Calling all Cars
- By Cheryl Gerber
- Apr 03, 2000
Law enforcement agencies across the nation have been spending millions on
mobile computing and wireless technology. This year, they stand a good chance
of seeing a healthy return on their investment.
Why? Two things.
Key applications are coming online that will make it worthwhile for
state and city police to equip their squad cars with wireless, modem-equipped
laptops. And bandwidth limitations in radio frequency, which might have
been exacerbated by those high-demand applications, are being lifted.
In addition, police departments are figuring out what kinds of technology
they need at headquarters to support folks in the field.
But law enforcement agencies in North Carolina, Miami and Pasadena,
Calif., have a jump-start on the benefits of wireless.
The North Carolina State Highway Patrol started working with Motorola
Inc. and IBM Corp. in 1996 to build a statewide wireless network, with IBM's
pen-based Thinkpad laptops installed in squad cars. As the prime contractor,
Motorola built the wireless network, while IBM installed the laptops and
adapted FormRunner for electronic crash reporting.
The mobile and wireless technology improved officer safety and productivity,
said Lt. Woody Sandy, unit supervisor and project manager in the Highway
Patrol Information Management section.
Officers in squad cars use wireless laptops to tap into the database at
the Division of Crime Information in Raleigh, which sends queries via a
wired network to the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC) databases.
Officers get responses in 12 seconds, enough time to know if they are about
to confront a driver with a criminal record.
In keeping with the trend toward community policing, the N.C. Highway
Patrol wants to use its wireless network to let officers submit field data
reports and perform case management remotely, allowing them to interact
with the community and focus on public safety instead of being stuck behind
a desk doing administrative work.
But submitting wireless reports stretches the limits of today's 19.2 kilobits/sec
wireless baud rate line capacity, which is less than even standard telephone
When the FBI introduces mugshots and fingerprints in its NCIC 2000 network
of databases this year, the need for broader bandwidth will be crucial.
"Once you get into image and graphics like that, you can see why disk
space and bandwidth become so important," said Dave Fox, IBM National Practice
The Federal Communications Commission, which manages the radio frequency
spectrum used by television, radio and satellite systems, will provide the
much-needed bandwidth this year.
As part of the redistribution of channels for high-density television,
the FCC has set aside 24 MHz of new and additional radio spectrum and made
it available to public safety organizations, more than doubling the existing
23 MHz that is available today. The new slice of spectrum will enable agencies
to build large regional systems to get such economies of scale as shared
backbone networks. This has not been possible with existing bandwidth.
Right now all the spectrum is being used for little systems, said Chuck
Jackson, Motorola vice president and director of system planning in the
Radio Systems Division. "You can't build it out because there is no spectrum
The FCC's National Coordinating Committee, which recommends digital standards
for the public safety portion of the spectrum, is expected to issue recommendations
for the new bandwidth this year. Motorola has prototype equipment ready
"As soon as the rules are published, we will have equipment to submit
for type-accepting," Jackson said.
The U.S. Justice Department also has nudged progress along, by issuing
a $9.5 million grant to the Miami Police Department to install a mobile
In Miami, Unisys Corp. installed Fujitsu Ltd. pen-based laptops and
subcontracted to Motorola to install the tower, the backbone RF network
infrastructure, and its Spectra radios for voice. Unisys also developed
a message switch on an Oracle Corp. database to collect mobile data, reformat
queries for the FBI's NCIC, and link to a Unisys mainframe, said Maj. Joseph
Longueira, Miami police commander of support services and planning and research.
The system gave Miami police the ability to query driver's license information
and receive a response in 10 seconds. Officers also can do accident and
incident reports on the squad car laptops.
To accommodate supervisors, investigators and commanders who need more
mobility out of the car, the department has ordered rugged Panasonic Personal
Computer Co. laptops that use AT&T's wireless network. The wireless
IP-based network will let them use e-mail and scheduling software and send
Microsoft Corp. Word documents to a printer.
Miami also plans to upgrade its system. With $22 million from Justice's COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) program, the department is building a data warehouse, a departmentwide
facial recognition system, a digital photo system, a crime analysis mapping
program and a data sharing project called the High Intensity Drug Trafficking
Area, Longueira said.
But like many urban police departments, Miami realizes that giving its police
quick access to central data is not enough. The city is working on the back-office
systems, integrating its databases and improving its data mapping, so that
data makes sense from one system to the next.
It's a massive, multifaceted problem.
"You are talking about thousands of data elements that are not all stored
the same way. Every time you share data, you have to make sure that all
data elements are appropriately mapped," said Mike Weins, Unisys project
manager for the Justice and Public Safety practice. For example, the abbreviation
"bl" means blond in one system and black in another.
Even if officers use a leading mobile or wireless system, it does no
good without back-end database integration and data sharing.
Here's the way it plays out in real life: An officer near the border
of North Carolina and South Carolina pulls over a vehicle and checks its
license plate. The driver had no criminal record in North Carolina or in
the FBI NCIC database, so the officer assumes he's safe. However, when the
officer approaches the vehicle, the driver shoots him dead.
With access to the South Carolina criminal database, the officer could
have known the driver had a criminal record there, said North Carolina's
Progress in data sharing is slow but steady. The Pasadena, Calif., Police
Department is working on a research project with Motorola and the Police
Executive Research Forum to improve access to and analysis of crime information.
"We need to get access to information and then integrate it," said Mary
Schander, commander of Pasadena's Strategic Services Division. Pasadena
uses handheld Palm Inc. Palm IIIs to conduct field and contact interviews,
then docks the PDAs into a workstation at headquarters and transfers the
digital data to a database that houses crime analysis information.
"It gives us timely information about witnesses to crimes," Pasadena
Sgt. Eric Mills said.
Mills would rather use the Cellular Digital Packet Data wireless network
than the Motorola RF network.
"The advantage of CDPD is the vendors will maintain and repair it to
state-of-the-art [condition]. AT&T already has it in place and will
upgrade it," he said.
He also would like to upgrade the Palm IIIs to Palm
VIIs with built-in wireless modems.
"We'd like to see officers go to wireless communications away from their
cars with the Palm VIIs. The moment you can establish instantaneous collection
of and transfer of data is the moment you can get ahead of the curve. With
proven statistical analysis, you can predict when and where things will
— Cheryl Gerber is a free-lance writer based in Kingston, N.Y.