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.
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.[PAGEBREAK]Free Software
Nearly everyone who uses the Internet relies on Google to locate the information they need quickly and effortlessly. What is less well known are the other services Google offers that are easily adapted for law enforcement use.
Google Documents (Docs) is a free alternative to commercial word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software. After establishing a free GMail account, users move to Google Docs and create files that can be printed, stored, edited, and shared with anyone else with a Google account. These files have nearly all the formatting capabilities possible in a standard word processor.
If you don't have the software or a network to support a report writing system, Google Docs might work for you. Create forms to mimic your paper versions, then have officers complete their reports online using those forms. When a report is complete, "share" it with a supervisor for approval. When that's done, attach the report to an e-mail to whoever needs it, or leave it as is in "the cloud" on Google's servers. Each user gets about 7.5 GB of storage for free, so you won't run out of space anytime soon.
Picasa is Google’s free photo cataloging and editing software. If you have a pile of digital images stored on a computer, install Picasa and have it index them. The program allows the user to attach "tags" to images that can be case numbers, names, crime categories, or anything you like. When you want to see the photos associated with Case 12345, click on that tag, and only the photos matching that tag appear.
Picasa has substantial editing capabilities that rival the basic functions of Photoshop and other pricey packages. Granted, most law enforcement photos won't be edited, but it can be handy to crop, arrange, and annotate photos to draw attention to specific details.
The software also has facial recognition features. Tell it that this, this, and this face is Mary Jones', and Picasa will find Mary's face in other photos. It won’t be perfect, but it could save you a lot of time.
Maps and Intel
Google Maps provides high-res satellite imagery of most of the country (and the world), overlaid with street maps. You can create customized maps with points of interest to show crime patterns and bad guys' residences, or draw exclusion circles around schools for sex offender registration purposes.
A relatively new feature of Google Maps is Street View. For the last few years, Google has been sending cars equipped with special cameras down the world's streets, capturing everything one can see from that perspective. By dragging the "Pegman" icon onto a Google Map, you can see any Street View images recorded there. Is the address you have for your suspect an empty lot, a mail drop, or a house? By using Street View, you probably won't have to ask someone to drive by there to find out.
Another free service, and one I find especially cool, is Google Voice (GV). You sign up for a free GV account and choose a GV phone number, or assign the service to your existing mobile phone number. On your GV page, you tell GV what numbers to ring when someone calls your GV number. You might include your home and cell, and maybe include work, a friend's house where you'll be visiting, or a hotel you're staying in. You can change these at any time.
When someone calls your GV number, all of the listed phones ring at the same time. The call is routed to the one picked up first, and the other numbers stop ringing. If you like, you can have GV ask for the caller's name before the call is connected, so when you pick up, you’ll hear "Call from Joe Blow." You can press "1" to accept it, or "2" to send it to voice mail. That option allows you to hear the caller record the voice mail message, and you can connect and speak to the person if you like.
When you have voice mail, Google's auto-transcriber takes its best shot at converting the message to text, and e-mails it to the account you specify. You can also get it sent to a cell phone as a text message. You can specify "do not disturb" periods when everyone gets sent to voice mail, and create individual outgoing messages for specific numbers.
The service does a lot more than what I've described, and you may or may not use all the features. It’s still a valuable resource for staying in touch with the people you need to connect with, and avoiding everyone else.
Tim Dees is a retired police officer and the former editor of two major law enforcement Websites. He can be reached via email@example.com.