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Peninsula police use smart phones, tablets when responding to calls in the field

By Valentina Nesci | 16 May 2011

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Lt. Jason Jenkins of the Palo Alto Police Department illustrates some of the iPad features police use when responding to calls. (Photo: Valentina Nesci)

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The homicide was not particularly remarkable. A man, later identified as Jing Wua Hu, had shot three people at Si Port, a semiconductor company in Mountain View.

Nevertheless, when the Santa Clara police department started its investigation, the police soon realized that something was different: “We had a positive identification of the suspect within minutes of the crime happening,” said Lt. Dan Winter, Santa Clara’s communications lieutenant.

Usually, he explained, identifying suspects takes a much longer time, because it is difficult for policemen to gain access to suspect’s photos quickly.

However, that day in 2009, one of the officers had a smart phone.

“[The officer] had one of our records personnel email him the photograph of the suspect from his DMV photo,” Winter said, “And the policemen were able to show the picture to the witnesses directly from the smart phone.”

As smart phones become more and more popular — Nielsen reports that they will overtake other types of cell phones in sales this year — policemen across the Bay Area are learning how to harness this new technology to their advantage.

In the Palo Alto Police Department, new technology is omnipresent: every officer seems to have his own netbook or smart phone. An enormous smart board, an interactive whiteboard that you can use as a touch-screen computer, fills the wall of one of the conference rooms.

In Santa Clara, more than 100 of the approximately 145 police officers own a smart phone, according to a recent survey Winter conducted. Also policemen in Mountain View and San Jose use smart phones daily, saving their departments time and money while also and improving their ability to coordinate difficult operations.

“Honestly, smart phones and netbooks have become almost necessary to do our job” said police agent Jason Jenkins, who owns both an iPhone and an iPad.

Winter agreed. “Right now, there are two types of officers,” he said. “Those who have a smart phone, and those who want a smart phone, but haven’t gotten one yet. Pretty much everybody who works in law enforcement today knows how good a tool a smart phone is.”

Smart phones make it easy to search for data in the field

According to Jason Dweir, San Jose’s public information officer and former special operations officer for the Metropolitan Police department, “The mapping capability of the smart phone is probably the most useful thing that we use in the field.”

Let’s say, for instance, that a violent criminal is hiding in a house on California Avenue in Palo Alto. Policemen with smart phones can pull up a fire map that they would have previously uploaded to the phone and use it to look up specific addresses.

Dweir said several policemen now keep a fire map on their phones. This “gives you a birds-eye view of the size and the scope of the locations you are going to have to search,” he explained, and it “really aids in coordinating a search.”

To illustrate how the process works, Dweir used the example of two houses located right next to each other. The only thing separating the backyards is a fence.

This is a dangerous situation for a policeman, as shots fired in one house could go through the fence and hurt an officer who is conducting a search in a the neighboring house. To prevent this from happening, policemen have to coordinate their search, making sure that the different search groups are sufficiently far apart.

According to Dweir, having a fire map at hand makes this safer, as it provides the policemen with a visual representation of the area that they can readily refer to.

Through smart phones, policemen can also access map applications, such as Google Earth, to get an overview of the place they are going to search. If police see a dog’s yard or a swing set in a yard, they prepare to encounter pets or children in the house they’re searching.

Finally, Dweir points out that Google Earth and similar applications can also be useful in emergency situations, “to get an aerial perspective of the area and be able to better allocate your resources” or “create a better spot to evacuate people.”

Smart phones and netbooks to save money and paper

“As policemen, we are required to stay up on case law, the penal code and anything that we are going to enforce,” Jenkins said. However, he noted that this can be an arduous task, as “the laws change so much that you can easily get far behind the curve.”

To prevent this from happening, “we use smart phones, netbooks and anything else that’s electronic that allows us to get the information at our fingertips, quickly, all the time,” Jenkins said. Smart phones and netbooks make this easy, as both the vehicle code and penal code can be easily downloaded on them as applications.

Having the codes in electronic form poses several advantages for policemen, most notably, e-books are vastly cheaper than their physical counterparts.

“Unfortunately, the cost associated with outfitting every single officer with the vehicle and penal code every year becomes substantial,” Jenkins said, “So the department can save money by not having to do that to every officer when an officer has a netbook or a smart phone.”

