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Back to Archives | Back to March 2007 Contents 

Technology Talk

Technology Talk: Computer-Enhanced Roll Call

By Tom Casady, Chief of Police, Lincoln, Nebraska

he roll-call assembly is a longstanding tradition in policing. This short meeting at the beginning of a shift is all but universal in police departments worldwide and it has looked more or less the same in nearly all times and places. There is, however, tremendous potential for enhancing roll calls without altering their essential purpose, which is quickly equipping officers with the information they need to hit the street.

In the Lincoln, Nebraska, Police Department the roll-call assembly has always been known as the lineup. Nobody knows why, but some speculate that the name refers to a practice discontinued in the late 1970s. Until then, the assembly consisted of a calling of the roll, a short briefing, and a standup inspection conducted by the shift supervisor. Lining up for inspection might be the source of the term.

Lineups in Lincoln were usually quite boring, sometimes quite funny, and occasionally mildly informative. One thing is certain, though: they had changed little during the Lincoln Police Department’s long history. The earliest extant photograph of the Lincoln Police Department shows Chief C. B. Beach conducting what looks like roll call in 1885. Except for the uniforms and the chief’s cigar, the photograph could have been taken in 2004.

In 2005, though, lineup got an extreme makeover. In June of that year the police department acquired two 50-inch plasma monitors that were installed in the assembly room. A group of grateful financial institutions donated them to the department after a successful investigation led to the arrest of a serial bank robber.

The department wanted the monitors so that shift supervisors (known in Lincoln as duty commanders) could use them during lineup to display material from the agency’s computer system. Few people got the concept, at first. While the monitors were on order, and after they were installed but not yet operational, officers, city council members, and others wondered aloud about the wisdom of the idea. They were thinking “big TV,” while the chief was thinking “big computer monitor.” Their thinking changed once the project came together.

The department connected the monitors to a personal computer at the duty commanders’ desk. That computer is equipped with a pair of LCD monitors and the Windows expanded desktop. The content on the big plasma monitors mirrors the content on the duty commanders’ desktop computer.

The setup allows duty commanders to show a lot of content to officers quickly and easily. Rather than just talking about a wanted suspect, for instance, the duty commander can display the suspect’s photograph on the monitors. Instead of providing merely a verbal description of a car involved in the robbery attempt, they can pull up an image of a vehicle of the same make, model, and color from the Internet and fix that picture in everyone’s mind. When they read the bulletin about an escapee from North Dakota, they can show an image of a North Dakota license plate. If a weather front is approaching, they can look at radar images from the National Weather Service and check road conditions by pulling up images from an intersection camera. If they are telling officers about a spree of church burglaries, they can display a map showing the crime locations.

Within weeks, duty commanders were thinking creatively and enriching lineup with visual aids that improved the usefulness of the assembly. The doubters who viewed using the monitors as a boondoggle were quickly convinced of their value.

One problem emerged, though. The visual content in the lineup room at headquarters is great, but that’s not the only place employees assemble at the beginning of a shift. The department also has 15 employees gathering at its offsite Narcotics Unit and 92 who report to one of two substations. The department also planned to open more assembly stations in other parts of the city as police coped with Lincoln’s growth in population and square miles. Before the monitors had arrived, employees outside headquarters could participate in lineup using speaker phones. But now the visual component of lineup had become important.

What the department needed was Web conferencing, which allows computer users in remote locations to see the same thing on their screen that the presenter sees on his screen. The remote facilities already had all the equipment they needed: an Internet-connected PC and a speakerphone for the audio. The transition was simple, the cost minimal, and the functionality superb. The department needed no new equipment, no cameras, no wiring, and no complex instructions, only minimal familiarization. The biggest complication for most people was finding the flash button on the telephone.

When Lincoln police conduct lineups simultaneously at all four locations, it calls them expanded lineups. The department has experimented with various ways of handling the audio portion of the lineups, including inbound and outbound conference calls and also using an encrypted radio channel. For the time being, the department is sticking with the conference phone calls, using a Voice over Internet Protocol phone system that simplifies setup. Both substations have large plasma monitors, and the Narcotics Unit has an LCD projector, which means that everyone has the benefit of a large display suitable for an audience of its size.

The department has found some other uses for Web conferencing. It has hosted visits to its internal information systems from other police departments, for example, and departments from other parts of the United States have joined the Lincoln Police Department’s monthly crime analysis meetings. The department continues to look for new ways to collaborate with other police agencies using Web conferencing. ■



From The Police Chief, vol. 74, no. 3, March 2007. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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