ROCKVILLE – Cpl. Sean Renauer drives one of the first police cruisers equipped with a new computer system that could revolutionize crime fighting. Outfitted with the latest technology, his car serves as a mobile police station.
“The police car has always been my office, and it is for every officer – especially those on patrol,” Renauer said.
Now that mobile office is even more self-sufficient, with instant access to maps, driver license records, warrant listings and new call information.
Renauer’s computer system is a prototype of one of the first fully integrated systems in the country combining police and fire and rescue communications and records management.
According to Bill Patsche, an agent with the national Office of Law Enforcement Technology Commercialization and former police chief, Montgomery County’s new system is “probably ahead” of most departments nationwide. And he said the county’s wealth contributes to its ability to get such resources, a luxury unavailable to a lot of other departments, he said.
Renauer, a Montgomery County police officer, used to radio a dispatcher to get an address to respond to a call. Now, using the new system, he just punches up the information he needs on a “global data computer” mounted on his console.
In seconds, after a few keystrokes, he has a computerized map on the screen, tracking the position of his car, plotting the best course to the destination, and monitoring his speed and altitude using a global positioning system.
The new technology is not just about convenience. It’s about saving lives.
“Personally, as a citizen, if I have a priority call, I want the police there as fast as possible, and I don’t care how they do it,” Renauer said.
Precious seconds are lost when an officer, patrolling a new or unfamiliar area, has to pull out a map to plot a course to a call. On the computer, such information is virtually instantaneous.
“There’s no comparison,” Renauer said. “However, if I went through the dispatcher, there may be a call going on. Airtime is a premium, and I may have to wait my turn to get my response back.”
In fact, airtime is at a critical point. Officers say on a given night, 80 units could be operating on one radio channel prompting long waits for needed information.
The new hardware is really just the beginning for a whole suite of new products and services police will roll out in the next few years. Montgomery County just signed a $130 million deal with tech-firm TRW for its Public Safety 2000 program.
Other Maryland police departments have laptops in their cars which can generate reports, search NCIC, a crime database, and search outstanding warrants, but these systems are older technology.
Montgomery County Police Sgt. Bruce Blair, who has been following police technology for more than 10 years, said the hardware allows a host of new software products to be added in the next few years. In areas where traffic signals are controlled from central locations, police will eventually be able to clear the way for them to speed to emergency calls without running red lights and endangering other motorists.
When his car is fully operational, Renauer will be able to pull up data on past incidents at an address he is approaching. He will also have instant access to a criminal’s past record.
In the more distant future, police will be able to pinpoint cell phones calling for help, and with a system known as “wireless dispatch,” squad cars will know the address of a call as soon as the caller connects with a dispatcher and the information is keyed into a computer.
Pilot programs to integrate fire and rescue units into the computer network also are under way. The technology will enable them to better communicate with police and give them access to hazardous materials reports and building plans when out in the field.
Every police car in Montgomery County is scheduled to be online with computers by July 2002.
Blair is excited about the program because he thinks it will revolutionize police work. “(It) will help save lives,” he said, “because it will allow the officers to information they never had before.”