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Public Safety

Adding Smartphones to the Law Enforcement Technology Arsenal

Look inside most marked police vehicles and you’ll almost always find a mobile computer. It’s been more than 30 years since the first mobile data terminals hit the field and, not surprisingly, today’s officers now have access to a wide range of data sources and capabilities. In addition to providing powerful query access to regional and national databases, in-vehicle computers support mission-essential functions like Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD), control of video units and license plate reader systems, and have served as the standard for law enforcement technology.

There was a time when access to this type of computing power was limited to those assigned to a desk while field officers were relegated to conducting queries by radio. Those days are in the past.

Properly equipped, mobile computers empower today’s officers with situational awareness, including geopositioning of other units and alerts to emerging crime hotspots. However, all that empowerment ends when the officer steps outside the vehicle. And the reality of policing is that the most effective officers are those who don’t stay in their air-conditioned mobile “offices.”

In fact, most agencies emphasize the need for officers to leave their vehicles and engage with the community. Therein lies the conundrum: The vehicle serves as an effective base of operation, but leaving the vehicle usually means stepping away from all but the most basic information sources. As a result, officers must rely on their radios, even though the original reason for turning to mobile computers was that radio systems were often overtaxed, and interaction with dispatch means that two people are needed to conduct even the most basic query.

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Adding Smartphones to the Law Enforcement Technology Arsenal

Law enforcement culture is such that challenges do not go unaddressed. When it comes to tackling the limitations outlined above, progressive agencies are finding that today’s smartphones, if properly equipped, can replicate and extend the functionality of in-vehicle computers.

In fact, smartphones not only provide the additional benefits afforded by their inherent utility, they open the door to options that, for the most part, go well beyond what in-vehicle computers can do. Some capabilities are made possible with an off-the-shelf smartphone, and others are available with an application or added device. Suffice to say, the potential is great. Here’s a partial list of what’s already available today:

  • Camera for capturing images and videos of evidence
  • On-scene information collection, recording and note-taking
  • Timely and mission-critical retrieval of relevant data
  • Mobile Computer-Aided Dispatch (extends the smartphone into a fully-functional CAD-addressable device)
  • Multifactor authentication and ID verification
  • Voice assistance
  • Situational awareness (GPS for tracking subjects or backup locations)
  • Electronic citations
  • Basic language translator
  • Readily available resources for department policies, including short training videos

Although agencies usually have some level of smartphone issuance, the devices often go to administrators and are used for their base-level functions. However, that’s changing as departments realize the significant return on investment that’s available when smartphones are issued to field officers. In addition to extending an officer’s resources beyond the patrol vehicle, the practical utility is enormous.

An officer can do follow-up phone calls with witnesses, contact parents of a detained juvenile or check space availability at a mental health facility. Although some officers use personal phones to accomplish these tasks, many are reluctant to do so because of caller ID. That’s less of a concern with a department-issued device.

Applications Abound

So far, we’ve only considered the smartphone empowerment benefits within the context of officers assigned to patrol functions. However, most agencies have personnel that operate on assignments where a traditional vehicle is not in use, and thus there is no platform to support an in-vehicle computer.

Consider the law enforcement personnel who are in positions such as bike or foot patrol, motor officers, plain-clothes details, school resource positions or marine units. A smartphone can empower an officer with mission-critical, real-time data wherever operations take them, increasing their situational awareness and overall productivity — regardless of assignment.

Additionally, with technology such as Samsung DeX, which offers users a rich desktop experience right from their mobile device, officers can bring any work and recorded data from the field directly into the office, without potentially interrupting workflow. For example, if an officer was taking notes in the field on their Galaxy S8 or Note8, they could simply return to the office and place their smartphone on the DeX station to resume note-taking with a full desktop experience and complete access to all their productivity apps. And because the information is stored on smartphones protected by Samsung Knox, which provides defense-grade security built right into the hardware, officers can be assured their data is safe and secure.

Any agency that embraces the concepts of intelligence-led policing would be well served to consider the smartphone as a powerful tool to boost efficiency among their officers. Mobile devices can effectively augment existing law enforcement technology by providing added functionality to deal with the challenges of policing.

Smartphones provide immense capability while not adding to the necessary number of devices officers need to carry.

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Dale Stockton

Dale Stockton is a 32-year-veteran of law enforcement, having worked in all areas of police operations and retiring as a police captain from Carlsbad, California. He taught criminal justice classes for more than 20 years and is the former Editor-in-Chief of Law Officer Magazine and Stockton is the founder of Below 100, an award-winning officer-safety initiative designed to reduce police line-of-duty deaths and has been involved in the presentation of the program across North America. Stockton is an accomplished technology practitioner and has managed major technology projects for public safety including personnel-locate devices and license plate recognition systems.

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