systems once the initial testing is complete, Wilson said.

Simi Valley police intend to equip their fleet of 40 patrol cars with these computers. So far, they have purchased only a single computer and cellular modem, which Wilson hopes to begin testing soon in all sorts of conditions - night and day, sun and cloud, wind and rain, on the flat lands and in the hills.

Only by taking the technology out of the lab, and learning from mistakes of other agencies, does Wilson and others expect to gauge the potential of this new technology.

``Other people have got the grant money and stuck their necks out and made this possible,'' he said. ``If we just had to hip shoot it and do it on our own, we wouldn't be where we are now.''

CAPTION(S):

Photo

PHOTO Jared Wilkinson, a network installer for the county, tests a laptop computer that will be used on patrols.

Michael Owen Baker/Daily News
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 27, 1997
Words:867
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