Howard County police Sgt. David J. Trapani was cruising through a parking lot when he spotted license tags dangling suspiciously from an old yellow car.
The police radio was flooded with calls, a situation that often prevents officers from checking with dispatchers about stolen plates. But this time, Trapani typed the numbers into a computer in his patrol car and watched as information scrolled down the screen: The tags were stolen.
He arrested the car's owner.
"It would have been impossible and very selfish to run the computer work over the radio," said Trapani, who has been testing a Datalux Corp. computer for several weeks.
Within six months, Howard County police will begin installing computers in 50 cruisers, officials say, allowing county police to join the swelling ranks of law enforcement agencies using car-based computers, a nationwide movement that started in larger departments two decades ago.
The older models basically ran license plates, but newer computers should increase efficiency and lead to more arrests. They also turn officers' cruisers -- often loaded with papers, pens, briefcases and family photographs stuck to sun visors -- into modern workplaces.
"Today you actually have a desktop in a car," said Mickey Rooney, national sales manager for Datalux. "What you would find in the home office is actually available to a police officer today in his mobile office."
Officers will no longer write a report, type it, show it to a sergeant and retype it. In Howard County, police envision a day without paper, when officers will type reports in parking lots and e-mail them to sergeants on patrol.
Today, Howard police must radio in license plate search requests to dispatchers juggling several calls. That often takes minutes.
With computers, officers can search more license tags in seconds.
'A great help'
"This will be a great help to us," Trapani said. "We won't have to wait for [radio] air time to get a hold of dispatchers. This will save an incredible amount of time and leave air free for higher priority issues or incidents."
About 30 percent of police agencies nationwide have computers in patrol cars, experts say, and that number is growing. In the Baltimore region, several jurisdictions have computers or plan to get them.
Anne Arundel County police officers in two districts can take laptops on patrol to write reports, and Baltimore police can search databases, send messages car-to-car and receive dispatch instructions on their dashboard-mounted terminals.
In Baltimore County, police have terminals and hope to upgrade their system with federal funds.
The new computers and software will allow officers to type reports, then e-mail them to supervisors, saving time, paper and money, said Bill Toohey, a police spokesman.
"Now, officers stop someplace, write up their notes," Toohey said. "The computers will eliminate that step of going from pad and pencil to typewriter."
The trend started in the 1970s, when large police departments bought terminals to check license tags and send out basic dispatch information. That left out smaller departments because the computers required radio channels and expensive equipment.
Today's computers are much cheaper (between $5,000 and $10,000 apiece) and use cellular phone service, giving nearly every department access.
Howard County police will spend about $325,000 buying computers, then pay $33,000 a year for cellular service and $7,800 annually for database access.
Howard police also plan to purchase laptop computers that detectives can use on stakeouts.
"They can use it for investigations outside Howard County and even other states," said Capt. Howard Ferguson.
The other afternoon, Trapani logged on to the system as he patrolled east Columbia.
Trapani has been testing a Datalux computer that has a detachable keyboard and a floppy disk drive that allows him to save reports and print them at the station.
Trapani controls the computer by touching icons on the monitor.
"It's very user-friendly," he said.
Trapani, a member of a committee researching the computer systems, has been interested in computers since his days as a narcotics detective in the early 1990s. He could barely type, but he learned. Later, he bought a home computer and has upgraded it four times.
During the test period, Trapani said, officers have made arrests and recovered stolen property with the help of the computers.
Experts say most departments make more arrests and recover more stolen cars when officers use computers because they can instantly check license plates at stop signs, traffic lights and in parking lots.
The technology also can serve other purposes.
Driving down a suburban road in Oakland Mills, Trapani logged on to the Internet and watched his favorite World Wide Web site page display radar images of local weather. But Howard County police officers probably won't have access to the Web, Trapani says.
"There are so many other things out there to distract you," he said.
Even without the Web, experts say, the number of police-related accidents likely will increase when officers begin using computers.
"You can tell cops to never type while driving, but they are going to do it anyway," said Tim Dees, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Floyd College in Georgia and technology writer for Law and Order magazine.
Besides accidents, Dees also has noticed a more mundane, yet expensive, problem -- spilled coffee.
"Any horizontal surface in a patrol car -- no matter how expensive it is -- will be used as a coffee cup holder," he said.
Pub Date: 1/19/99