Taking a Byte Out of Crime

Laptops in cruisers give officers a speedy - and secret - tool to help catch criminals

A motorcyclist here was recently pulled over for speeding. But he went to jail for another reason.

When Lt. Arthur Ryan tapped the biker's license-plate number into his laptop computer, he discovered - in about 15 seconds - that the young man was wanted on a felony warrant for malicious destruction of property.

"Before we had these computers, he would have been given a ticket for the traffic violation and sent on his way," says Lieutenant Ryan, a veteran of the Lowell Police Department. "Because of this technology, I took him in."

The Lowell police force is at the vanguard of a national trend to turn cruisers into cybercars. In some departments, car radios will soon be replaced by the quicker and quieter laptops.

With laptops beside them, police officers can tap into a wealth of state and national crime databases and communicate with each other in secret. "It gives you the tools to do a much better job," Ryan says. "Our crime rate has dropped dramatically the past few years."

The seconds saved by using computers not only can make police more efficient, they also provide an added margin of safety, says Jack McDevitt, a criminal justice expert at Northeastern University in Boston.

It doesn't happen often, but police have pulled someone over and been killed "waiting for information that that person was wanted for murder," says Mr. McDevitt. Timing can be "incredibly crucial," he says.

Lowell began installing laptops three years ago with a grant obtained from the US Department of Justice under the Community Oriented Policing (COPs) Programs. Set up in 1994, COPs issues grants for hiring new officers or for redeploying desk officers. It also covers purchasing technology that allows the officer to perform duties more effectively.

Given the options, "overwhelmingly, it's laptops the departments purchase," says COPs spokesman Charles Miller. So far, COPs has issued some $90 million in grants to 619 law-enforcement agencies for laptop purchases.

Lowell - an Industrial Revolution-era mill town of 100,000 - has equipped all 25 of its marked cars and some of its detectives' unmarked cars with the Toshiba laptops and Cerulean software.

IN Ryan's cruiser, it is mounted in front of his older Motorola Dispatch radio. As he drives down Pawtucket Street, past multifamily clapboard houses, Ryan logs on. The screen displays the location of all cruisers currently patrolling this 14-square-mile city. Each car is labeled: C1 for Car One, C15, etc. When an officer checks a vehicle's license plate, that number shows up on the screen next to the cruiser's number. At the moment, four cruisers are checking plate numbers.

"Each car patrols a certain area," Ryan says. "If a car needed backup [in the case that the laptop screen displays a 'stolen car' or 'wanted' message], the rest of us would know where they are."

Ryan's car radio squawks. The dispatcher calls out a domestic-violence alert. Police here still rely on the radio for those kinds of complaints, he says, but others - such as a bank robbery in progress - are only sent out over the laptops. The computer messages are encrypted, preventing criminals from listening in, as they are able to do with police-radio scanners.

Ryan says the technology, combined with an integrated community policing program, has dramatically lowered Lowell's crime rates. From 1995 to 1996, for example, Lowell's violent crime rate fell 33 percent.

Most police departments that have installed laptops report progress in reducing crime.

"Our arrests for wanted on warrants and driving on suspended licenses have increased 100 percent since we instituted this terminal," says Sgt. Larry Howell of the Lake in the Hills, Ill., police force. The town 50 miles northwest of Chicago has one car equipped with a laptop and is installing five others now.

In Florida's Volusia County - a 1,200-square-mile area - the Sheriff's Department has installed 38 laptops in the past three months and will be adding 40 others in the next two months.

As soon as all vehicles are equipped with the laptops, says George Conlon, the department's information systems coordinator, they will go to full dispatch. That means they will no longer use radios; everything will be transmitted via computer.

In addition, Volusia's systems can run gun checks, property checks, and boat checks. It can display maps as well.

"If a deputy types in an address," says Mr. Conlon, "a county map pops up with a pin pointing to the address. He can zoom in and out depending on how far away he is, so he can get there much quicker."

In addition, programs are being developed that can identify people by fingerprints and mug shots. The Lowell Police Department has mug shots on internal computers now, and it expects to have mug shots available to the laptops in cars within the next two years.

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