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Baltimore police with smartphones: a good idea?

Did you catch Justin Fenton's story about the Baltimore Police Department wanting to roll out BlackBerries to its 2,000 officers? It's an interesting one, talking about how Commissioner Bealefeld hopes cops will use these smartphones to check warrants, retrieve drivers license photos and stay better connected with each other.

Before the Baltimore Police Department decided to give BlackBerries to police officers to do their jobs, I was using my iPhone to do my job as a crime reporter.

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The department's top brass can also use the phones' built-in GPS to track the beat cops as they're deployed on the street. Not a bad idea, one might think.

Before I started covering technology earlier this year, I was a crime and breaking news reporter, doing my time on the Sun's city desk for the previous four years.

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I had used a mobile laptop and a video camera in the past to do my work from the field. But I really wanted an iPhone because I knew it would help me work faster, because I wouldn't have to wait for a laptop to boot up and I could transmit photos more seamlessly and instantaneously from the device.

So, here's how I ended up used a smartphone to report on crime in Baltimore: (hit the jump for the rest)

*) I found an iPhone app (FStream) that I could use to monitor Baltimore police and fire frequencies. Suddenly, we didn't have to spend $500 on a handheld scanner from Radio Shack. The app was free.

*) Using the iPhone's excellent Safari Web browser, I was able to access Maryland's judicial case information search network. This meant that while working on a breaking crime story, I could pull up the criminal records of suspects and even people I interviewed (to get a feel for their veracity) while on the street.

*) The iPhone's excellent web browser meant I could also access two awesome services that the Sun pays subscriptions for: Nexis and Accurint. With Nexis, I have access to archived news articles from thousands of news organizations. With Accurint, I could do robust background checks on people, including finding past addresses, phone numbers, relatives, bankruptcy records, criminal records, lawsuits and more.

*) In a breaking news scenario, where time was tight and I didn't have time to explain something to my boss by phone, I would just snap some photos and email them quickly. My boss could see with her own eyes what I was seeing, almost in real time.

*) I could monitor Twitter and my news competition, while on the street. Always important.

The police, I imagine, will find the smartphones incredibly useful because it means they don't have to sit in their cruisers to get information from a laptop. But they have to feel motivated to use them in innovative ways. They could, theoretically, use them in many different ways, i.e. sharing of suspect photos, taking video statements, investigative research tool and to help communicate more quickly with their colleagues.

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Because of this, I would have to wonder if the department will have to start worrying about them as tools that could generate evidence at crime scenes, and to treat them accordingly. That's the funny thing about new technology: it can solve some old problems and generate new issues to ponder.


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