March 23, 2006



Posted: 08.04

Medium Deployment: Law & a Lot More Order

For a sheriff's office two dozen miles from the White House, increased security and efficiency demands were non-negotiable. Now equipped with Pocket PCs, every officer holds the working knowledge of the force in her hands.
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By Bill Shu

Streamlining paperwork and tracking data are important for almost any entity in any industry. But when the industry is law enforcement, the biggest danger of not automating isn’t writer’s cramp or inefficiency; it could mean the difference between a dangerous suspect being apprehended or getting away.

Law enforcement has always been a dangerous profession, and it has always been an industry that required a mountain of paperwork. For the Office of the Sheriff in Charles County, Md., the work of police officers on the front lines has become more important than ever, and so has the information buried in the mountain of paperwork they were creating daily.

Located approximately 25 miles southeast of Washington, D.C., the Charles County Sheriff’s Office serves about 130,000 citizens. Partly due to their proximity to the nation’s capital, Charles County police officers must be alert to issues of homeland security and have become more aware of the role their reports could play in providing advance warnings for future attacks.

Beginning in 2002, police departments throughout Maryland were required by the state to collect certain types of data—including race, gender, ethnicity and the current time and location—each time they performed a traffic stop. The Sheriff’s Office is also required to produce year-end reports for the Maryland Justice Analysis Center. With the possibility of more than 16,000 traffic-related stops on which to report each year, department leadership knew it had to streamline the data entry process and better prepare the results for reporting purposes.

“Paper-based recording had worked for decades,” says Eric Halvorsen, MIS Manager for the Charles County Sheriff’s Office. “But the urgency and volume of the current data—as well as a strong desire to be better prepared for any terror situations—brought a need for change.”

Request for Backup

Under the old system, paper reports known as Field Interview Reports formed a sophisticated but effective tracking system for the department. The reports were hand written by officers at the time of the traffic stop and then later input to the Records Management System by a clerk. Field Interview Reports are a crucial component of tracking potential criminals—an issue of particular importance in homeland security efforts.

The Charles County Sheriff’s Office knew it could streamline its reporting for both speed and efficiency by automating some of its processes. But traditions die hard. “From a law enforcement perspective, switching to electronic reporting has been traditionally difficult,” says Halvorsen. “Officers always worry about losing control of the data and having to learn new technologies.”

The police officers were familiar and comfortable with the paper-based reporting process. Management at the Charles County Sheriff’s Office knew it would be a challenge to switch the officers to electronic forms reporting. Additionally, the Sheriff’s Office had to address serious data security concerns. Security issues are critical in a way that differs from private-sector businesses; rather than protecting financial figures and trade secrets, the Sheriff’s Office needs to protect people’s lives and victims’ identities.

The department considered many factors in selecting the proper hardware and software for this deployment. The most important factors were cost and the ability of the software to accomplish the department’s mobility, record-keeping and security goals. With a tight funding budget for the project, there were many avenues that were explored, including the use of refurbished PDAs. This project also meant the conversion of the Agency from one e-mail system to another, which provided incredible challenges of its own.

After an extensive discovery process, the Sheriff’s Office management chose to use HP iPAQ 3765 Pocket PC handhelds for their portability and ease of use. They also selected Profiler PD, a software program specifically tailored to meet the needs of law enforcement agencies.

For behind-the-scenes maintenance of their devices, the Sheriff’s Office purchased XcelleNet Afaria v5.0 to automatically, quickly and efficiently update the iPAQs deployed in the field. This helped ensure that the officers had the proper data, applications, and security protection running on their devices at all times. “Without the most up-to-date software and documents, frontline officers can’t do their jobs efficiently,” says Halvorsen. Afaria keeps officers informed by transparently pushing software and documents to the IPAQs in the field.

To help ease implementation for the officers, the Sheriff’s Office added an e-mail exchange option available via Extend Connect software for the iPAQs. Says Halvorsen: “We believed that the ability to process e-mails and keep track of appointments and tasks would be a big morale booster for the officers.”

Officers in Training

Knowing that their officers were very used to dealing with paper-based processes, the Charles County Sheriff's Office took user training seriously. The department scheduled classes for the police officers with a low student-to-instructor ratio of 5 students per instructor. By providing intensive, hands-on learning for users, they helped familiarize the officers with all aspects of the care and use of the iPAQs.

The Sheriff’s Office had to work with several hardware and software vendors to ensure that the combined solution met the department’s customized needs. It was also crucial that each officer was comfortable with the new technology. The Sheriff’s Office overcame deployment difficulties by working closely with vendors and through intensive training classes with officers to educate them on the new process.

Arresting Developments

The deployment succeeded in reaching a number of the Sheriff’s Office’s goals by drastically reducing the amount of paperwork that was physically entered and processed. The deployment of the iPAQs gave the officers the ability to input the required information about traffic stops quickly and in a manner that standardized the information, which made comparative analysis easier. They were also given the ability to fill in Field Interviews with the iPAQ’s software, greatly improving the speed and functionality of the reports. Since the data input was in electronic format already, it was very easy to use the data to produce reports and queries for analysis.

The Afaria software enables the Sheriff’s Office to quickly and automatically update an iPAQ each time an officer docks it into a cradle located in the squad room at the beginning or end of each shift. “Busy police officers don’t have to take any extra steps to begin the updates, so it doesn’t interfere with their primary job responsibilities, further streamlining the reporting process,” says Halvorsen.

The multiport cradles were used to load the software for initial deployment and then to reload the software when the iPAQ battery dies. Halvorsen says that such a backup system has proved crucial for officers, who, due to the nature of their jobs, are often unable to closely monitor the system’s battery power. “Sometimes officers accidentally let the iPAQ’s battery die, which means that all of the software on the iPAQ dies with it. XcelleNet software gives the IT experts at the Sheriff’s Office the ability to restore the lost information from one central location. The ability to have officers bring the iPAQ into its PC operations office and restore all of the information has saved the department a tremendous amount of time.”

If a device is lost or stolen, Afaria can either lock down the device or completely wipe the device clean of all data, protecting the security of vital policing information, such as surveillance operations and protecting the rights of victims.

And the e-mail feature? It turned out to be both popular with the officers and functional for the entire department. It gave the officers the connectivity of e-mail and access to critical reference information, which is downloaded to the iPAQs periodically during hard synchs. Though they explored the option of wireless e-mail, it proved to be prohibitively expensive.

“The department went from police officers who were skeptical of using electronic devices to officers who are engaged in the process and use the iPAQs reliably,” says Halvorsen. “The officers enjoy having the iPAQs and eliminating the time-consuming paper-based reporting process. The streamlining of reporting has improved the overall efficiency of the entire department, providing the staff with more time to improve crime prevention and homeland security practices.”

Halvorsen acknowledges that while the successful deployment of handhelds has proven wildly successful, it is far from the end of the process. “We consider this the first step in fully mobilizing the ability to provide critical information exchanges between the officers in the field and the servers that provide the needed information.”
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