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Cop Cars: From Buck Boards to Buck Rodgers

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Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.), MPA


            Cops are constantly adapting their equipment to the environment.  Our kit bags have grown larger and larger as we collected equipment to deal with the job.  Our departments gives us the basics and as we face new situations we think about what we could have used as a tool to have made the task easier.  Then, we go out and get that tool for next time.  Much of the commercially produced police equipment used by our peers today was developed on the fly by those who walked the beat before us.  The concept of the cruiser as a mobile office was developed by those of us who worked long shifts and thought What could be added to this car to make my job easier?  Make me more comfortable? Help me to hunt down dangerous offenders?

            By looking at the historical development of technology used in our mobile office, we can gain a greater understanding of how to employ the technology, integrate it into our field tactics and investigations, and look at possible future applications.  This series of three articles will look at the historical development of the mobile office, the current tactical and investigative advantages of today's mobile officer and, finally, the future.

Mouse Ears and Bench Seats

            My first patrol car was a 1979 Plymouth Fury.  There were no rotating lights just the two can lights on the roof solid red to the front and flashing amber to the rear.  Of course, they looked like ears on the black and white rodent thus the term mouse ears.  Mounted between them was the siren which was much louder inside the car than outside.  The Plymouth had a radio with a single base frequency and two tactical frequencies.  Mounted on the rear panel above the seats was the cheater box which allowed you to hear the uplink transmissions from other cops.  Lastly, the microphone weighed enough to be swung like a flat sap.

            Once you got out of the car, you were out of contact with the station.  Indeed, as an adaptation between the complete demise of call-boxes and advent of portable radios we carried a dime in our speed loader, under our ammunition, to make emergency telephone calls.  Yes, 9-1-1 was operational, but in a large city the lines were so clogged with calls you were better off using one thin dime to call the watch commanders inside line.

            It wasnt all bad.  The Plymouth was fast and could really move.  Unfortunately, during a freeway chase you simply out ran your own siren.  Throughout the 1970s, it was innovations coming from individual police officers and not organized efforts that improved our mobile offices.  Indeed, President Lyndon Johnsons crime commission noted in the late 1960s that in the thirty years since two-way radios were introduced into police vehicles, law enforcement had not adapted many other technologies. The first adaptations to our mobile office were fairly basic.  For instance, someone cut a length of radiator hose and clamped it to the inside panels of the front doors providing us with a place to put the baton. 

The Age of the Add-on

            Beginning in the 1980s, larger agencies began to introduce portable two-way radios and computer terminals in vehicles. These early Mobile Digital Terminals (MDT) or Mobile Dumb Terminals provided the officer with access, through their agency, to motor vehicle information, some wanted persons databases, like the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), and local stolen vehicle information. The first computer terminals were dumb because they were access ports to the agency's computer system.  Early MDTs were simple gateways to whatever mainframe computer your agency was using.  Unlike your desk top PC, laptop or the computer you likely have in your cruiser today, MDTs could not perform simple computing tasks like word processing or even act as a calculator. 

            There were tons of challenges to the early MDTs.  For instance, through the 1990s, installation of new electronic equipment was done on an ad-hoc basis. Because new technology was being added into the police cruiser as an after thought, it was spliced into existing systems.  Splicing could create officer safety problems like, getting your feet caught in wires protruding from under the dash.  Splicing also exacerbated maintenance problems because more connections meant more failure points and more places to check to locate failure points.   Moreover, previous ad hoc installations tended to over-taxed the vehicle battery. So, you ended up with wires going everywhere.  In today's mobile office the police vehicle is pre-wired to accept the technology.     By the late 1990s, the installation of computers, radios and high-end light systems were accomplished by a specially designed wiring harness.

            The advent of the wiring harness was a larger leap that you might think.  Of course, it simplified after market installation and maintenance by greatly reducing the number of electrical connections and thus potential failure points.  But, it also greatly enhanced your communications platform.  By having the wires leading from the computer, radio, lights and siren taking defined paths departments were able to reduce signal interference.  Think about driving along in your personal car and listening to your AM radio.  If you pass underneath electrical transmission lines you often hear interference.  Before the use of wiring harnesses and specially adapted cables, power for lights and sirens were often run along side cables, cords and wires used for your radio.  You got interference.

            This type of serious adaptation of electronic equipment to the police service is generally referred to as ruggedization.  Simply put, ruggedization is the designing and installing of equipment that can withstand the rigors of police work.  At first blush, some police officers think that it would be relatively simple to just install a laptop into their vehicle.  There are a lot of technical concerns, including ruggedizing the equipment to survive you and the job. 

            Of course, wiring the vehicle isn't the only practical problem.  Early police vehicles had bench seats.  So, terminals were mounted on a pole in front of the dashboard, between the passenger and driver.  In order for the driver or the passenger to access the terminal it was mounted on a swivel.  At first, a resistance ring was used so that the terminal did not swing freely.  Consider that most police cruisers are run like hot bunks on a ship.  That is, once you're done with it, the next person moves in, leaving little time for the bunk, or the car, to cool off.  Police work is 24/7 and, except for maintenance periods, cop cars are often handed off from shift to shift.  Constant use weakened the swivel resistance mechanism so that it wasn't long before the terminal swung with the motion of the car, occasionally striking your knees.

            Police equipment is exposed to extreme temperature variations and constant use.  For these and the wiring issues, you just cant slap your laptop into your vehicle.  Today's technology has been improved and adapted so that is highly usable in the field.  The ad-hoc period of police mobile computing wasn't all bad - it brought about many of the innovations you use today real computing power in the vehicle, technology adapted to your environment, and improved maintenance.

From Free Form to Icons

            Almost everyone uses icon-based Graphical User Interface (GUI) software.  This is the point and click or touch screen technology.  An icon (a symbol on your computer screen) represents a task you want your computer to perform.  Today, you click or touch and an NCIC or motor vehicle input screen appears.  It wasn't always so.  Early terminals used a Disc Operating System (DOS) like software system.  In early MDTs, the screen was blank.  You typed the command string (to run someone for warrants it might look like this - @Nsmith,john@D010160@h509@w165@hblk@eblu@rw@sm.  After typing the command string, you hit enter.  Of course, one wrong field identifier or a bit of mis-typing on your part and you either received an error message or perhaps did not properly check the system.  In contrast, today if you want to run a license plate you like click an icon or push a button the keyboard, or if you're really luck touch the screen and the proper format appears.            The progress from a DOS like environment to a GUI environment was a major step forward for law enforcement.  The GUI environment undoubtedly increased the amount and accuracy of use of our mobile office data systems. 

Tactical Applications Today and in the Future

            There are many aspects of technology that have improved police work.  Perhaps more importantly, there are some aspects of technology that tempt us to violate basic officer safety field tactics.  Now that we have a little understanding in how the historical development of mobile computing technology in policing developed the idea of adaptation to the environment, or ruggedization, we can look at integrating field tactics and investigations in our next article.  

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