Police tech: How cops use IT to catch bad guys

In the US, police demonstrate how they use high-tech gear to fight crime and promote public safety

Ever wonder what that cop is doing in his cruiser that's parked behind your car with lights flashing -- while your heart is pounding and you're searching for your license and registration?

Most likely, he's researching you on his laptop, and finding a surprisingly large amount of information.

According to Lieutenant Paul Shastany of the Framingham, Massachusetts Police Department (FPD), laptops in the unit's 24 patrol cars are the most important recent technology innovation that aids police work.

"We will immediately retrieve information about license status of people we stop for violations, as well as 'wanted' status," Shastany says. "We're able to locate more wanted and missing persons because of the laptops in the cruisers." And much more information is available to patrol officers -- more on that later.

Technology does come at a price, though. Forget the futuristic lab layouts and flashy tech devices you see in all the CSI TV shows and other crime dramas. In real life, police make do with what cash-strapped municipal governments can spare, which often isn't much.

As Officer Ed Burman says, "You figure your average town-meeting member [says], 'Let's just cut the budget. We'll cut the technology budget. What do they need technology for?' They just want to see a police officer in a car out in the street; they don't realize what else you need to do, behind the scenes."

"Cost-effective" is a term Burman uses a lot when describing the department's use of technology, but with creativity, grants and donations, the FPD does a surprisingly good job of using what's available to perform its duties. The department has 121 sworn officers and 11 civilian support personnel, with an annual budget of about US$11 million.

Until last summer, Burman says, the department was actually running its IT department on two old Alpha servers from the former Digital Equipment Corp. "When they were purchased in 1992, they were designed for five years," he says.

But with the help of a US$150,000 upgrade, FPD officers now have an amazing amount of information at their fingertips.

It starts in the patrol cars, which are all equipped with Panasonic Toughbook laptops. With the help of applications from vendor Keystone Information Systems, officers can research suspects and transmit reports from the laptops back to headquarters.

Framingham is in the process of implementing a townwide Wi-Fi mesh network so patrol cars can be online at all times. But for now, officers fill out reports and drive to a Wi-Fi hot spot to transmit their data via a virtual private network. Burman says the department uses radio frequency rather than cellular technology, to eliminate recurring monthly costs.

When online, all officers in patrol cars can see at a glance where all other cruisers are and what they're doing. Burman notes that this is extremely important for officer safety.

Some of the more common duties of patrol officers, of course, are traffic stops and checking motor vehicle license plates. The officers have instant access to insurance information, stolen car reports, car inspection details and any outstanding warrants. And they can even pull up the driver's license photo of the driver. Shastany says an officer recently pulled up a driver's license photo and found it didn't match the person in the car, proving that the driver was lying about his identity.

The Keystone applications also allow officers to do much more Web-based research on suspects and other individuals. Officers can pull up field interviews, arrests, accident reports, fingerprints and photos, along with caution and threat fields that let officers know if the subject is dangerous.

Until the townwide Wi-Fi mesh network is complete, officers are using Microsoft Word to enter their report data on the laptops and save it if they have to suddenly leave on a call. Officers then transmit their reports back to headquarters when in range of a hot spot.

Backup is especially crucial for police departments, where lack of data can make or break a court case. "We back up everything constantly," Burman says. Once per month, he goes out to the cars and copies report data to CDs. The information is also stored on the department network, and the system is backed up every night onto the town hall network.

For even more redundancy, the police department and fire department run identical Keystone applications on identical servers connected by a fiber-optic network, so each department can back up the other's data. If there's a crash on the FPD server, Burman can change his server's IP address to the fire department's server and the police department is back up and running.

In the server room, the department uses an RCN fiber network with copper line backup. For telephone service, the department last summer installed a voice-over-IP system, with eight copper backup lines.

The Compaq servers use a Keystone application called Content Manager that can store photos with incident reports, whereas before, officers had to go to the evidence room to find photos that were associated with their reports.

Until recently, the server room had to communicate with the state's criminal justice information system with a 56Kbit/sec. modem, but now FPD is one of five police departments running a T1 line for much faster response.

At the heart of the station is the 911 dispatch center. The FPD center is due for an upgrade soon, to replace furniture, consoles and screens that are in some cases 20 years old.

One advanced feature the center has is the E911 VESTA Pallas system by PlantCML, which can pinpoint the location of a cellular call within 23 metres. Previously, only the cell tower being used could be identified, and it might be located far away, even in another town.

The dispatch center includes three identical stations with screens that provide many kinds of information, including the location of officers -- the same data available to officers in the patrol cars.

In the booking area, an electronic fingerprint machine now takes imprints of suspects and submits them to the FBI, which reports back any information it has on the prints within 10 minutes. In the old days, Burman says, the prints had to be mailed to the FBI and "you never would [get a response]."

The breathalyzer machine has also been streamlined and upgraded so information is immediately sent to the state.

Suspects also have digital photographs taken, but sharing them with other town departments must now be done by e-mail. Burman says Massachusetts is working on a project using Microsoft's SharePoint that will allow different departments to share these photos and other information.

In the crime-scene analysis section, photography has also gone high-tech. "Digital is really the way to go," says Officer David Studley. Now photo arrays of suspects, exhibiting certain like characteristics, are gathered on a computer and printed out to show to witnesses. Again, photos are shared via e-mail with other departments.

Negatives and darkrooms are things of the past, too, Studley says, which makes for more efficient operations and cuts down on the use of potentially dangerous chemicals.

Studley still has an old bellows-type Speed Graphic camera at the station, but nowadays, he takes to crime scenes a Canon 10-megapixel digital camera with zoom lens and other accessories, including one that takes exact-scale fingerprint photos. An underwater camera is also available.

Crime analysis is another area in which the FPD uses high-tech tools.

Detective Ted Piers uses GIS mapping technology, databases and other information to visually plot crime patterns, identify problem areas or examine other factors in order to best allocate police resources.

On a more tactical level, Piers provides all the information he can to officers enroute to a potentially dangerous call.

"In the event of a SWAT team or ... they have high-risk entry, we incorporate [crime analysis data] with the mapping. We would [provide] a diagram of the building, including aerial shots, aerial photography -- whatever information we could get on the particular area," he says. "We provide that as much as we can to the units going to the location."

He said the mapping can also be used for other purposes, such as officers looking for a lost person.

Piers uses a giant wall screen called a smartboard to display documents, maps and PowerPoint slides, all of which can incorporate on-screen drawings that can be printed out on large-format sheets of paper.

The smartboard, connecting to PCs through Bluetooth, can present a live map with different symbols indicating the location of current police and fire calls. By clicking on each symbol, Piers says, officers can drill down to view specific information about an incident.

For example, each month he prints out a report that graphically displays the numbers and types of traffic accidents in order to aid targeted enforcement and keep a watch on problem areas.

Burman says there's a lot more high-tech help the FPD would like to have, such as BlackBerrys for motorcycle officers so they could electronically send in their reports like patrol car drivers. But the funding isn't always there. "Sometimes you just punt," he says.

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