Riding Shotgun - Mobile computer systems are proving themselves vital to the future of public safety

Riding Shotgun

Mobile computer systems are proving themselves vital to the future of public safety

Imagine that you are asked to police nearly 4 million people in a 3,171-square-mile area—larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined—in a metropolitan region with more than 10 million residents and 4,057 square miles, and have a sworn and professional staff of more than 17,000 people using 1987 technology. In 2011, that is exactly what the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD), the largest such department in the United States, was doing.

Its deputies in the field were being asked to make do with an old, end-of-life mobile data terminal (MDT) system that it had been using for more than two decades. A major drawback to its usefulness in the 21st century was that the MDT units supported only text-based communications.

The system was so antiquated that parts for it weren’t even being sold in this country anymore. It was so old that it pre-dated the birth of some of the department’s younger employees.

While 1987 technology may be adequate for a sheriff ’s department in rural areas with little crime, LASD was in desperate need of a new system. Waltham, Mass.-based Raytheon Company had some ideas on how to drastically update LASD’s technology. As a longtime provider of state-of-the-art electronics and integrated complex communications systems to the military, the company understood the importance of mission-critical solutions that LASD required for deputies to be successful in the field.

“For over 60 years, we have been designing, testing, and delivering reliable, secure communications technologies for the military,” said T.J. Kennedy of Raytheon. “Our systems are battlefield tested in some of the most challenging and grueling environments any product can face. If it works out there, you can be assured it will work for any public safety agency.”

After a competitive bid process, the LASD selected Raytheon to integrate a new interoperable mobile data computer system (MDCS) that would significantly improve data rates and enable the department to extend its desktop capabilities and applications to its fleet of several thousand vehicles.

The MDCS project represented the largest deployment of mobile digital computers to any sheriff ’s department in the country. More than 2,400 field units are being equipped. These vehicles range from patrol cars to SUVs, prisoner transport busses, motorcycles and even boats. (Los Angeles County includes 75 miles of ocean coastline, plus it has many inland lakes that require patrolling.)

Raytheon also provided installation kits for every unit, as well as a full multi-year warranty, and assumed maintenance services on the system itself.

“With its many years of experience, Raytheon had the expertise and depth of knowledge to provide the LASD with an innovative, cost-effective, seamless public safety mobile data communications system that will evolve over time with our needs,” said Scott Edson, captain of LASD Communications and Fleet Management Bureau.

Now, for the first time in the department’s history, LASD’s scores of field vehicles will have instant, real-time access to state-of-the-art applications.

For instance, deputies can easily and quickly access the Internet and the LASD intranet to obtain current information for citizens in search of locations for social services, homeless shelters or other material when they (the citizens) most need it.

With GPS and mapping capabilities at their fingertips, deputies arrive at calls quicker, since they no longer have to pull out a cumbersome paper map, locate the street and address, and then mentally figure out the fastest route to get there. What may have taken deputies upward of a minute to ascertain, now can be done in seconds. GPS capability also allows deputies to see locations of other officers that may be nearby.

The solution also provides in-the-field access to fingerprint data, DMV photos, FBI records and warrants, and enables officers to conduct background checks. This greatly aids deputies in being able to more quickly assess a situation and decide on a course of action. The MDCS also allows staff in the field to access:

  • All criminal databases (Criminal Justice Information Services, National Crime Information Center, etc.)
  • Information such as penal and vehicle codes, Peace Officers legal sourcebook, manual of policy and procedures, etc.
  • Photographs of wanted suspects as well as America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response (AMBER) alerts
  • Security cameras of local businesses that have chosen to make them available

The system allows law enforcement queries, provides a resource library, is a method for taking field reports, does messaging, and has the capability to input field interviews and make traffic reports.

The system enhances the knowledge, support, services and safety of patrol deputies by migrating data communications from the former private network to a commercial wireless broadband service. Its open architecture design enables quick and easy integration for future software and hardware upgrades and additions when they become available.

The open-architecture MDCS has five primary hardware components.

  • The computing power is provided by a Panasonic Toughbook CF-31 laptop. It is equipped with a full magnesium alloy case with a 250-GB shock-mounted, quick-release hard drive to deliver maximum durability and portability. The laptop is seated in a docking station and cannot be removed without the docking station key. LASD motorcycles equipped with an MDCS use a Toughbook CF-19 laptop. Both models of laptops meet military tough requirements for durability.
  • A Havis docking station is mounted between the driver and front passenger seat. The docking station, or port replicator, locks the laptop in position in the vehicle. It provides electrical power to the devices connected to it and serves as an interface connection between the laptop and external devices. A LIND power adapter is mounted to the bottom to provide power to both the docking station and laptop. The antenna, magnetic stripe reader, Cogent BlueCheck fingerprint scanner, and voltage monitor also connect to the laptop through the docking station.
  • To “read” a California state driver’s license or identification card and input its data into the laptop, the MDCS includes a MagTek Mini Swipe Reader, or magnetic stripe reader. It connects to the docking station through a USB port and mounts to the front of the center console. An LED indicator on the magnetic stripe reader provides continuous status of the device.
  • Each LASD vehicle with an MDCS is equipped with two antennas that provide cell, GPS and Wi-Fi capability.
  • A mounting base for the docking station, magnetic stripe reader, Motorola radio face unit, and Smart System LMS panel is provided by a Havis center console. It also holds three 12-volt adapters for various uses, including battery recharging, and a map light on the front passenger side.

The system automatically switches between commercial cellular and Wi-Fi when the vehicles are back at their respective stations to receive the remote upgrade and maintenance required to keep the system current and running smoothly.

Forty-eight LASD facilities, located throughout the county, are or will be configured with a wireless access point by Cisco, providing the mobile data computers with a high-speed connection via Wi-Fi to NetMotion servers and the Sheriff ’s Data Network. The Wi-Fi connection is used primarily for computer updates and over-the-air maintenance to the MDCS.

Two additional sets of servers run Net- Motion software and the Microsoft software product. A System Center Configuration Manager is stationed at two separate LASD data centers. The two banks of servers via NetMotion software are connected to every operational MDCS. The servers include software that controls how the computers talk to the back-end network—cell and Wi-Fi—as well as software for virus protection, system maintenance and data backup.

The new “technology propels the Los Angeles County Sheriff ’s Department into the 21st century,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca. “Raytheon worked closely with our sheriff ’s deputies, engineers and technicians to integrate the latest public safety technologies and capabilities into our vehicles. This new mobile data computer system greatly increases the efficiency of deputies in the field. It provides more knowledge right at their fingertips, and enables them to do more for the public now and in the years ahead.”

An added benefit Raytheon is providing LASD is the use of the company’s new 27,000-square-foot Public Safety Regional Technology Center, opening in Downey, Calif. The center is designed to help maximize the capabilities of the system as new technologies become available.

It is safe to say that the $19.9-million investment made by the LASD and the County of Los Angeles has dramatically upgraded the department’s field-policing technology and provides a vital tool to the future of public safety for the millions of people living in the LASD service area.

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Security Today.

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