High-tech gadgets give police assistance on streets, in patrol cars
By Gavin Lesnick (Contact)
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
When Vanderburgh County Sheriff's Department Chief Deputy Dave Wedding was a patrolman in the early 1980s, police officers couldn't depend on technology for much help.
"We had a car, a radio and a portable radio," Wedding recalled. "That's what you left with."
Fast forward about three decades, and that has changed dramatically: Police and deputies these days employ a bevy of high-tech gadgets and gizmos to catch crooks, stall speeders, identify drunks and share information.
Those and other technology-enhanced tasks make items such as laser-guided speed guns, wireless laptop computers, portable breathalyzers and even cell phones staples of modern patrolling.
The basic tenets of police work haven't changed over the years, officers say, but the always-improving technology makes a difference.
Some gadgets are used routinely, others rarely, but each helps officers keep the city safe.
Mobile Data Computer
On a recent afternoon patrolling, Evansville police officer Michael Condiff was dispatched to Eastland Mall for a report of a juvenile shoplifting.
The call first came over his radio, but a split second later his Panasonic Toughbook in-car computer beeped and all the details of the case were at his fingertips.
Condiff didn't need it for a trip to Eastland Mall, but the system lets him immediately pull up a satellite image overlaid with street names for directions, check alerts for possible dangerous subjects at an address, or read through the history of police runs to any location.
That, though, is just a glimpse of the capabilities of the Mobile Data Computers, which Evansville police officers check out each day and then plug into stations in their squad cars.
From a single screen, which connects to the police system through a data antenna installed in squad cars' trunks, police can run license plates, see where other officers and deputies are dispatched, type messages to one another, and check the details of where they're headed before they arrive.
"It's real helpful as far as getting things done out here on the street," Condiff said. "You have all this information before you even stop your car."
When it's time to input reports, officers do so right from their squad car, typing the information into the system and then zapping it to their supervisor, freeing them up for another run.
And the Toughbooks apparently live up to their name. Condiff was helping a stranded motorist alongside the Lloyd Expressway last fall when a drunken driver plowed into his squad car and totaled it.
The computer, which was still inside, wasn't damaged at all.
When Evansville police officers began carrying Tasers in 2003, it didn't take long for the new stun guns to pay off.
The very first time one was used may have prevented an officer-involved shooting, said Sgt. Chris Pugh.
In that incident, a man with a knife lunged at officers, then ran before they corner-ed him and stunned him.
"He was Tased and it was extremely effective," Pugh said. "The fight was over. The whole confrontation was over."
That's the benefit of the Taser X26 models Evansville police offifers use: They can provide a shock of electricity that is usually enough to temporarily subdue even the most dangerous subjects.
The Tasers can be fired from a distance of up to 25 feet, but in either case, officer Jeff Hands said the result is usually the same: Problems are defused without causing a serious injury to anyone.
"You really can't know how many people these have saved," he said.
The Evansville Police Department checks out Tasers to certain officers, while the Vanderburgh County Sheriff's Department uses them in the jail and will soon expand them to the courts.
Wedding said although the device causes pain, it presents officers a better alternative than other weapons, which are more likely to cause permanent injuries or death.
What's more, he said, when used correctly, Tasers almost always work.
"It puts a hurt on you," he said. "Most people will go straight down."
Tint Meter Inspector
Before getting this device, officers used to test a window's level of tinting by holding a driver's license against it and seeing if it was readable on the other side.
These days they rely on something a little more precise. The TM 200 attaches to both sides of the front window and determines if it's in compliance with the law, which bars windows from being tinted below 30 percent.
Evansville police have only four tint meter inspectors for the whole force to share, but Hands, who estimates he's written about 100 tickets with them, said they serve an important purpose.
"It's an officer safety issue," Hands said. "You wouldn't want to walk up to a car where you can't see all the occupants inside."
With his department-issued Nextel phone, Hands is only a few buttons away from reaching supervisors, crime scene technicians, deputy coroners or any number of other officials and colleagues he might need to contact in the course of a day's work.
"There's no way to put a value on that," Hands said. "Good exchange of information can save an officer a lot of time."
Hands said the cell phones, which offer free mobile-to-mobile calling from one to another, are a big help to officers both to facilitate communication and to offer a more direct and private exchange than radio traffic.
When a suspected intoxicated driver is pulled over by Evansville police, officers administer a series of field sobriety tests, then have the driver blow into an Intoxilyzer S-D5.
The battery-powered portable alcohol breath tester analyzes the sample and spits back an estimated blood alcohol content reading on an LED screen within seconds.
With that information, along with the other field sobriety tests, police can decide whether they need to transport the driver to the jail to conduct a certified test for intoxication, Hands said.
STALKER LIDAR speed gun
While working a speeding detail on Oak Hill Road once, Hands pulled over a woman who questioned how he could be sure it was her car he had zeroed in on.
So to show her just how precise his STALKER-brand LIDAR speed gun was, Hands had the woman step outside, take hold of it and train it on a telephone pole 300 yards away.
Despite the distance, the laser gun easily latched onto the pole, distinguised it from its surroundings and calculated the different distances as she pointed it up and down the pole.
"She handed it back and said, 'You got me,'" Hands said. "There's no doubt with LIDAR."
The device, which measures both distance and speed, clocks cars from any direction and displays their speed and distance through a completely digital system, meaning it doesn't even need to be calibrated.
Its range lets officers set up well ahead of a speeding car, keeping chasing to a minimum, and its accuracy is unparalleled, Hands said.
"I don't want to write a $115 ticket if they don't deserve it," he said. "But this is 100 percent detection of the vehicle you're clocking."