Just a few years ago, most commercial tablet computers were considered by the law enforcement community to be expensive high-tech "toys" with little utility. They were thought to be too small and limited for field use compared to PCs yet too large and clunky for handheld data dissemination when compared to smartphones.
Now tablets—like Apple's ubiquitous iPad—have become the biggest thing in the commercial computer industry. To capitalize on the explosion of interest in handheld computers, plenty of other companies have recently launched new tablets, including many specifically designed for police work. These devices are still new, but they are expected to have a major impact on public safety technology.
Up to the Task
Technology has advanced sufficiently to make tablets lighter and more powerful than previous incarnations. They also now incorporate touchscreens into a slim design, as opposed to convertible notebook tablets that are attached to a keyboard. These changes allow officers to more easily take the devices with them on foot to complete tasks that previously could only be performed in the car or station where fixed computers and MDTs were available.
Tablets have been in use for years in certain aspects of law enforcement such as accident reconstruction, forensics, evidence management and collection, and parking enforcement. But these functions were limited more to certain programs being run on the tablets for specific purposes. More recently, motor officers have used the devices because they are small enough to attach to their motorcycles, in place of laptops or MDTs. Now tablets are gaining ground as tools for a broad range of daily tasks for the average officer.
"One of the things I think is often overlooked is the fact that officers use tablets for all the things everybody else has one for," says Lt. Chris Catren, who spearheaded the Redlands (Calif.) Police Department's adoption of iPads. The ability to access e-mail, Websites, and a calendar for scheduling are just as useful for law enforcement as for anyone else, Catren says.
But such standard uses are just the tip of the iceberg. Law enforcement work requires collecting and transmitting large amounts of information, and tablets make completing many of these tasks much more efficient.
For example, detectives at the Lowell (Mass.) Police Department use iPads to take still photos as well as video to speed up the investigative process for convenience store robberies. Digital surveillance cameras often use proprietary systems, and that can make it difficult for law enforcement to extract and play the video. Instead of waiting for the techs to extract the video, detectives have the store owner play it on site, and they use their iPad's camera to record it. Later, after the video is extracted it can be used for evidence, but in the meantime the investigation can proceed using the iPad copy.
Video capture is just one way officers use the iPad at the Lowell PD. They say the Apple handhelds are extremely handy. "What aren't we using it for today?" says Patrolman Craig Withycombe.
The Redlands PD is also finding many uses for its iPads. They are ideal for photographic lineups. An officer used to have to gather physical photographs or print them out to create a standard hardcopy police six-pack and take it to the scene. Now, someone already at the office can get the information, put together the pictures, and e-mail the file to an officer in the field. "On a particular robbery case we had, we had a suspect identified within about 15 minutes of the robbery occurring because we had the photo lineup done on the iPad," says Catren.
The Lowell PD follows a similar process to verify the residences of sex offenders. Instead of printing out photos and biographical information for each person and carrying the stack of papers around door to door when talking to neighbors, everything is handled electronically on the iPad. "That changed fundamentally the way they did business," Withycombe says.
Bells and Whistles
In addition to providing electronic solutions for job duties that used to be handled manually, tablets have provided agencies with ways to improve upon the technology available to them.
A tablet can be used for video surveillance, dispatch, and license plate recognition, says Doug Petteway, product manager for Itronix-brand computing products. But even more interesting are new ways of seeing and communicating information.
For example, ZCo's tablet software called PolicePad allows officers to view data from their agency's records management system broken down into time periods and color coded on a map. Each officer has the ability to determine which types of crime they want to see over what period of time and in which area, all instantaneously.
"It's almost like Compstat, but on an individual officer level," says Lowell PD's Withycombe. However, he’s quick to explain that he doesn't see this PolicePad application as a replacement for Compstat or crime analysts. Instead, it's a way for officers to determine the information they need on a case-by-case basis out in the field without waiting for the data to be prepared by someone else. "If you have a call that a young girl disappeared from a park, you can see where sex offenders live in regard to the geographical location," Withycombe says. "That is huge."
CopBook is another tablet-specific tool. It is modeled on Facebook and allows officers signed up on the network to post information and share it with each other. The Redlands Police Department has used it internally, and is looking to expand its use to surrounding agencies so they can all share data on crimes in the area and potentially solve cases that cross jurisdictional boundaries.
Despite all of the impressive bells and whistles that come with tablets, the biggest change they bring is giving officers true mobility. This is a shift similar to the way portable radios released officers from the tether of their cars and made them safer and more efficient. Now in addition to audio transmissions they can take their software applications outside of the car, too. But leaving the protection and power supply of the car brings with it certain challenges, including wear and tear on the equipment.
