Over the last decade technology had made radical changes in how street cops do their jobs. It is rare to see a patrol car without a computer. The nearly universal availability of the wireless internet has put vast amounts of information and video in street cops’ hands to the point it can become overwhelming.
We are at a point today where we don’t even think about it. We simply assume that every cop has a broad array of tech gear at his fingertips. That’s the problem: we are taking it for granted and have lost our sensitivity to how it can hurt us when installed or used improperly.
I want this article to serve as a reminder. It’s time to reexamine how our gear is setup and how we use it.
CAN YOU KILL A COP WITH A COMPUTER?
THE ANSWER IS: YES
My style of writing is one that tends to be broad-brushed, conceptual in nature and allows the reader to draw their own conclusions.
This year’s Candlelight Vigil last May was like a simultaneous funeral service for each of the 129 who died. It’s enough to tear your heart from your chest as one watches the survivors – the blood relatives and the brothers in the Badge – who mourn in a way that I hope I’ll never know.
This article is about the specific issues that are important when it comes to placing a computer system in a patrol car.
How does that relate to last year’s loss, you ask? Simple: in the last ten years, 364 officers died in actions related to their vehicle (according to the NLEOMF). Too frequently, I read about a cop who was racing to backup another officer, lost control and died in a single-car wreck.
In an article entitled, “Why Are My Brothers Dying – Needlessly,” I suggested that the prime reason is: distraction caused by technology in the car.
It’s personal technology, i.e. cell phones, text messages and the like. It’s also the technology that has been placed in their cars with little or no thought about its practical impact.
STUFF I’VE SEEN
I’ve been involved with the design and deployment of a bunch of mobile systems across the country. I’ve been on ride alongs with hundreds of cops in agencies from just about every state. There are some examples that make me crazy.
The car computer just doesn’t fit the car or the situation. I find out that the decision about what computer to buy was made exclusively by the purchasing department. There was little or no input from the PD. It was a decision based almost totally on price.
In another case, the administrator saddled with the project responsibility had spent gut-wrenching days/weeks/months deciding on a computer. When he was ready to place the order, the computer sales guy mentioned something about what mount would be used.
The administrator was caught totally unaware; the sales guy says he would, ”Throw something in,” that will work. I suppose the definition of what “works” could be important, depending on your point of view.
Making matters worse, in that agency the computer was so complex and entangled that anyone trying to use it needed an I.T. degree and a beanie with a propeller to figure out how to use it.
I must use a term here that I plan to write a whole article about at a later time. But, for this message to make sense, I must use now and therefore explain it, briefly.
“Focus Factor” refers to the amount of attention, focus, and sensory demands that are placed on an individual by an event, a device, an action, or an individual. A cop’s survival demands that the focus factor from any one source not be so great as to “drown out” other elements that can affect him.
For simplicity, imagine a scale of 1 to 10.
Sitting on the beach, enjoying the view of the ocean and folks around might have a factor of 1. It implies a simple environment that allows ones attention to drift and be drawn wherever one might like.
Alternately, being behind cover, in a gun fight would have a factor of 10. There will be very limited availability for sensory stimulus from other sources.
The truth is that we have probably all watched kids with video games or worse – cops at their car computer. The focus factor approached ten.
Simply said, that’s a recipe for disaster and death.
The computer hardware, i.e. computer, keyboard, mount, printer, magnetic stripe reader, etc. should match their intended use.
Example: a traffic car that is used in a heavily populated area is expected to produce a high volume of citations. There will probably be very few incident reports (vs. a car assigned to general patrol). The traffic car will primarily be running vehicle plates/tags and registered owners.
A computer with a fixed keyboard (backlit), magnetic stripe reader or barcode reader, electronic ticket software and a high-speed thermal printer are probably the best choice here.
In the same agency, a car assigned to patrol in a certain area or zone is likely to be writing incident reports in response to calls for service. While there may be some traffic enforcement, it will only be a portion of the total day’s work.
This car is best equipped with a computer that has a removable keyboard (backlit) and a regular printer. The need for electronic ticketing software would be a business decision based upon expected volume of citations.
Mobile computers MUST have a touch screen. Ask an administrator if he’d want to navigate his desktop computer with a touch pad, and you can predict the answer. Forcing a cop to navigate a small mobile computer with a touch pad is sheer stupidity. Period.
Color display and audio are a must. The screen must not get washed out by bright sunshine. It must work in all lighting conditions. The cops on midnights need a “kill” switch to instantly darken the screen for their safety, when needed. The audio must be good enough so the cops can understand what they are hearing.
Rescind General Orders that requires the cop to only use the computer when the vehicle is stopped. The reality is this: based upon recent research, a cop interacts with the mobile computer 4 times more frequently than he does the radio.
Would you tell your cops that the car must be stationary before using the radio? Of course not. That would be silly, stupid, and put them in needless danger.
However, did you know that when mobile radios first appeared in police cars (in Detroit, MI), the cops were told to stop their vehicle prior to using those radios? Such a notion is clearly out of touch with today’s reality.
Telling them not to use the computer unless they are stopped is equally impractical. Vital, critical, important information that directly relates to their safety comes to them via the computer. In fact, far more information comes via the computer (i.e. pictures, historical contacts, etc.) than is even possible with the radio.
Here’s what should be done: teach the officers how to use the computer safely while they are driving. It can be done. I do it for a living.
The mount is NOT an after-thought. The type and quality of mount is as important a decision as any other component in the system. I’ve witnessed cops who got their knuckles bashed by the computer with each right turn of the steering wheel.
