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Technology Talk

Planning for Today’s and Tomorrow’s Police Cars

By G. Thomas Steele, Communications Staffer, University of Maryland, College Park; IACP Life Member; Past President of the IACP Law Enforcement Information Management Section; Chief Information Officer (Retired), Alexandria, Virginia, Police Department, and Delaware Department of Homeland Security; and M. L. Kingsley, Freelance Writer and Consultant, Bethesda, Maryland

new breed of law enforcement vehicles is entering the ranks of the police and municipal vehicle market. With new powers and capabilities come additional responsibilities, as well, such as the need to ensure that information accessed and processed through the increasingly sophisticated array of law enforcement vehicle accessories does not violate local, state, or federal privacy regulations. This need will require close coordination with local and national organizations to head off fears from a wary citizenry.

Selecting intelligently from a new stable of constantly morphing high-tech vehicles and equipment will take a new breed of evaluation. A new breed of evaluators will be necessary, too—leaders, planners, and managers from among the generation that has grown up with changes brought about by technologies. These individuals have the vision to understand and plan for the future.1

Any department planning on purchasing a new police vehicle must understand what it is really getting into, the full scope of what moving into this new realm of vehicles can entail, and what to look for. This understanding includes the awareness that changes in the name of progress take their toll in a number of ways. Selecting a new unit calls for careful evaluation of a number of functions beyond the traditional specifications of speed, fuel economy, occupant safety, comfort, and price. A considered evaluation needs to include factors seldom, if ever, previously considered by traditional buyers and decision makers: fleet managers, police chiefs, and politicians.

Project ALERT

Fortunately, though unknown or overlooked by many, there is an effectual road map to evaluation, selection, purchase, and operations of this new breed that has existed since the mid-1990s: Project ALERT (Advanced Law Enforcement Response Technology). Results reported from this federally funded initiative, which dealt with technological implications of building a car designed for use by public-safety officials, are discussed in “Technology on Patrol” in the November 1996 issue of Police Chief.2

Through a grant provided to Texas A&M University, Texas Transportation Institute, by the U.S. Department of Transportation (later joined by the National Institute of Justice), a team of practitioners from local, county, and state law enforcement agencies constructed 10 law enforcement vehicle prototypes to test the functionality and potential of using state-of-the-art technology to provide a safer, more efficient vehicle for officers on the street.

Any department or agency intent on purchasing one of the new police vehicles will do well to read and absorb the information and findings from the various Project ALERT reports. The reports cover elements of continuing relevance to virtually all of today’s new era service vehicles, such as new position descriptions, new training, and new levels of coordination between levels from support personnel to manufacturer.

Not an Average Automobile

Today’s average automobile contains more than 10 million lines of computer code, comprising the master operating system for the engine and the electronic devices controlling its electronic equipment. Today’s sophisticated vehicle operating systems require significant diagnostic equipment to determine a malfunction—a complexity likely to be compounded in the future. In as few as five years, the numbers of lines of vehicle operating system computer code are projected to more than quadruple to accommodate the growing demand for yet more sensors and controls.

The functionality of a police vehicle has become much more than just getting its operators to the scene of a call. Law enforcement vehicle functionality now encompasses the use of computer systems with a range of accessory devices and features such as geographical displays, integrated alley lights or night vision systems, license plate readers, and biometric systems, just to name a few.

Today’s issues necessarily extend beyond selection, purchase, and acquisition, to functionality—making sure the technology installed in these vehicles actually works and can stand up under the rugged conditions in which they will be used. Do not assume, but rather think and question the product. Is the installed technology, for example, authenticated and encrypted?

Do not lose sight, either, of the future bottom line—obtaining these vehicles and technologies represents an investment that for many is akin to an experiment. It is likely that the vehicle and technical components will be watched closely by those asked to fund components, so the collection and use of performance metrics are strongly suggested for justifying as well as tailoring future outlays.