Clearly some agencies are content to use iPads for police work. But these tablets made for consumers must be kept in cases to protect them from drops and spills. Many companies that already sell computers to the public safety market are debuting new ruggedized tablets designed specifically for law enforcement’s needs.
"Consumer models lack rugged features, including protection against drops, shock, vibration, and liquids, as well as sunlight-readable displays and multiple I/O connections for USB and VGA output needs," says John Lamb, director of marketing and communications for Getac.
The average commercial tablet user has very different concerns than public safety users, agrees Danny Adams, business development manager of Handheld US. Durability and reliability are key. "Of all the different types of users out there, law enforcement officers need data at their fingertips. It's crucial and it's time sensitive. They need a reliable solution they can count on."
Battery life is another concern. The Algiz 10X tablet from Handheld US runs for up to 16 hours, so if you can't leave your tablet in your car or the station, you don't have to worry about charging it up before your shift ends. But power must be balanced with weight in a device you’re hand carrying. That's why the Algiz 10X uses the latest dual core processor instead of the heavier i7 processor.
Sometimes being a pioneer means making the way easier for others who come after you. Redlands PD's Catren is proud to be a trailblazer in using commercial tablets for law enforcement applications, even if it means dealing with certain shortcomings until policy can catch up with available technology.
The California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (CLETS) sets out guidelines for data transmission that limit how officers can use tablets. For example, Redlands PD officers can't access the CAD system on their iPads. But they can use them for e-mail and Internet access, things officers aren't allowed to do via MDCs in their cars, as part of the same guidelines.
"We've not for one second regretted that we were early adopters in law enforcement," Catren says. "You just have to try new things. New recruits born in the 1990s don't want to use the antiquated and proprietary systems law enforcement is famous for, and tablets provide us with flexibility we haven't seen in our line of work."
A major problem with iPads in law enforcement is that Windows 7 is the standard operating system at most law enforcement agencies and iPads run on Apple's proprietary mobile operating system. Redlands PD says its been able to find a workaround, partly by developing apps in house.
Lowell PD worked with ZCo to develop the previously discussed PolicePad software that allows officers' iPads to integrate with the agency's CAD system. It provides a visual of calls on a map optimized for the tablet screen, instead of simply a text list from the database. The software also allows officers to use their iPads for a map of sex offenders in close proximity, as an auto vehicle locator to quickly determine the location of backup, for multi-party instant MMS messaging, and for evidence management to shoot, store, and retrieve crime scene photos.
Law enforcement officers using Windows-based tablets like Getac's E110 10-inch rugged tablet have no problem integrating with their agencies' Windows 7 programs. But Android tablets suffer from the same issues iPads do. "Our Z710 is an Android-powered 7-inch tablet," says Getac's Lamb. "Departments that are trying to use Android are thus far having specific applications made to support their CAD and record management systems."
Handheld US's new Algiz 10X 10-inch tablet runs Windows 7 Ultimate, and is ready for Windows 8, according to the company. With so many types of tablets running on different operating systems, agencies have many options if they're willing to deal with compatibility issues.
Smaller agencies, in particular, might not be willing to pay for ways to make operating systems work together, if they can use tablets that will more easily integrate with the software and networks they already use.
"I really see the tablets taking off within the next few years, once the software gets all caught up," says Cheryl Bikowski of in-vehicle mount manufacturer Gamber-Johnson. "Once Windows 8 comes out, I think there will be a much clearer picture and direction from the software standpoint."
Bikowski says the market is wide open. But she doesn't see in-vehicle laptops and MDTs disappearing anytime soon, and her company plans to manufacture mounts for older devices as well as tablets. She wonders how tablets will be able to provide the high processing power required to run all of the applications and equipment in a police car. "The RAM power and speed of the processor I think will have a lot to do with adoption," she says.
What the Future Holds
Tablets are currently considered expensive luxuries for law enforcement. With tight budgets and a lack of data proving them in the field, it's difficult to convince agencies to shell out money for the devices. Redlands PD has depended on grants and asset forfeiture money to purchase its iPads. However, Lt. Catren believes it's only a matter of time before the mindset that characterizes tablets for public safety as unnecessary luxuries changes.
"Hopefully this will become such an integral part of modern law enforcement that when you hire an officer, you issue a gun, a badge, a baton, a smartphone, and a tablet," says Catren. "It's just another item of police equipment that we need to provide to our officers."