I’ve watched cops fumble for the switches to the emergency gear because their view was blocked by the computer. I’ve seen cops be forced to reach around or under the computer to set the radio channel or retrieve the microphone. Bullshit!
The layout of the car interior is NOT best decided by the mechanic who will install it. Period. This issue alone has caused more officer related injuries than any other. It results in crashes. Bad guys get away. Cops can’t do the job because the interior of the car is a nightmare. I went to the hospital to visit a fellow officer who sustained an injury from gear that became a missile in a crash. Let’s not do that anymore.
More is NOT better. Cramming a hundred different small icons onto a single small computer screen is a terrible idea.
The I.T. people, the RMS or CAD vendor all seem to believe that it’s a great idea to duplicate the screens used in the station (by records or dispatch) and put them in the car. It’s not. It sucks. The car doesn’t provide the luxury of a firmly mounted, steady, flat-screen, 19” monitor that can be navigated with an optical mouse. What are they thinking?
The mobile environment is different than anything on a desk. Period. ‘Nuff said.
The car is not a place to adapt something that’s used elsewhere. There are some mobile products out there that have an appearance much like Microsoft Outlook. When responses arrive from the state, NCIC, and other sources, they look like individual email messages. The cop is then forced to click/select each one individually. What a CRAZY arrangement!!
Mobile technology needs to be designed from its inception for use in a car. A vendor who tells you that the reporting writing software that you use in the squad room will work equally well in the car is either: lying or stupid.
Mobile products should be purchased from vendors whose livelihood depends on mobile products. Chances are that anyone else considers their mobile products as an after-thought, i.e. something that they must offer so that customers will buy what they REALLY want to sell, i.e. RMS or CAD systems.
HERE ARE SOME THINGS YOU CAN DO TODAY
Keep it simple. A mobile product should have large buttons, large type fonts, be easy to navigate with a pudgy thumb on a screen. The cop should be able to look away and back and visually know exactly where he left off.
It should take no more than ONE CLICK to get where you want to go. I’ve worked with systems that required the cop to click on as many as 4 buttons to get to the place where he could run a tag/plate. Ridiculous! One and only one. Maybe two.
Sending a message to another car should only require the officer’s name or assigned area, i.e. Donahue, or ‘Charlie-11’ to send. I’ve seen systems that forced the officer to select officers from multiple lists that even then only displayed a cryptic character set to identify each unit. Who the hell thought that up?
Knowing who’s doing what, where they are, and their status should not require multiple taps, clicks and then wait for a response. It should be on the surface – at the very heart of the system. It should be easily viewed/seen all of the time.
Everything the officer needs should be handled from one screen and all functions should automatically interact with each other, i.e. CAD to mapping, etc.
KEEP IT CONSISTENT
Today’s world allows more technical mobility than we could have ever imagined just ten years ago. As I said earlier, match the gear to the use.
Patrol cops need mobile computers that are mounted in their cars. The freaks in the narcotics unit need something very different, i.e. an iPhone while the guys in the D.B. might be best served by a tablet. Be certain that the mobile software you choose will look, feel, and work the same no matter what type of mobile device is in service.
Likewise, information coming back on inquiries to the state or national systems should be presented in a consistent, uniform manner – no matter what the source. The cop needs to know where information will be displayed on the screen each time, without the need to search it out.
Cops don’t need distractions or surprises from their gear. They want it to behave in a consistent and dependable manner – no matter where they are or what they are confronting.
Mobile computer mounts need to accommodate one and two-man cars. Those mounts also need to be able to accommodate very large and very small officers.
There are varying skill sets when it comes to technology. After all, while we all must qualify periodically with our gun, there is no such qualification required with the computer that ensures a minimum performance level.
Mounts should allow users to change height, distance, angle, tilt, etc. for all of the obvious reasons.
Computer software MUST, MUST, MUST allow each user to set his/her own fonts, sizes, and colors. No two sets of eyes are the same. Daytime, nighttime, sun, clouds, etc. all have a direct effect on the user’s ability to see and perceive the information being presented.
One size does NOT fit all!
AN ASSET – NOT AN ANCHOR
Stuff on the street will always inevitably go sideways when we least want it to. That’s just a fact of life.
Technology products must be examined with a keen eye on how they will aid the officer in those times. It is not enough to be neutral. They must help keep the cop alive.
One of the most critical elements to officer safety is the information that is returned from the state system (FCIC here in Florida) and NCIC nationally. We know if our subject is wanted, has an officer safety caution, and a host of other information.
Systems should be setup to automatically hone in on key words when they are present (i.e. stolen, warrant, safety, etc.) and provide visual or audible signals to the officer of their presence.
The volume of data being sent to the car is huge and growing every day. In most cases, we have the time to look at the picture, study the driving history, and consider what we’ve got. But, when we aren’t given the luxury of time, the technology can and must play a key role in getting our butts home safely.
Technology is playing a greater role in the patrol car than anyone could have envisioned a few academy classes ago.
Selecting and installing this gear deserves the same kind of through-thinking that went into selecting the sidearm that your agency uses. It deserves no less concern than you gave to protective vests, electronic control devices (ECD), or any of the other gear used in the performance of an officer’s duty.
The reality is that technology can directly affect the likelihood that your officers will return safely at the end of their shifts. For at least one cop (whom I know about) the technology worked against him and it cost him his life.
Don’t duck out on this item. Your guys’ lives are depending on you.
Your comments and questions are welcome. I can be contacted at: Jim@CopBlue.com.
Remember, at the end of the day, it’s all about saving just ONE life.
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