LOS ANGELES (AP) Police Detective Brian Solinsky doesnt carry a wrist radio like Dick Tracy, but he does use a new tool that makes the comic-book cops vision of high-tech policing a reality.
During a recent undercover investigation at an auto body shop, Solinsky found a parking ticket in the pocket of a dismembered car door. He slipped a Palm V with wireless modem out of his pocket, discreetly tapped into a police database and confirmed the door had come from a stolen car.
Using his radio might have tipped off the owner, whom 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 aiding undercover investigations and giving police faster, 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 South Pasadena Police Department outside Los Angeles.
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.
Supporters say they can use the devices to avoid being tied to the patrol car or having to clog radio frequencies and bother dispatchers with routine checks.
The real value will come when more extensive databases come online and the devices are widely adopted, making interagency communications easier.
Those devices eventually will be commonplace in law enforcement, said Harlin McEwen, who heads a committee on communications and technology at the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Theyre going to be very good for retrieving information you need quickly without having to go someplace to get it.
Clint Morrison, an analyst with the investment firm of Miller Johnson Steichen Kinnard, believes the market for such technology is large.
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 Inc. 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 Corp. of Jersey City, N.J., is more complex and potentially more controversial.
Instead of hauling someone to a police station for questioning, an officer can check a fingerprint made on a glass pane built into the 5-pound, handheld unit. Within a few minutes, the officer gets information about that persons identity and outstanding warrants, along with a photo.
Visionics has come under fire recently for another device used in Tampa, Fla., to monitor passers-by in a high-crime neighborhood. Using the companys 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 considered a virtual lineup that smacked of Big Brother by randomly monitoring people without their consent.
All this technology does is give law enforcement Supermans 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 objections, police have been testing and deploying such systems. Ontario, Calif., 30 miles east of Los Angeles, has embraced the fingerprinting system from Visionics.
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.
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