Calling all Cars

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

Solutions manager.

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

to go.

"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

data network.

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.


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