When most people think of Baltimore today, The Wire probably springs to mind. Many saw the TV series as a gritty, uncompromising drama that went some way in conveying what life on the streets is really like in one of America’s oldest cities. Yet on the frontline and in Baltimore itself opinions are mixed, and there are those who feel the TV drama may have unjustly prejudiced people into believing the city has a reputation for crime.
‘The Wire was television,’ says Gayle Guilford, director of Management Information Systems for the Baltimore Police Department (BPD). ‘I’m not going to say none
of it is reality, I just haven’t seen all the episodes yet.’
While Guilford may be keen to dispel some of the hype surrounding the show, she does offer up some similarities between fiction and reality. The disparity between those in uniform and the people in the street has continued to widen and she is as keen as anyone to take policing full circle, getting officers back onto street corners and talking to people.
‘What I can say is that the unique issue here is to get the officer out of the car and back knowing the community because the way you solve crime is to have relationships with the community,’ she explains.
So, when the commissioner came to Guilford back in February of last year with a vision of using technology to make this happen, she was all ears.
Ever since, it has become a priority for a department that has seen successive technology transitions and developments only succeed in putting officers in a vehicle surrounded by a ‘shield’ of sorts.
When Guilford arrived two and a half years ago Baltimore cops used cell phones and laptops in cars with an application called Mobile Cop providing access to important information. Prior to this, officers had to get back in the car and call a dispatcher if they wanted some assistance.
‘Up till now the cars had been using toughbooks gifted to them from another police agency about four years back,’ she says. ‘Of course, nobody gifts something unless they’re getting something new. So as you’d imagine, they weren’t robust enough or cutting edge.’
Guilford reveals that one idea was to look at a different type of radio while the other was to expand the use of the Mobile Cop application.
‘We had been using Mobile Cop and were looking at a couple of different versions of software that provided National Crime Information Center (NCIC ) and motor vehicle service, but chose Pocket Cop because it was the next version of this,’ she says.
Other requirements included incorporating email and a device that could withstand being dropped or rolled in a police car as well as having GPS and two-factor authentication for complying with state and federal laws.
Interestingly, Guilford says that GPS was one of the biggest hurdles to overcome as is it was regarded rather suspiciously in some quarters – something they overcame by getting the police union involved from the very start.
‘The other hurdle was getting the officer to understand that the device itself is part of their uniform, no different from their gun or their flashlight,’ Gulford adds. ‘We did have to rewrite our general orders in order to accommodate that.’
GPS was seen as the technology for solving problems around redeployment
of officers following incidents and for filling holes in officer coverage.
Guilford says Baltimore got lucky too. ‘We had started a pilot before we knew there was going to be a stimulus grant,’ she adds. ‘So when we applied for this we had already completed about 60-80 days of the pilot, identifying what worked and what didn’t. We had already evaluated two GPS vendors and we already knew what enhancements we needed too.’
One thing that became clear was the need for extended memory for officers taking pictures and video rather than waiting for someone to come out with a camera – in the field this would save time and money.
As a result, around $3.5m is being spent to equip the BPD Blackberry Curves with Pocket Cop from InterAct. Indeed, some 1,800 versions have already been deployed using Seido extended batteries and ruggedised cases to give officers 140% more life than a normal battery and get them through the shifts and a little bit more if they have to work overtime.
Interestingly, BPD chose to go with ‘Xora’ GPS management because of its experience in the handling of dispatching rather than law enforcement. Guilford says that this experience was more important to the department and helped to simplify things in the long run.
This is all wrapped up into what Guilford refers to as ‘BPD Side Partner’ and uses two-factor authentication for security. ‘We chose the name Side Partner as we have Xora’s GPS management system, InterAct’s Pocket Cop and Verizon wireless’s service,’ she says.
‘In terms of security, each officer is assigned a token which changes every second with a new number assigned through the state to that particular officer. So when they go to log on, not only do they log on with their NCIC log on, they login to Pocket Cop and also use the token log on.’
BPD also developed an in-house application called Priority Warrants, meaning that when an officer logs on to their Pocket Cop device it brings up the ten current priority warrants in their particular sector on a daily basis.
So when an officer gets notification that the car he has just pulled over is being driven by someone who is wanted for murder, it comes back in red as urgent, automatically letting the dispatcher and other officers assigned to that sector know too. BPD still uses Motorola two-way radios, but Guilford says Side Partner means that officers no longer have to wait for radio dispatchers to describe what a person looks like from the MVA system or verify a vehicle via the radio network.
‘As well as giving officers that added protection it has also helped us to save around 30 minutes a day per officer owing to the immediacy of the information,’ says Guilford.
Having achieved the first objective of getting officers out of the cars and by moving them from toughbooks to Blackberry, Guilford is aware that as the technology grows, configurations may change.
She is already exploring the merits of wireless devices like tablets to help sergeants and lieutenants when looking at GPS onscreen and sees these complimenting rather than replacing Side Partner and two-way radio.
‘We are also looking at many other things we would like to add to the device but have to keep in mind where the technology is,’ she adds. ‘For example, we want to be able to take your fingerprint. There is wireless fingerprint technology there but we’re trying not to give the officer another piece of equipment. One of the things that’s been looked at for handheld devices is the integration of fingerprints.’
Guildford views this and retinal identification as the future but voices concerns about battery life and touch-screen technology when out in the field.
For now though she is happy in the knowledge that this equipment is already having a positive effect on how BPD officers do their job, as well as changing the way in which they are viewed by the community.
‘If I can continue to do that and increase officer safety by giving them more access to information, then I’m happy,’ she says.