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Greatness and danger in police car computers
04 Sep 2008

Police Professional looks at the advantages and perils of mobile data terminals (MDTs) in American police patrol cars.

They are, in many ways, a dream of location services, context and data availability. Mobile data terminals (MDTs) allow officers in the field to look up vehicle license registration details, take reports and do other tasks without paper or slow voice communications back to the dispatcher. The location is constantly broadcast over a data network, right to the dispatchers’ screens. No more ‘anyone in the area’ calls; the closest available vehicle can be sent to a call seamlessly.

Steven Hoober is a senior interaction designer for Little Springs Design, an American company that specialises in the practice of user-centred design for the mobile industry.

“When the patrol car pulls into the police department parking lot at the end of an officer’s shift, it comes into range of a dedicated high-speed wireless network. The video filmed during the shift is automatically downloaded and indexed to location and other data known or recorded,” he said.

An MDT, for example, allows an officer to have a photograph of the registered owner of a vehicle sent to his device in around five seconds. But could all this access to information and communications be a hazard?

“While the risk of distracted driving while talking on mobiles is apparently very low, the danger from actually looking down at screens is much more immediate and obvious,” said Mr Hoober.

“Entering vehicle information on the move may improve safety by presenting the officer with critical information but it also presents a risk since the officer cannot be paying as much attention to driving or what is happening in the vehicle being pursued.”

And what about writing reports in the car? An extract from Is your patrol car going to kill you? by Jim Donahu, a police officer in Florida, reads: “A 30-year-old officer was sitting in his patrol car in the middle of a busy shopping centre parking lot, under a bright light. He was catching up on a couple of reports, using the patrol car's computer. Another vehicle pulled alongside the passenger side of his patrol car. The dirtbag driver levelled a shotgun at the unassuming officer and slaughtered him.”

Mr Donahu oversees a class on ‘technology and tactics’, which much like firearms training teaches officers not just the skills of hitting a target but when to use appropriate force.

“These classes are about how to use your technology as a tactical item,” said Mr Hoober. “How it influences your work and the implications of using computers, phones, radios and other technology for the job.”

The trend, as in all industries, is to get more and more out of your workers, so it is typical for patrol officers to spend their downtime in the field writing reports. To write a cohesive report, said Mr Hobber, an officer must be focused, not looking up every 30 seconds to see what’s around them.

“It’s not just an issue of safety, but of getting good output from all facets of the officer. To that end, some departments do specifically encourage only note-taking in the field; reports are written after the shift, in the office.”

Mr Donahue teaches his students that when they do have to perform paperwork in their car, there are ways to alleviate the awareness issues: find a quiet spot, back the car against a wall or other obstruction, roll the windows down and turn down the radios. And park on gravel if at all possible.
Some of these issues, and solutions, did exist in paper-report days. But shouldn’t interactive systems be able to better assist and be able to improve the situation?

Mr Hoober said some of this does seem to be happening. Mission Police Department in Kansas City will be moving to a new system when its next fleet of vehicles arrive, with a smaller touchscreen and keyboard mounted just below eye level.

“They are on movable arms to provide access to the vehicle stereo and climate controls, as well as to make the typing position more comfortable, while staying well away from airbags and the driver's body in case of an accident,” said Mr Hoober.

“These sorts of improvements seem to be moving into the mainstream slowly. The software, and device interaction in general, is an entirely different field, also with wildly variable results.

“Most of the software started life as desktop data entry systems. Many are simply compressed to fit the smaller screens, and are therefore quite difficult to use. Important functions of the software, or the computer system itself (dimming, or night modes) are often difficult to access, or impossible to decipher without training.”

Mr Hoober said all of these are failures of basic mobile principles. Despite being vehicle mounted systems, the core concepts are the same: visual, contextual in presenting information and for inputting information, personalised and always switched on.

“These systems do some of this wonderfully, but generally fail on at least one critical area.”


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