Additionally, having the codes in electronic format can also help policemen to retrieve the information more quickly, as the application allows them to search for a specific code or violation.

The penal code is a particularly thick book, Jenkins said, and, when looking for a specific violation, a policeman can get lost between all of the laws that can be associated with one type of crime. The application, however, allows policemen to search directly for a type of crime.

“If I was to type in ‘vandalism’ it would give me all the codes associated with this violation” Jenkins said. “This allows us to get a better overview of which violation was actually committed and identify whether or not any additional violation has taken place.”

Lastly, an electronic version of the codes can be useful when the policeman encounters a particularly skeptical criminal.

“If you are doing an enforcement action or you have someone stopped on the side of the road, and they want some sort of clarification, you can actually give that to them” Jenkins said. “These devices help quite a bit” he added, while affectionately petting his netbook.

Smart phones for a quicker, more independent policeman

“When smart phones first started to come out” Dweir said, “what you could see was a transition from policemen asking other people or dispatchers at the communication centers to do a certain thing to the policemen doing it themselves.”

Smart phones empower policemen, giving them the possibility to “find a location, find a phone number, look at a map and be able to make their own decisions directly from the field,” Dweir added.

This has not only enabled policemen to think more quickly on their feet, but has also lessened the work for the communications centers which, according to Dweir, are already overworked.

Before the advent of smart phones, anything from trying to locate a suspect or victim to finding a phone number or an address had to be done through a third party.

“You would have to run it through dispatch,” Dweir said, “Dispatch would have to make a service request, they would have a separate dispatcher sitting at a separate desk do the research and send the information back to the first dispatcher, who would then relate it to the policemen.”

By enabling policemen to find the information they need directly through their phones, these devices considerably speed up investigations. In a period in which the police department is faced with serious budget cuts and staff reduction, a smart phone becomes a precious asset.

“Any little thing we can tweak to make things move faster and be more efficient is a welcome change,” Dweir says.

Smart phones and Netbooks Travel

Officers typically have laptops in their cars, and they are also often issued phones and radios. Intuitively, a combination of these three devices should render the smart phones and netbooks superfluous or, at least, not necessary to do the job.

However, Bay Area policemen don’t agree. For instance, while Jenkins acknowledges that policemen do occasionally write police reports from their laptops, he argues that “the ergonomics of sitting in a police car with a duty belt on make trying to turn to write on a fixed keyboard very difficult.”

“If you are going to write a 10-page police report,” he added, “sitting in a police car is probably not the best place to do it.”

What usually happens, instead, is that policemen return to their stations and write reports from the computers located there. However, this is not as efficient as walking into the nearest cafe, pulling out a netbook and writing a report from there, prior to going to the next assignment.

Another advantage of the netbook is that it is highly portable, said Lt. Sandra Brown, media spokesperson for at Palo Alto’s Police Department. Netbooks and smart phones can be carried around and used to write notes, “Whereas the computer in the car stays in the car,” Brown said.

“This also fits into a policeman’s motorcycle” Brown added, mimicking the gesture of placing the netbook inside a bag.

Smart phones will carry police into the future

When asked about the future of law enforcement, Bay Area policemen are full of ideas and dreams, some of which are actually pretty close to becoming reality.

Hardly containing her enthusiasm, Brown made sweeping gestures as she demonstrated the new device that might soon be used by Palo Alto policemen to write tickets.

“You can take the person’s driving license,” she said.  “You can run it through a machine that’s about as big as a phone, and it generates all of the information onto the ticket: the address, the name, the weight…”

The officer would then only have to add the relevant information, such as the type of crime committed, and a copy of the ticket would be printed (although it wouldn’t be surprising if policemen decided to simply email it) to the person charged with the crime.

“These types of devices are being explored as we speak,” Brown said.

Both Brown and Winter agree that reports will soon be written electronically, although Brown believes this might be done through a netbook, while Winter’s police department is developing a smart phone application that can be used to write shorter reports.

Although their visions are diverse, Bay Area policemen seem to agree on the fact that technology is going to play an increasingly important role in the fight against crime.

“I don’t know what the future is going to hold for law enforcement,” Brown said, “but if you watch any type of sci-fi television show about the future of law enforcement, it seems that these things are happening.”

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