Connecting Cops Generates Static

Leave it to New York. No good move goes unchastised.

The day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said his department would install laptop computers in 2,200 patrol cars.

PDF DownloadThese computers allow street cops, before stepping out of their vehicles, to pull up names and rap sheets of suspects. They allow dispatchers to ship mug shots of a terrorist who has allegedly entered the city to all units. In the near future, cops with digital cameras will send shots of crime scenes back to the precinct house, instantly. And run the photo of a loiterer on a street corner through a face database. Ditto with buildings. If cops suspect something is amiss at a particular symbolic target in their borough, aerial photos will show how the area is supposed to look.

Even such a mundane thing as filing a report will be overhauled. Complaints will be typed inside the home of the complainant. Details will be shipped to a central computer the second the laptop is hooked back into its wireless connection in the car. No more going back to the precinct house, typing up notes onto paper and waiting hours or days for them to get entered by a computer operator.

This is the kind of technology the department should be investing in. As Baseline reported in its September 2002 issue (“The Disconnected Cop”), this is a department that is close to “technically bereft,” as former commissioner and now Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton put it. Right now, pictures of known terrorists are left hanging on clipboards back at the precinct house.

Is that any way to conduct a war on terror? Not hardly. Yet this is the state of our first line of defense in the city that remains the victim of the most horrific act of hate ever committed on United States soil.

Within 24 hours, Kelly’s move was being hammered. In one of his fair city’s fine newspapers, the department was being taken to task for its past failures to use technology effectively. It was as if you told the Internal Revenue Service to go back to hand-checking all returns, because it will never learn how to use computer systems.

That’s not an option. Sure, the financial technology maven who is now mayor of Gotham, Michael Bloomberg, has threatened to lay off cops in order to meet his legal duty to close a gigantic gap in the city’s budget. In fact, the only way to make better use of the police that you have is to make them more effective and efficient. That means extending their sight and their hands, through computing and communications systems.

Yes, it will take healthy doses of training and education to get some beat cops to effectively peck a keyboard. But once they get the hang of it, they’ll never step outside without a check of the database first. It’ll make their jobs more focused and their lives safer—and ours, as well.

The fate of the twin towers taught us that the time to do that is now, not later. Police departments now need to fight cunning with compute power. This, as Deputy Chief John Gilmartin puts it, “is a base we can expand on.”

The cost seems excessive to the critics. The tab is $14.1 million to install computers in 2,200 cars. That’s about $6,400 a unit.

This is something the city’s controller can review. Yet the shock- and water-resistant CF-28 laptops from Panasonic will cost less than $4,000 each, about 40% of what the text-only data terminals in the vehicles cost eight years ago. Installation, training and mounting gear add to the expense.

If the computers are ignored, it’s a waste. If they stop one terrorist bombing or ricin gas attack, the machines are worth every dime. You make the call. Hopefully, to the police chief, mayor and controller of your choice. Or your local equivalent of the New York City Police Foundation.

We, at Ziff Davis Media, already did. Through the foundation, the department a few weeks ago received 30 personal computers that we no longer used. That’s enough computing, by current NYPD standards, to support an entire precinct.

It’s only a start. You compose the finish.