The digital past, present and future: police smartphones, tablets and laptops

It’s 1985, and women’s fashion features shoulder pads big enough to work on the football field; Madonna is busy selling her Material Girl image; bands with really big hair and Spandex pants dominate the airwaves; and the Chevy Camaro IROC-Z is one...


It’s 1985, and women’s fashion features shoulder pads big enough to work on the football field; Madonna is busy selling her Material Girl image; bands with really big hair and Spandex pants dominate the airwaves; and the Chevy Camaro IROC-Z is one of the hottest cars on the road. Less than half a million people in the U.S. own cellphones, but police routinely carry the handheld Motorola radios first introduced in 1978. A company called “Dell” releases its first computer. Police cruisers come equipped with lights, sirens and radios.

Skip ahead a decade. Now it’s 1995, and the sky-high shoulder pads have (thankfully) disappeared. The Spice Girls and boy bands dominate pop music, while the Mazda RX-7 burns up the asphalt. Cellphones become more common, but are still a long way from being “smart.” Motorola introduces its WirelessCommPad for public safety workers. Microsoft releases both IE 2.0 and Windows 95. Netscape’s stock soars. Police cars still lack onboard computers, but the role of computers in modern police departments nationwide is accelerating: Fat little beige or gray boxes sit on desks where officers call up reports previously entered by records clerks with the touch of a few keys. Tiresome chores such as checking pawn sheets for stolen property grow a little bit easier.

In 2001, Palm releases the first U.S. smartphone, a Kyocera model. Computers are now in standard use in departments nationwide, and in the early to mid-2000s, police begin to see growing laptop use in police cruisers. As smartphones progressively become more adaptable, they also evolve into increasingly police-friendly devices, with law enforcement-oriented apps and a ruggedness that make them more suitable to the demands of police work.

In 2008, Motorola’s two-ways will have both texting and GPS integrated into their design. Tablets are introduced into the mix and, although not currently standard in every department, their portability and escalating adaptability render them increasingly attractive to the needs of law enforcement professionals.

Law enforcement and computers seem like a natural match, and they’ve turned out to be helpful in ways no one could ever have imagined. Back in the days when Dell was a startup, officers hauled around handhelds the size of bricks, and owning a cellphone was a pricey status symbol. What officer in 1985 could have imagined automatically scanning vehicle registrations by simply driving a cruiser down a street? Who could have predicted police filing digital reports or retrieving information without having to go through records, dispatch or a return to the station?

Things that sounded like they were out of a Keanu Reaves’ movie 20 or even 10 short years ago are not only realities today, but they’re merely the tip of the technological iceberg. The stuff police have at their fingertips right this second will be made better and more efficient at a dizzying rate. It seems in today’s technological world what’s on the horizon may make what police use to fight crime right this minute as quaint as a detective sitting at his desk, pecking away on a manual typewriter.

Life in the fast lane

Technology doesn’t simply creep forward, it flies. In fact, one of the most frequent complaints law enforcement agencies have about the technology in which they invest is that it grows outdated so fast it’s almost obsolete before it’s installed. Because dollars are few and resources are dwindling, law enforcement executives try to invest in tech with the ability to expand and adapt to new uses.

Lee Reiber, director of Mobile Forensics at the security firm AccessData, spent 15 years dealing with computers and mobile devices for a law enforcement agency before moving into the private sector. Reiber says back in the day, detectives would look at the suspect’s cell phone and then thumb through the history.

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