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Back to Archives | Back to April 2004 Contents 

Special Focus: The Alexandria Police Department Tactical Computer System

By Charles E. Samarra, Chief of Police, and James Craige, Sergeant, Tactical Computer Section, Alexandria, Virginia, Police Department



A detective carries a case file to roll call and gives officers a brief description of a suspect. The detective pulls a photo from the file and holds it up for all the officers to see. After the information has been provided, the photo goes into the case file and back to detective's desk. How many officers will recognize the suspect from a brief glimpse or have the information readily available two weeks later?
There are limits to the amount of money that can be spent for copying and distributing photographs and information to police officers working various shifts. Once the information has been distributed, equal effort is required to update or cancel the lookouts. Many cases can fall through the cracks because of this burdensome process. Now there is a better way to distribute this kind of information directly to officers. The Alexandria Police Department's Tactical Computer System accomplishes this and other traditional law enforcement functions in a new digital format.


With its 135,000 residents and variety of residential and commercial spaces, Alexandria, Virginia, is one of the most densely populated cities in the United States. The Alexandria Police Department embraces a community policing philosophy, and its 300 sworn and 140 civilian employees are proud to provide efficient delivery of public safety services. Prior to implementing the wide range of tactical computing capabilities, the police department processed information and used radio communications much like most law enforcement agencies across the country. Reports were handwritten and manually processed by a records unit, and most verbal communication was made using a police radio. Although these systems were capable, department officials believed that communication could be improved. The department envisioned an electronic system to automate many of these traditional police processes. The evolution of the department's tactical computer system provided the solution to these issues, and introduced a host of new and improved operational, tactical, and administrative capabilities.

The police department uses cellular digital packet data (CDPD) and the tactical computer system combines laptop computers, software, and institutional practices that make it one of the best mobile computing systems in law enforcement today. Unlike most systems that offer traditional mission software, Alexandria's system gives officers access to a wide variety of software tools such as word processing, forms creation, customized database queries, intranet capabilities, and much more. In addition, the computers function equally well inside or outside the patrol vehicle. Officers are no longer required to respond to the police station to complete their work because many functions historically requiring the officer's presence at the station can now be completed on the street.

Communications

Throughout the 1990s, police radio frequencies in the city became increasingly busy with administrative messages. Not only was traditional reliance on radio communications becoming inefficient, it also threatened operations and officer safety. With the implementation of the tactical computer system, Alexandria's communications capabilities greatly improved. For example, every officer who stops a car can instantly know the status of the license plate and driver. Officers are also able to use data communications for routine administrative messages and to receive their call assignments. Radio frequencies are less busy and there is no longer a need to maintain separate administrative channels. Recently, software has been added that runs multiple queries from one entry and reads the information to the officer in a simulated voice. Instead of looking at the computer screen, officers can watch the road or suspects while listening to the return.

Report Writing

Alexandria police officers used to write an average of 26,000 accident and incident reports by hand. Data entry was delayed from four to six months because it took records personnel approximately 45 minutes to review and enter information from each report into the central database. None of the operational, tactical, or administrative information was immediately accessible to detectives or patrol officers.

Now wireless and completely automated, all reports are completed, reviewed, printed, and downloaded directly into the department's records management system. Incident reports are National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) compliant and also contain all data elements necessary to satisfy Virginia reporting requirements. All reports are now entered within 24 hours, and a records clerk can process about 18 electronic reports in the same time it formerly took to process one handwritten report. Report information is immediately available to officers and detectives in the station and on the street.

Wireless Intranet

One of the most useful tools in the system is a wireless intranet. Any type of information (text or photographs) can be sent to the entire mobile fleet instantly. The advanced technology of the tactical computer system allows officers to dispose of cumbersome binders full of general orders, lookouts, and state codes. Officers can now access all of these documents at the click of a mouse.

Institutionalization of System

These accomplishments in communications, report writing, and intranet capabilities are tracked and charted, giving the agency an excellent tool for justifying the use of tax dollars to fund the high-end technology. For example, the Alexandria Police Department avoided having to hire the equivalent of five civilian and seven sworn positions through the use of the tactical computer system. The records staff has transitioned from data entry to data verification, and the increased speed and accuracy of data entry have resulted in cost savings on temporary workers and overtime. Finally, faster identification of and response to current crime trends occurs through tactical analysis and mapping.

What sets this system apart from others is that it has been institutionalized throughout the agency and that maintenance and development remain a priority. From commanders down to line officers there is a commitment to using technology to enhance police services. This innovation contributed to the tactical computer system being recognized as a finalist in the 2002 IACP/Motorola Webber Seavey Award competition and winning the 2003 Virginia Municipal League Achievement Award for cities with populations of more than 90,000.

