Over the past two years, people adopted smart technology with increasing frequency. According to the Pew Research Center, half of American adults today own a tablet or e-reader. First responders are among the professional groups who have found ways to integrate these devices into their day-to-day operations.
As tablets, smartphones and other mobile devices enter the public safety scene, however, agents must not only familiarize themselves with their use, but also understand their benefits and drawbacks.
Mobile pilot programs lead to statewide adoption
Last year, California became the first to use mobile devices for statewide public safety. The announcement by Attorney General Kamala Harris followed a successful pilot program involving the San Francisco police Department. 600 officers used software that allows officers to quickly access criminal databases while in the field.
JusticeMobile is a mobile application that offers easy but secure entry into confidential criminal databases through individual tablets or smartphones. Agents access data on the state’s private law enforcement network (CLETS) that includes vehicle registration, driver’s license information, criminal history, wanted persons, mental health, firearms and serial numbers.
“The efficiency of being able to stay in the field with these phones with the information that it has and how fast they are, it has been a home run,” San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr told Government Technology.
Initial security concerns were eased during testing by implementing two-step authorization, encrypted data, and prohibiting copying or screen captures. The software is delivered through a mobile device management system that creates an isolated environment to allow platform applications to interact with each other.
The Attorney General trusts that the JusticeMobile app will revolutionize the way officers communicate while on duty. As Harris told the Los Angeles Times, “We have mobile apps for everything from banking to board games on our phones, but, incredibly, law enforcement hasn’t had the tools to access important criminal justice information on hand-helds and tablets until now.”
Like San Francisco, the New York Police Department also tested tablet use with patrol officers as part of a new statewide program. Forty members of the NYPD tested 20 tablets equipped with the Domain Awareness System, or DAS. Tablets with DAS are updated quickly, giving officers on duty real-time access to accurate information mined from official state records, such as arrests and 911 calls.
One of the participants in the 90-day pilot, Officer William Chu, shared an example of the tablet’s benefit with The Wall Street Journal. While he was on duty, Chu saw a dispatch reporting an 88-year-old woman who drove off in her car and went missing. After searching her license number with the database, Chu saw that officers had just reported a suspicious vehicle in the area.
“I immediately knew that this is the lady they were looking for,” Chu recalled. “The description matched, the license plate matched.”
Software is built for officers use in the field
Since the portability of the devices brings greater risks to data, securing the device seems desirable. However, locking the tablet in the car reduces its mobile benefits, and adding a layer of password entry impacts the speed at which officers can access critical information.
Biometric security might allow use of the tablet to be restricted to specific authorized officers, reducing the chances a lost device can lead to a data breach. Some advanced technology companies configure tablets to leverage biometrics. MorphoTablet, for example, uses fingerprint sensors and facial recognition to ensure officers accessing the device have been approved beforehand. This added layer of security is imperative for law enforcement agents, as it prevents confidential or potentially harmful information from falling in the wrong hands.
As with most mobile devices, officers have to deal with durability. To withstand the active nature of policing, tablets for law enforcement must be more rugged than commercial devices. In addition to technical innovations that extend battery life, officers can also be trained to care for their tablet and use them in a way that preserves charge.
Part of the development process for the DAS software included specific consideration for law enforcement personnel. Jessica Tisch, the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner for Information Technology, traced the hand of an officer for Microsoft designers to post in their office, as a reminder of who had to use the system. Detailed maps in earlier iterations were scaled back, leveraging the patrol officer’s extensive knowledge of the neighborhood to make the interface simpler.
When integrated into law enforcement operations, tablets and other smart technology can help revolutionize both the speed and accuracy with which officers do their jobs. Use of new technology can also shape their tactics while on duty. To be successful, however, technological solutions must align with the specific challenges officers already face in the field.
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