In-Car Computers Keep Deputies Safer and Improve Efficiency

The Clarke County Sheriff’s Office has taken a major step forward in both efficiency and officer safety thanks to the addition of mobile data terminal technology to its squad car fleet. In addition to putting state-of-the-art crime solving technology at the finger tips of its officers, the in-car computers will reduce on-scene errors and increase officer safety on Clarke’s rural and, often isolated, highways.

Imagine this scenario; You’re a Clarke County deputy on routine patrol near the Shenandoah River. It’s Friday night around 1:00 am and you are driving one of only three patrol vehicles assigned to cover Clarke County’s roughly 180 square miles. As a seasoned Clarke County deputy you know that areas along the Shenandoah River can be active in the summer. As you round a bend on River Road you encounter two vehicles pulled to the side of the road. Five men are standing in the road beside the vehicles drinking beer and smoking. One of the vehicles fits the description of a car stolen earlier in the day.

Sgt. Kenny Gall verifies mobile data terminal is operating properly before patrol - photo Edward Leonard

Unbeknownst to you, however, Clarke County Central dispatch is currently handling radio traffic for a house fire elsewhere in the county as well as a medical emergency at the same time you are conducting your stolen vehicle check.

While you recognize that Central Dispatch is very busy handling the other two life threatening calls, given the isolated nature of your location and the fact that the subjects in front of you may be possible felons, you’d like to decipher your situation as quickly as possible.

Fortunately, however, your patrol car is equipped with a mobile data terminal. Not only are you able to quickly run the license plate using the computer in your vehicle, determining that the vehicle is, in fact stolen, the other two officers on patrol are also able to see the “stolen vehicle” result on their in-car mobile data terminals and are already in transit to assist you.

All of this takes place without any assistance from the dispatch office.

The River Road scenario above is now a reality in Clarke County thanks to a $191K Federal  law enforcement grant. The Clarke County Sheriff’s Department now has 19 new mobile data terminals (MDT) installed in its cruiser fleet capable of doing everything described, and more.

Clarke County Sheriff’s Department Sergeant Kenny Gall says that each of the MDT’s is equipped with an ATT “Air Card” that provides a wireless link between squad cars and online law enforcement databases.

“I thoroughly tested the system for several weeks before we implemented it” according Sergeant Gall. “There are a couple of places in the county where it’s a little slow but it works fine everywhere. I haven’t found any dead spots yet.”

Gall says that mobile link works not only on the mountain but also along the river.

“The river which is always a problem area for us. If we have trouble in the summer it’s along the river.”

The MDT’s are equipped with many efficiency features including a “touch-screen” in addition to a keyboard. The touch-screen allows deputies to quickly enter data by tapping screen icons. The MDT even has audio playback allowing the officer to concentrate on detainees or driving conditions rather than having to read information presented on the computer screen.

“The audio feature allows the deputy to keep his eyes on a subject while waiting for a criminal history check” Gall said. “The department also has a policy prohibiting keyboard typing while driving so it is helpful in that way.”

Sgt. Kenny Gall (left) trains Officer D. Curtis on use of new mobile data terminal prior to patrol - Photo Edward Leonard

Gall said that the MDT’s will not replace central dispatchers, rather, the terminals provide the officer with a direct view of vehicle information routinely broadcast multiple times a day via radio.

“The MDT allows me to see everything about a vehicle from my car” Gall said. “This is one of the greatest tools that law enforcement can have. When I run a license tag I have all of the information about the vehicle at my fingertips.”

Gall said that the MDT network also allows officers to monitor each other’s computer activity. “For example, everyone on duty will be able to see that I have a stolen vehicle and will follow department procedures in responding to my situation.”

Despite the power of MDT technology, Gall said that there are still areas that the system can’t handle, not because of technical limits but due to legal barriers.

“Virginia law prohibits MDT’s from accessing criminal histories. It also isn’t able to display the digital photos associated with a driver’s license.”

Funds for the nineteen new MDT’s were made possible by a two year grant covering equipment, training, software, installation and two years of Air Card time.  The grant, titled Bureau of Justice Administration FY 2009 Recovery Act Assistance to Rural Law Enforcement to Combat Crime and Drugs: Facilitating Rural Justice Information Sharing, was awarded by the Office of Justice Programs at the Department of Justice.

“Sheriff Roper and Chief Deputy McWilliams do everything in their power to ensure that deputies have the very best resources available whether it’s computers, weapons or vehicle maintenance.” Gall said.

Gall credited Roper and McWilliams with obtaining MDT’s that not only feature audio playback and touch-screens, but are “ruggedized” and can stand-up to the grueling conditions of daily use in squad cars.

“The computer screens even auto-dim at night” Gall said. “They didn’t cut any corners.”

Gall, who joined the Clarke County Sheriff’s Department in 2004, said that the MDT’s have additional capabilities that will be implemented in the future including automatic global position tracking (GPS) as well as real-time viewing of   security cameras located in Clarke County Public Schools.

New mobile data terminals are "rugged-ized" to withstand heat, dust and vibration during use in squad cars - Photo Edward Leonard

“We want every person in Clarke County to be safe” Sergeant Gall said. “But we have an added responsibility to our children to keep them safe while they are in school.”