Updated: 18 June 2011
Original Post: 2 August 2009
A long time ago in a city far far away I was a street cop. A police officer working the beat. It wasn’t a large city – Dubuque, Iowa – 65,000 people and probably 60 or 70 policemen. Yes “policeMEN”. The first women were hired into the Dubuque PD while I was there, and I – at 5′ 9″ and 170 pounds – was one of the smallest cops on the force.
In those days, technology was not really part of an officer’s life. Times have changed, they REALLY have changed. The Seattle Police Department has just implemented a new Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system which is fundamentally altering policing at the City of Seattle – the “SPIDER” project. Technology is now – literally – at the right and left hand of virtually every cop – and firefighter and emergency medical tech.
When I was on the street, my primary technology was the radio in my police cruiser. The voice radio was (and still is) the lifeline for public safety officers on the street. But, in the 1970s, when I walked out of the car, I also walked away from that lifeline. We didn’t have handheld or portable radios, nor did cell phones exist. If there was a problem when we were away from the car, we depended upon each other to “drive by” and check on us (and cops still do that), or on a citizen to use a land-line telephone to notify dispatch. That was scary.
Now police officers carry a handheld radio, and a lapel mike, and every Seattle radio has an emergency button which, when pressed, alerts dispatch center that the officer is in trouble. The emergency alert triggers a display of badge number on the dispatch console. The radios can communicate with officers throughout the region. And automatic vehicle location (AVL) shows the location of every police and fire apparatus in the City. All of this tech doesn’t mean policing is easier or safer than it was in the 1970s – on the contrary, there are new issues and dangers, which I’ll mention a little later.
We did reports by hand, on paper. We filled out index cards for car stops. And every call to police/fire emergency was logged on a card with a timestamp. When we wanted to get information about a license plate or driver’s license, the dispatcher looked up the info in a set of file cards or – this was really high tech in the 1970s – typed the request into a teletype machine for someone in some far city (like Des Moines) to look up on their index cards.
Now, things are much more high tech. First, people call 911 for emergencies. 911 is virtually ubiquitous in the United States, but barely existed in the 1970s. The police call-taker immediately sees the ANI/ALI (automatic number identification / automatic location identification) associated with your number. The call taker immediately enters all the information about the call into the Seattle Police Department’s new CAD (software written by Versaterm). [Fires or emergency medical calls are "hot transferred" from a police call-taker to a fire dispatcher, who enters the information into a Seattle Fire CAD, and you can actually view some real-time information about Fire 911 calls online here].
Dispatchers then dispatch the 911 call to an available police unit. An electronic map shows the location of every 911 call which is in-progress or waiting, the locations of police units and their status (free, working a call, etc.). A double click on a map icon brings up information about the call or the unit. Records management (also by Versaterm) is similarly automated, with reports now written electronically on laptop or in-vehicle computers directly by officers. A wide variety of information (e.g. address) is automatically verified, and the report is uploaded wirelessly.
The state-of-the-art in Seattle Police is even more high tech. Every patrol car has a digital video camera; every car stop is recorded, including the audio of the conversation from a wireless mic carried by the officer. Special license-plate-recognition vehicles (wirelessly connected to national databases) cruise the streets looking for parking scofflaws and stolen cars. Officers with BlackBerrys or their in-car vehicles can easily search for online information – a far cry from that teletype machine.
We are actively working on even higher speed wireless networking in the 700 MHz spectrum, which should allow two-way high-quality video transmissions to/from field units, including video from private security cameras in banks and stores. Fire units already carry electronic versions certain sorts of building plans, but in the future those building plans could be quickly updated to show the locations of hazardous materials or the detailed configuration of a school.
I’m certain high-tech has increased public safety through more rapid sharing of information, and has improved communications and therefore officer safety. This comes at a price, of course, and not just in dollars. I’m not quite sure how dispatchers and police officers and firefighters stay current with the skills required to dispatch, provide policing, fight fires and provide emergency medical, AND also learn all this technology. It is a challenge!
And officers today face dangers on the street which I never dreamed of in the 1970s – significant drug use, gangs, potential terrorists, and criminals who specialize themselves in using technology for identity theft, stalking, and crimes against children. I’m glad my experience as a police officer is behind me – I’m not smart enough or quick enough on my feet to face the challenges of the street today. But I hope – by continued wise application of technology – we can make cops, firefighters and the people they serve a bit safer.