Also bear in mind that the logistics of coordinating personnel and supplies must be clearly thought through, well in advance. Vehicles are scarcely being used effectively or efficiently or showing optimal return on investment if they are being moved from one location for support of one problem and to another for support or correction of the same problem caused by the same condition.

Or, if the new equipment or technology is not designed to work at night, this could end up being a critical oversight leading to a difficult and dangerous situation for users. This would imply that training for this equipment includes manual backup procedures, tested and approved by sanctioned organizations.

The questions then become the nitty-gritty of envisioning day-to-day operations: Who is going to be trained to repair these units? Will the funds be there for backup equipment? Will there be personnel trained to both analyze the problems, and repair them in a timely fashion? Will there be a supply of backup equipment for ease of swapping out broken units and installing new ones?

The where as well as the who need to be answered, drawing on discussions generated during Project ALERT, which indicated that a central repair unit servicing and funded by several departments in a given geographic region, should be considered. Integrating the significant amount of new technology involved in these vehicles, from both manufacturers and aftermarket solution providers will take comprehensive training and new policies and procedures to tie all components and variables into coherent operational applications.

Once the vehicle is delivered to an agency’s fleet, the work is only beginning. As soon as these new units hit the field, whole new vistas of tasks and responsibilities come into view, with more to maintain and support in all directions.

Planning a Transition

Most new law enforcement personnel of today have grown up with change and can quickly adapt to new things. When “bugs” are found in technology, however and workarounds have to be employed, it takes specialized training to master that dexterity of analysis, repair, and documentation. Plan for a transition period between accepting delivery of a fully technically equipped vehicle and the time at which it is deployed. Since effective instructions will need to come from the field operatives, they will have to be intensively trained prior to deployment, with prepared components such as after-action reports written for inclusion in training scenarios. This may mean taking personnel off the street until the full patrol and investigation units are trained. The field training officer will need to be fully informed about how to operate all technology and about the unique operating characteristics and manual backup of each vehicle’s components.

Manual keystrokes and pointing at touch-sensitive, in-vehicle monitors are another area sure to prove challenging. A progressive mobile computer system for the new police car will likely employ voice activation and response. The volume of data being collected, displayed, verbally received, and produced must allow the operators to devote time and attention to details that require their operational alertness during periods of stress. Little time or safety is gained, however, in constantly checking a mobile computer system for justification in making a stop, when that same information could be fed vocally to the officer and checked visually against the object of interest.

Complicating matters further, the piling on of integrated digital devices such as night-vision detectors, printers, radar, license plate readers, biometrics, and digital cameras, imposes ever-greater degrees and varieties of demands on the engine and electronic systems—far more than those placed upon the average civilian vehicle.

The Reality of Perception

In addition to the myriad functionality and cost concerns associated with new police vehicles, there is the essential matter of public perception, which has been somewhat awakened—in some cases, unrealistically—to the sophistication and extent of technological capabilities that accompany these new vehicles. One only needs to watch television crime shows, whose high ratings attest to their popularity with viewers, for a bellwether of public beliefs as to what new magic law enforcement might have at its fingertips. As everyone has learned, the power of perception is very real. As many have learned the hard way, in today’s world of Internet and television, perception does not have to be reality to nullify a jury.

Much work remains that was not covered by Project ALERT, or that was covered but that now bears refinement. Yet by and large, the lessons learned during the Project ALERT initiative remain as important today as when its various component reports were generated, if not more so. The reports forecast many of the needs and functions still required in public safety vehicles. Remember: It isn’t the technology that is so important; it is the way that it is applied. ■

1G. Thomas Steele, “The Era of New Skills,” Technology Talk, The Police Chief 62 (April 1995): 13.
2Charles E. Samarra and G. Thomas Steele, “Technology on Patrol,” Technology Talk, The Police Chief 63 (November 1996): 16.

Please cite as:

G. Thomas Steele and M. L. Kingsley, "Planning for Today’s and Tomorrow’s Police Cars," Technology Talk The Police Chief 78 October 2011): 130–131.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 10, October 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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