LOS ANGELES – Police Detective Brian Solinsky doesn’t carry a wrist radio like Dick Tracy, but he does use a new tool that makes the comic book cop’s vision of high-tech policing a reality.
During a recent undercover investigation, Solinsky found a parking ticket in the pocket of a dismembered car door at an auto body shop. With a specially designed wireless device, he discreetly tapped into a police database and confirmed the door had come from a stolen car.
Using his standard-issue police radio might have tipped off the owner, who police later arrested for running a “chop shop” where stolen cars are stripped of valuable parts.
The case is just one example of how handheld computers, two-way pagers and other wireless communication tools are being developed to aid undercover investigations and give police faster and more convenient access to critical information.
“This allows a detective in a business suit or jeans to throw it in their pocket and off they go,” said Solinsky, a member of the suburban South Pasadena Police Department.
Police agencies across the country are testing a variety of wireless devices, including units that can send encrypted messages and check fingerprints and photographs from remote locations.
“Those devices eventually will be commonplace in law enforcement,” said Harlin McEwen, chairman of the communications and technology committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “They’re going to be very good for retrieving information you need quickly without having to go someplace to get it.”
Clint Morrison, an analyst with MillerJohnson Steichen Kinnard, believes there’s a big market for the technology.
“There are a whole lot of squad cars in the country,” he said. “You could argue this is a reasonably valuable tool to have in each one of them. A modest-sized city if fully deployed, represents a $5 million opportunity.”
Among the firms trying to cash in on that market is Aether Systems of Owings Mills, Md. Its PocketBlue system is now available in selected states and will soon be rolled out nationally.
Through a wireless service that costs $90 a month per unit, officers using a Palm or a Blackberry wireless pager can check vehicle registration, gun licenses and other basic information over a network maintained by AT&T.
Messages are encrypted and bypass the police dispatcher, tapping directly into a state or federal database.
The system also allows officers to record data about the ethnicity of people they stop, as required by a growing number of federal consent decrees stemming from racial profiling cases.
“Those agencies are looking for technology immediately to deal with that,” said John Dorr, a director of product marketing for Aether.
A system made by Visionics of Jersey City, N.J., is more complex and potentially more controversial.
Instead of hauling someone to a police station for detention, an officer can check a fingerprint made on a glass pane built into the five-pound, handheld unit. Within a few minutes, the officer is relayed information about the person’s identity and outstanding warrants along with a photo.
Visionics has come under fire recently for a related device used in Tampa to monitor passers-by in a high-crime neighborhood. Using the company’s “Face It” technology, snapshots are compared against a database of 30,000 people that includes runaway teen-agers and people wanted on criminal charges.
Civil libertarians protested what they said was a virtual lineup that smacked of Big Brother by randomly monitoring people without their consent.
“All this technology does is give law enforcement Superman’s powers — powers that go well beyond what would be provided by human senses,” said Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It allows police officers to engage in intrusive searches.”
Despite such objections, police in Ontario, 30 miles east of Los Angeles, and other communities have been testing the Visionics system and intend to deploy it.
“We have it installed in four units — three black-and-whites and one gang unit,” said Ann Punter, a spokeswoman for the Ontario Police Department. “We do intend to use it.”