By Sebastian Thaler

Ordinary citizens can rely on the Internet to communicate instantly, but law enforcement has been stuck in the past. Police in one municipality—on the trail of a suspect known to have made threats against cops—have had no way to communicate that threat to officers elsewhere who might detain the suspect and put themselves in harm’s way. Because of the potential risks, some have asked how technology can be harnessed to allow officers—within a single jurisdiction and nationwide—to communicate among each other more quickly and efficiently.

There is a genuine need for such technology. On August 3, 2000, a Texas Department of Public Safety highway patrol officer named Randy Vetter made a “routine” traffic stop on Melvin Hale, a 72-year-old driver for a no-seatbelt violation. Hale was known to some local officers in Hays County, Texas for threatening to shoot any officer who tried to issue him a ticket for not wearing a seatbelt. However, since law enforcement agencies do not share information, other local law enforcement officers and agencies were unaware of the threat, as was the Texas DPS. Mr. Hale exited his vehicle and mortally wounded the trooper within seconds.

Technology such as the COPsync Network, developed by Dallas, TX-based COPsync, Inc., might have helped save Vetter’s life. Such a system could enable law enforcement patrol officers to communicate in real-time, share non-adjudicated information and send real-time alerts of crimes in progress to officers in other law enforcement agencies, regardless of agency jurisdiction or distance, in effect enabling these officers to communicate between and among themselves as if they were one law enforcement agency. Officers using such a system could communicate among themselves as if they were one law enforcement agency.

A communication system with this capability could incorporate a suite of modules for patrol officers, fulfilling the purpose of enabling them to communicate and share information in real time across jurisdictional boundaries. The system would also equip officers with 21st-century electronic tools to speed efficiency, such as e-citation, e-crash reporting and electronic law reference.

During a routine traffic stop, a number of databases could be queried in seconds, such as the FBI CJIS database; state law enforcement telecommunications databases; the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) database, which has a record of all of the U.S./Canada and U.S./Mexico vehicle border crossings; and a network-specific database populated with information entered by officers using the system.

A prior threat made by an individual against law enforcement could be viewed in the database. A visual alert and audible siren could trigger to warn the trooper of the safety threat. The system could then locate, via GPS, the closest patrol units to the trooper. These officers could then be warned that the trooper had encountered a person with officer safety alert registered in the system. The officers receiving the warning could then, via instant messaging, communicate with the trooper. All of this could occur in seconds, before the trooper ever hit his light bar to initiate a traffic stop.

With such technology, officers or agency personnel could create alerts or inquiries for a variety of reasons, including officer safety alerts, missing persons, attempt to locate, etc. These alerts could contain photos of individuals or vehicles, or identifying marks (e.g. tattoos). Officers using the network could view and search the list of all active alerts issued by any officer or agency in the network. These alerts could be tied to hard identifiers, such as license plate or driver’s license. These alerts would reside in the database and then “pop” to the surface to the officer’s attention on the officer’s in-vehicle computer mobile data terminal (MDT) when the officer ran a query against that hard identifier.

An officer or dispatcher could use a messaging feature to instantaneously and securely broadcast messages to any single officer or group of officers in the network. It could be used to notify of crimes in progress, police pursuits, terror alerts, officers needing assistance or a quick query to fellow officers inquiring about a suspicious person. The message could be attached to an incident report and used as a basis for probable cause to initiate a traffic stop of other field contact.

Such a network could incorporate redundancies to handle a variety of failures that could conceivably occur; most failures would be related to intermittent connectivity at the patrol vehicle where the MDT can lose the mobile signal and go offline. A system could be designed specifically for these types of intermittent connection and low-bandwidth situations. The system could handle changes in network connectivity by constantly monitoring signal strength and response. Additionally, to ensure data integrity and protect against data loss, all data could be stored locally using CJIS-compliant encryption before being uploaded to a server. Finally, the servers could be geo-replicated to multiple locations.

As more and more jurisdictions across the U.S. sign on to a network-based system like this, the number of real-time crime data being shared will rise—as will the potential of apprehending criminals more efficiently.

Sebastian Thaler is a freelance science and technology writer based in New York City.