Technology and cops: it’s changing our work environment at an ever-increasing speed. Survival, efficiency, and effectiveness have all been bettered by technology changes of recent times that were not even imagined just a few years ago. Today’s recruits are computer savvy: they grew up with game paddles in their hands.

Yet, there is a disconnect. Generally, the administration has been away from the road for more than a few years. They’ve never worked a single shift using a real mobile computer. They’ve never learned the nuances of in-car video and how to make it an ally, rather than an enemy. The thought of satellite tracking of their vehicle position was pure science-fiction when they were pushing a patrol car around for 8 hours.

It’s time for a reality check.

Dateline: June 4, 2004, 2030 hours. I was working that shift when the radio came alive with an All-Points-Bulletin. We were to look for a vehicle that had just been involved in a cop shooting across town.

A thirty year old officer was sitting in his patrol car in the middle of a busy shopping center parking lot, under a bright light. He was catching up on a couple of reports, using the patrol car’s computer. Unfortunately, he lost awareness of the peripheral area.

Another vehicle pulled along side the passenger side of his patrol car. The dirtbag driver leveled a shotgun at the unassuming officer and slaughtered him. The cop’s report abruptly ended, mid-sentence. The cop never saw the danger coming. He left behind a young wife and 18 month old daughter.

In another Midwestern state, an officer was involved in a front-end crash with his patrol car. The car was equipped with a laptop (not to be confused with a mobile) computer. The force of the impact was so great that the screen portion of the laptop was launched into the officer’s skull.

He required 52 stitches to reattach his scalp and suffered non-permanent brain damage.

There is a wide array of reports coming from agencies that have chosen to install fixed-keyboard computers in their patrol cars. If those computers are used for report writing, officers are forced to sit in the car’s seat, wearing a vest, and “twist” to face the computer for extended periods of time. The results are widespread reports of low back injuries and associated pain.

Patrol cars are becoming mobile offices, equipped with an ever changing array of technology and gadgets. However, there is a horrible gap. Cops are not being trained or prepared for the change in work environment, i.e. from station to car. Cops are not being trained on how to use the technology to their tactical advantage. Cops are not being trained on how to stay aware of their surroundings while using the technology. Cops are not being trained on how to maintain their proficiency when the technology breaks down.

Vehicles aren’t set up right. Examples abound of the many ways that the equipment inside the patrol car can be configured. Most of what’s out there is bad.

The department that lost the officer installed their mobile computers down low – literally on top of the transmission tunnel. The reasoning: that’s where its predecessor – the MDT – had been for many years. The sergeant who made the decision never worked with a computer when he was on the road. His experience was limited to running plates and people – a far cry from the use the computer would get.

The patrol cops in the agency made repeated requests to have the computers mounted higher, but to no avail.

From working with hundreds of officers in dozens of departments and conducting many studies, officers tell us the best placement for the computer screen is to have the top of the screen 1” above the dashboard surface. In that place, the officer can easily stay aware of his surroundings with minimal eye travel from the computer screen to the horizon.

It’s a critical detail that can escape someone who lacks experience using the computer in a car on a daily basis.

Another agency I worked with is located deep in the heartland of America. They have about 800 sworn personnel.

Their department chose to install laptop style computers. That decision was quickly regretted, once the computers were in service. The mounts were an after-thought; a decision left to someone in the mechanic’s garage.

Once in place, officers were gashing the knuckles of their right hands with every right turn of the wheel. The keyboard of the computer covered the emergency equipment switches, i.e. lights & sirens. The clip to hold the radio microphone was moved to the side of the computer mount. Every time the computer was turned, the mic would get knocked on the floor. Finally, the screens were low which caused the officers’ line of vision to be directed at the floor of the passenger area when they used the computer.

The administration ignored repeated reports of trouble. The matter finally came to rest with the safety committee of the union. The union brought in a multitude of expert witnesses and produced a 50 page report giving clear evidence to the risks and harm resulting from the computer selection and installation.

Ultimately, the city recanted. With help of the union and patrol officers, the city replaced the computers and changed the configuration of the car’s interiors.

Officers left hanging. I have trained thousands of cops on technology at the patrol level.

While it is important for an officer to understand the software and how to use it, it is equally important for them to understand when to use it and how to make it work to their tactical advantage.

Technical training is not tactical training.

Imagine this scenario: you worked at an agency years ago as it converted from revolvers to semi-automatic weapons. For training, you were given a classroom session that taught you about the frame, the slide, the magazine, and then you were taken to the range to shoot 50 rounds. That’s it.

That’s nuts by anyone’s measure.

But when it comes to technology, that’s exactly what’s happening now.

I remember when my department got its first mobile computers. There was much anticipation of their arrival. I arrived at roll call one afternoon. The shift sergeant advised that the new computers were now installed and working. The user name (to log on) would be our last name and we would all have the same password, which we could subsequently change. He wished us “good luck.” That was our training.

That’s just as ridiculous.

Officers are not being taught how to use the computer both when the officers are mobile – and when they are stationary.

I was engaged in training all of the uniformed patrol officers for a rather large agency a few years ago. The project lasted a couple of months.

During the time the training was underway, the training bureau released a training bulletin regarding using new computers. In short, officers were told that prior to making a vehicle stop, they should run the plate. If the subject vehicle was stolen or there was any other officer safety caution that came back, the officer should request and wait for backup prior to effecting the stop. That just makes good sense.

A couple of days later, a general order came from the chief: computers were not to be run or operated while a vehicle was in motion. Officers could only use the computer once the patrol car was safely stopped at the roadside.

The first rule was just good cop sense; the second made sense only to the lawyers. I suspect you know how that has unfolded.

