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Improvised Law Enforcement Technology

Agencies strapped for cash can find many ways to give the necessary tools to their officers.

May 22, 2012  |  by Tim Dees - Also by this author

Photo: Vince Taroc
Photo: Vince Taroc

The recession has made most law enforcement agencies cut back on their purchases of technology. At many agencies, if you can't get a grant for the latest tool, then you probably don't have the budget to procure it.

That means that all law enforcement is having to learn what small agencies have known for some time. You can do a lot for less, if you put your mind to it.

Data Networks

The most recent Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics (LEMAS) study indicated that 66% of U.S. law enforcement agencies did not use computers in their vehicles. That figure has probably changed in the ensuing years, though not drastically. The reason that more agencies aren't using computers likely has less to do with the cost of the computers than with the cost of the data networks they access.

Data networks are expensive. But there are ways to get around that expense. Many homes and businesses have their own wireless or Wi-Fi networks set up for themselves and/or their customers' use. If you’re close enough to be in range of the signal, you have access to the Internet and all it offers. These businesses and residents may give you the access codes to their networks for the asking, especially if it means that law enforcement vehicles will be coming around more often. You won't be able to run license plates or operate a mobile computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system, but you can create and file reports, access protected databases of your own, and send and receive e-mail.

Most cell phone carriers offer one or more phones with "tethering" capabilities. A tethered cell phone can allow a notebook computer to connect to the Internet wirelessly over the cellular network. As long as the user is within the coverage area, he or she has access to everything possible on a conventional connection. There is usually an additional per-phone charge for tethering capabilities, and there may be charges for data sent and received.

Smartphones and Tablets

The latest smartphones and tablets might even eliminate your need for a data network or even a laptop computer. These devices have enough memory storage to handle large databases, they can produce photos and video good enough for an HD display, and they can operate some systems remotely. They also download, display, and create e-mail and have fully functioning Web browsers. Internal GPS receivers stamp location information on every photo and video, and allow for moving map navigation applications that cost less than $2.

Using FaceTime on an iPhone, an officer at a crime scene could show a detective on the other end of the call what evidence is present and get advice on preserving or collecting it. In the field, he could send the image of a suspect to the station for identification by a witness. If the caller at the other end of the conversation didn't have an iPhone or one of them wasn't connected to a Wi-Fi network (FaceTime won’t work on the regular cell phone network), the officer could take a photo or video and e-mail it from the smartphone, delaying the process by only a minute or so.

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