Computers in police cars

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Baltimore City Police Department will take another giant step into the computer age next fall with sophisticated equipment that will enable officers to tap into a wide variety of data bases from their patrol cars. The idea is not new; many police departments have had some form of portable computer in their radio cars for years. But these, according to police officials, are supposed to provide more information for officers on the street -- some of which could help save their lives.

A $3 million contract has been awarded for the purchase of 160 mobile data work stations, one for each car in the city on regular patrol. They will look much like a miniaturized personal computer of the sort familiar in offices and homes. Initially, at least, it will be most useful in tracking stolen cars, the city's most prevalent major crime. Rather than asking radio dispatchers to run license checks, patrol officers will be able to access not just Maryland's XTC own records but also the National Crime Information Center. Police officials believe officers will run more checks if they know they are not tying up radio time. Oustanding warrants and missing persons reports will be similarly available.

The new equipment is likely to endear itself quickly to patrol officers because of an automatic warning they will get if they are dispatched to a location that is known to be hostile to police. That information is now stored in a police computer at headquarters but is not instantly available to officers on the street. With the new equipment, the officers will get a warning if they are sent to an address known to harbor some danger to them or which might have been the scene of a recent violent incident.

Another dividend will come in the further improvement of the software, developed locally by Westinghouse. The data station will display information relayed by a radio dispatcher. It will also store some of it as a record. Eventually it will print out information required for written reports, cutting down the time officers spend painstakingly transcribing the information when they could be on patrol.

Questions have been raised asking why the $3 million wasn't spent on hiring more officers or on a pay raise. For one thing, recruits and raises are recurring expenses; this purchase was financed by an unexpected surplus of unspent funds -- a one-time windfall. The computers are expected to substantially increase patrol officers' efficiency, giving them more effective policing time. And who's going to decide the dollars and cents value of the hazardous location warning to patrol officers?

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