There is an agency in Michigan that has used mobile computers for nearly ten years. One of its seasoned officers – an FTO – was using the computer while driving. He was the at fault driver in a pedestrian P.I.

The conclusion of this is that cops need to be trained HOW to use the computer while they drive. They need to know how to quickly pick off the critical elements from the computer screen without having to study it.

For example: in Michigan, all of the text on the return of a valid driver’s license starts at the left edge of the screen. Invalid, suspended, revoked, etc. license returns have their text indented nearly half way across the screen. Therefore, an officer in Michigan needs only to see the SHAPE of the text to know if the driver’s license is valid or not.

That’s the kind of stuff we need to teach our cops.

Mobile report writing has been terrific; right? Wait a minute. Officers are taught in the academy that anytime spent stationary out on the street is high-risk time. Being stopped makes a cop a sitting duck for a dangerous predator. Yet, we herald in-car report writing which makes them do exactly what we taught them to avoid in the academy: sit stationary for extended periods out in public.

Couple that with a low-mounted computer screen, and it’s a recipe for disaster. But wait – there’s more.

Software widely used today for report writing is from a nationally known company. (The name is being withheld to protect the guilty and the stupid.) It has all of the fields and options built right in.

However, it was written by “digit-heads” sitting in front of 19” flat screen monitors, in a nice office setting.

Shrink those screens down to fit on a 9” or 10” mobile computer and the cop must study the screen very hard just to use it. It would be like balancing your checkbook in the car. It sucks all of our attention away from our surroundings.

How does software like this ever get created, you ask? Simple: there’s a horrible disconnect between users (us cops), creators (geeks), and the department administrators who make decisions (we know who they are).

Could you imagine complaining to your chief that the font size on your patrol car computer is too small? Me either. My chief might not even know what the words “font size” mean.

So let’s review: busy shopping center parking lot that is well lit; cop has his mind and eyes deeply in a computer that’s badly positioned and really tough to read without a high level of concentration. The result: a widow and a child without a father.

If agencies want their cops to stay in the car to do things that used to be done in the station, that’s OK. Safe havens in the community should be identified for that use. Whether it’s at the local 7-11, in front of the fire station, or in the sallyport at the station, those places need to be figured out and shown to the cops. Fellow officers need to maintain vigilance and frequent patrols in those spots to keep their fellow officers safe.

Computers need to be equipped with a simple timer that starts anytime a report is being written. It sounds a warble sound on a predetermined schedule (like once a minute) to remind the officer to look up at his surroundings. We must put signs up in the locker room and roll call room reinforcing the message: look up; stay aware; stay alive. We must repeatedly drive that message home.

Some may say that such reminders aren’t needed. Maybe they’re right. But, I know how it feels to be on a traffic stop, get to the last line of writing the citation and then realize that I haven’t looked up once since I started writing. I’m almost afraid to look up for what will be there and embarrassed at my own stupidity.

Management may not understand. Today’s patrol officer would likely agree with this statement: the most used item in a cop’s tool set is the mobile computer. More than his gun, flashlight, OC spray, baton – more than any of that stuff. The only item likely getting more use that the computer is his car.

Take away the computer, and the officer is severely handicapped. Most cops today won’t even take a car out if the computer doesn’t work.

Like it or not, it’s a fact of life.

Unfortunately, that message is laden with multiple nuances about how coppery is done today.

The chief hasn’t ever been there. Nor have his top ranking administrators. They might have had an MDT – if they were lucky. They haven’t experienced the effect a computer has on the patrol car today.

It’s not that they don’t care. They don’t understand. It would be similar to getting one of today’s cops to really understand what it was like to be a cop with call boxes, index cards, and no computer anywhere for anything — including NCIC. For me: I get frustrated when it takes more than 5 seconds to run a warrant check on a subject.

The most successful technology implementations happen when it starts from the bottom and works its way up. Involve the patrol cops in evaluating what works and what doesn’t.

Line officers know what the problem is and generally, the best way to solve it. They know a deal when they see it and show us on every call that they can exercise good judgment.

The decisions about technology should involve the “experts” – purchasing agents, the I.T. department, software and hardware sales people, and others without limit. But the real determination of what works and what does not will be determined in practice by those who use it. Use the experts as advisors and let the decisions be driven by the cops.

This is an approach used by successful agencies.

Is your patrol car computer going to kill you? For some of you unfortunately, the answer is yes.

Most of the time, when a cop is injured or killed, we tend to study the incident. Questions abound: what could have been done differently to produce a different outcome. Horrible videos are used repeatedly in the academy and in-service as real-life training tools.

Unfortunately, most agencies are more concerned with liability than preventing a repeat. So, when a cop is put at risk by the computer or other technology, it’s quickly called something else. Remember the officer who needed 52 stitches as a result of the computer that hit him in the head when his car crashed? The official cause of the injury: he wasn’t wearing his seatbelt. That kind of cover happens every day. Get the picture?

I continue to gather information and train officers in a session entitled, “Technology and Tactics.” I host a restricted email discussion group that has hundreds of members across the country for purposes of sharing information to make us safer. It’s called COPS-L, and no charge membership is freely offered to anyone in law enforcement. If you’d like to join, just drop me an email message.
If you have information to share that could make others safer, please contact me so that it can be passed along. Email: jim@copblueblog.com.

Stay aware, think tactically, ask questions and press for answers. If you are doing more work while stationary in your car, make sure you have carefully considered where it’s safe.

One guy that I’ve worked with follows the G.O. and uses the car computer to write reports. He does it while parked in the gated lot of the police station. That’s just another step he can take to ensure that he goes home at the end of his shift.

You owe your family your best effort to ensure your safety from all threats. Make technology your aide, not your enemy.

Above everything else, it’s all about saving just ONE life.

From the CopBlue Vault,   Originally published March, 2007

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