Today, everything's computerized, or at least it seems so. Don't believe me? Just imagine a late 1950s shade-tree mechanic trying to tune-up one of today s vehicles.
Where once we had single-channel, analog radio equipment in our patrol units, we now have multi-channel, scanning, GPS-equipped, mobile data-linked whiz-bangs. Coppers of yesteryear actually had to call in on a radio in their car and recite names phonetically spelled, of course along with dates of birth and other information, in order to ascertain if a warrant existed for a suspect. Someone at the dispatch center would type the request into a teletype machine and transmit it to a central location, such as a state police operations center. In some agencies things were even less high tech, and the radio request would result in a paper-records check at the local police department.
Of course, technology evolved. Computer networks, the Internet, mobile-data terminals, computerized databases and eventually vehicle-mounted laptop computers came along. With each succeeding step, the information flow grew more advanced, more comprehensive and much faster.
That's a good thing right?
Officer Safety Issues
It would be hard to argue against the increased benefits of having greater information more quickly accessible. If an officer can run a license-plate number and get information on the registered owner of the vehicle before making the stop, that information can save the officer s life. And the ability to query data from other jurisdictions, other states and federal databases will certainly lead to more comprehensive investigations of individuals who may be up to no good.
But there s a down side to this information availability: It requires officers to focus their attention away from whatever other high-risk activity may be underway at the time.
When many of us old-timers were out and about, we often had partners, at least during the night shift. One drove and one kept the paperwork up and handled the radio. When we stopped a vehicle or a pedestrian, one would focus on direct interaction with the individual in question, while the other would watch our back. This contact-cover concept is well known in law enforcement tactical circles, and is still taught today during most officer-safety and use-of-force training.
However, many more officers work alone today. To deal with leaner budgets and increased demands for public safety, departments have searched for ways to create more police presence on the street. That has often led administrators to spread existing resources thinner and thinner, so that along with working alone in a vehicle, officers may also have fewer backup officers nearby.
It's obvious that if you re alone in your vehicle, you can t focus all of your attention on the radio or the mobile-computing gear. You need to drive, and you must guard against trying to multi-task to such a degree that it exposes you and those around you to danger.
Maintain Focus on Threats
When conducting a traffic stop or other investigative situation, officers must stay focused on the potential threat posed by the individual or individuals they question, as well as environmental hazards such as traffic. While it's somewhat distracting to read identification information into a microphone verbally, at least you can keep the suspects in your field of vision, especially if you transmit on your portable radio while outside your car.
When you get back into your vehicle to use the data terminal, your attention is focused away from potential threats, and it can prove difficult to make yourself split your attention to a degree that allows you to safely monitor the situation while inputting your inquiries into your terminal or laptop. While most officers are good multi-taskers, and increased comfort with technology helps, this situation absolutely creates an officer-safety problem that must be addressed in training.
In the old days, we either hand-wrote our reports while in the car or went into an office to type them (there used to be this product called White Out, which some of us became intimately familiar with). Now, many departments have officers prepare reports on a vehicle-mounted laptop, then transmit them to a server at their office, often via a wireless network. This synchronization often occurs at the end of the shift and is wholly electronic. In fact, many reports are filed away electronically as well and never see the dirty side of a printer.
This is a huge step forward (when it works), greatly simplifying the reporting, reviewing and filing process, as well as solving part of most departments biggest problem storage. But consider the officer-safety aspect of report writing in your vehicle. This is another place where it's great to have a partner. If you don t, guard against pulling off into a dark parking lot and spending long periods of time staring at your data screen. This is more than a temporary distraction. If you become fixated on what you re doing, you could be at great risk from anyone who wants to walk up to your vehicle unseen.
Choose your report-writing location carefully. Pick a well-lit area, someplace where it would be difficult for a bad guy to approach you unnoticed. Work with your windows down, or at least partially open. If you can leave your engine off and still utilize your communications and other gear, consider doing so in order to make it easier for you to hear anyone who might try to approach you stealthily. Look up and scan your environment frequently. If you ve chosen a well-lit area, there won t be as much of a disparity between looking at your screen and viewing the outside world. If you re parked in a dark spot, looking up from your laptop will make it difficult to see out into the darkness until your night-vision returns, and that can take some time. Finally, don t always use the same spot for your nightly report-writing session; that can put you at risk from someone intent on harming an officer. Just as with any other repetitive activity, avoid setting patterns in your behavior. Remain unpredictable.
I mentioned the hazards of using your data terminal or laptop while driving. The answer here remains quite simple: Don t compute and drive! Of course, many of the newer systems have a graphical user interface, making your input easier. With practice, many officers can quickly key in a license plate number while barely taking their eyes off the road. That's fine, but the real danger comes when the requested information pops up on their computer screen. Now they have to split their attention in order to read the results, and that can create a lengthy distraction. It's far better to pull over when using the terminal or laptop, and many departments require it in all but emergency situations.
Recent research indicates distracted driving is one of the major causes of traffic crashes. While we frequently equate this problem to the use of cell phones and eating while driving, we must realize officers do many of these same things during patrol. The addition of new technologies to the patrol-vehicle environment has only made this problem worse.
Many law enforcement driver-training courses incorporate audible and visual distractions, such as traffic signals, sirens and simulated radio traffic. Ideally, departments should incorporate the use of mobile computing equipment and cell phones into training as well.
Now all I have to do is modify my driver-training lesson plans to include the juggling of a cup of coffee. Stay safe, and wear your vest!