Going mobile

How mobile devices, surveillance tools and apps have changed the beat of community patrol


     Once upon a time men and women in blue patrolled a neighborhood on foot. During a regular shift they got to know the people who owned businesses, shoveled the sidewalks and delivered the morning paper. If something suspicious or even dangerous was happening, the officer usually heard about it on his or her radio, via word of mouth or witnessed the event with his or her own eyes. Officers radioed for backup, and later on made their way back to the department to do further research or write a report.

     But the world has changed. We may text our grocery list rather than call, check someone's Facebook status before knocking on their door. And officers of the law are hardwired, too — increasingly so. For them, riding the high-tech wave is necessary to keep up with more sophisticated crime, in an ever-changing Wi-Fi world. But at what expense are officers logging on and letting remote video do the watching? Are wired officers less inclined to build a rapport and form relationships with members of the community than in days past?

     Yes and no. It's true that these days law enforcement units spend less time on foot patrol and more time in their squad/mobile office. On the other hand, the mobile devices and sophisticated surveillance systems available to them can actually help track and monitor crime, sometimes as it unfolds. When utilized effectively, these systems can serve as a backup, as an extra set of eyes that ultimately could give officers more time to make positive interactions in the community.

Additional eyes and ears

     In addition to simply watching and patrolling the streets, agencies can become more accessible online and can communicate with citizens and each other in a number of ways. The Baltimore Police Department, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and Oklahoma County Sheriff's Department have all recently purchased BlackBerry Smartphones to give officers immediate access to information so they can make more informed decisions. Oklahoma County Sheriff's Department uses the phones to provide in-field officers with rapid access to criminal and license plate databases, rather than having to call in two-way to dispatch and wait for someone on the other end to look up information.

     The thought of officers texting away on their mobiles can be disconcerting for some. But the reality is patrol-enhancing technology like mobile devices, in-car computers, crime mapping and remote surveillance units can actually keep officers in the field for more extended stretches of time. No longer are they constantly running back to headquarters to review a video, look up a suspect or write a report. Now it's all about getting more information, in a shorter amount of time, and from a concise source. Not all agencies can afford Smartphones quite yet, but even strategically placed surveillance has its merits in modern community patrol.

     The Vacaville PD in California services a community of about 97,000 and has a prominent downtown area that regularly hosts concerts, craft sales and tree lightings. Lt. Bob Denton says about a year ago his agency installed cameras downtown so dispatchers can continuously monitor the large area, especially during these events. Meanwhile, officers are on the ground, walking around and mingling with the crowd.

     "What we impress upon our officers is to get out of your car," says Denton. "We tell them to get out and talk to people, meet people — don't just drive around in your car. We encourage them to know the businesses in their assigned area, what the hours are and what their security systems are like, and then advise them (business owners) on security issues."

     Denton maintains that everything his department does technology-wise is done to help give officers more information on the street, so they don't have to come back and do the research. "It keeps them out of the building and in the neighborhoods and streets to do the best work they can," says Denton. "That's our biggest advantage."

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