Mobile Computer in Law Enforcement

By Chu, Jim | Law & Order, June 2002 | Go to article overview
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Mobile Computer in Law Enforcement


Chu, Jim, Law & Order


In the past decade, the recognition that a computer in a police car is as essential as the siren, light bar and radio has grown. While computers first appeared in police cars in the mid1970s, their adoption became widespread with the introduction of massmarket Intel-based portable computers and the availability of commercial wireless services. There have been two generations of mobile computers in police use: the proprietary data terminal era and the current personal computer era.

The MDT Era

In the mid-1970s, agencies such as Las Vegas, NV, Kansas City, KS, and Vancouver, BC, were the first to install computers in police vehicles. Early manufacturers included KUSTOM and MDI/Motorola. The limited power and memory of these mobile data terminal (MDT) computers, coupled with their small monochrome display screens, meant that applications taken for granted today, such as word processing, were simply out of the question.

This history lesson is relevant because many of these first-generation systems remain in use today. The MDT is primarily used to enable patrol officers to conduct self-serve queries of database information previously available only by radioing a dispatcher. This included: direct access to state or provincial motor vehicle databases, or crime databases such as NCIC or the Canadian CPIC; message from car-tocar or car-to-dispatcher; receive call dispatches from a Computer Aided Dispatch system.

The MDT was usually fix-mounted in vehicles, but a few agencies introduced handheld devices. A legacy MDT used proprietary operating systems and accessed private data radio systems using unique transmission and data presentation protocols. Because of the private infrastructure needs and the associated high costs, MDT systems were generally affordable only in larger police agencies. The majority of the software applications were custom-designed or extensively modified by in-house computer systems staff.

The business justifications for MDTs usually revolved around the need for: fewer dispatchers because officers conducted self-serve queries; fewer voice radio channels, which is a consideration in spectrum-starved larger metropolitan regions; and a secondary and private communications channel that could backup the voice radio system.

The first-generation MDTs had small memory buffers, minimal processing power and small screens. Combining these limitations with the narrow bandwidth of their associated wireless data networks meant that it was only practical to transmit and receive short text messages. Receiving a mugshot image was simply unthinkable in an era where digital photography was a distant dream.

The PC Era

In the early 1990s, many agencies purchased Intel-based processor computers that used the DOS, and later Windows, operating system. In addition, commercial data wireless services such as ARDIS, MOBITEX and CDPD began to appear. For smaller agencies, building a second generation mobile computing system was as simple as purchasing standard laptop computers and subscribing to a wireless packet or circuit data service (similar to a cellular phone plan).

Clearly, the law enforcement marketplace required a specially designed rough-service computer. Early ruggedized computers were prone to failure, but by the mid to late 1990s it was possible to purchase general retail computers that were more reliable and durable than the early ruggedized PCs. The price of these newer open architecture computers dropped well below the cost of a proprietary MDT. By the late 1990s ruggedized computers had dropped in price to below what consumer laptops sold for only a few years previously.

The greater available computing power meant that the computers were more appropriately described by the term "mobile workstation" (MWS). In addition to being able to emulate all MDT functions, applications such as word-processing, specialized incident reporting software, imaging (mugshots and mapping) and specialized input (bar code, magnetic stripe readers) were available.

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