Development, Implementation, and Funding

Many technology programs in law enforcement start out with high expectations only to deteriorate over time because of lack of funding, support, or interest. The success of Alexandria's computer system stems from the fact that each officer uses it every day. Commanders and administrative staff have provided equal support to ensure the system is funded, functional, and updated regularly.

This project evolved from concept to implementation incrementally over a 10-year period. This time was spent testing various hardware and software configurations, understanding the needs and concerns of officers and staying committed during periods of disappointment. Some of the technologies tested did not work as expected and others were used as stepping-stones towards developing the final product. Key components to implementation were testing, policy and staffing. Testing this system involved selecting a core group of officers from different assignments who tested the applications and provided valuable feedback. Hardware and software progressed with the implementation of Panasonic Toughbook computers and Sungard HTE law enforcement applications. Those who tested the original versions of the software eventually trained other officers. This approach allowed the most knowledgeable users to teach from experience. Three days are allocated for training to ensure that officers complete their work properly and gain the enhanced benefits that the system offers.

New policy was developed and implemented, and existing communications and report writing policies were revised to incorporate new procedures for mobile computer use. The new policies were flexible enough so that officers could take full advantage of the powerful tools the computers could offer, and also encouraged supervisors to advocate widespread use.

To give the project an opportunity for success, in 1999 a second full-time officer was assigned to the project. Existing civilian staff was designated to administer the department's information and computing infrastructures (RMS, CAD) that support mobile computing technology.

The police department has used federal COPS More and Homeland Security grants as well as asset forfeiture money to purchase most of the mobile computers. Each year the police department added as many computers to the department as funding would allow, with a goal to issue a computer to every officer on the force. The goal was achieved in October 2002. Although the initial purchase of hardware is a big step, it is vital that agencies plan for the replacement of existing hardware well in advance of its obsolescence. Annual operating costs also must be funded. One of the most important aspects of the continued success of the mobile computer system is establishing and maintaining

a fully funded replacement cycle. In Alexandria, money is set aside each year to ensure that outdated and worn computers are replaced with the latest technology every three years. Each computer, including all software applications, costs approximately $8,000. The annual operating cost per officer is approximately $2,500. This includes funds for computer replacement, wireless service fees, and software maintenance fees.

Results and Lessons Learned

Mobile computers have revolutionized the way information is disseminated and used in the department. This computerized system is providing the most efficient method of report writing and communication in the police department. Instant real-time data access has been incorporated in every division within the department. Information dissemination is no longer considered complete until it has been sent to the mobile computer network.

The system enhances community policing by allowing officers to learn more about the community they patrol with up to date bulletins on crime trends and citizen requests. Community events are advertised on the computers, resulting in greater outreach to individual neighborhoods by community officers. Information and photographs of missing and wanted persons are immediately transmitted to officers in the field. The system creates a direct avenue of communications between investigative and operational units that prior to the implementation had no direct interaction.

Realizing the benefits of the system, patrol, investigative, and supervisory personnel continue to provide favorable feedback with comments such as "There are no forms to carry"; "I got another stolen car last night"; "The daily information bulletin is read at roll call maybe once a week; I can download and read it every day right on my computer"; and "I can't do my job without it."

The tactical computer system was especially crucial to the Alexandria Police Department during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack and the Washington sniper attacks in 2002. During both events, the department relied heavily on the system to distribute action plans, tactical maps, photographs, and other information. Both events tested the limits of the department's staffing, response, and technical capabilities. When the volume of traffic jammed traditional systems such as phones and radios, the tactical computer system's data network remained a clear and reliable source of communications.

Keys to Success

Although purchasing the best hardware and software is important, it is not enough. Departments interested in replicating the Alexandria model should consider dedicating qualified staff to the development and support of the system, ensuring that end users have a voice in the type and functionality of the equipment, and creating strong policies that encourage the use of the technology and innovative ideas. Strategic planning is also required to ensure that today's technology will work tomorrow and that funds will be available for replacement.

The Alexandria Police Department is proud of the capabilities and success of this system, and are pleased to help police departments across the country develop similar technology. The department believes this application of information technology demonstrates an effective use of resources in a digital age, when the police are asked to do more with less.


The Alexandria Police Department Tactical Computer System is featured on the IACP Technology Clearinghouse at www.iacptechnology.org
The specifications of hardware, software, and systems are listed, along with lessons learned.
Contact Sergeant James Craige at 703-838-3858 or james.craige@ci.alexandria.va.us for further information.


 

From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 4, April 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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