Two police agencies use a talking computer so officers can obtain tag information while driving.
Not many years ago, patrol cars were equipped with only the basics: two-way radio, toggle switches to operate the blue emergency lights and siren, and not much more.
But when today's police officers climb behind the wheel of their squad cars, they are surrounded by the latest in technology. It's an office on wheel with myriad gadgets, including a laptop computer, radar and radio. Even the controls for lights and sirens can look like a display out of the cockpit of a jet fighter.
The intent is to bring law-enforcement efficiency to the streets. Rather than waiting for a dispatcher, the police officer can punch into a laptop a license tag to see if a car is stolen or a drivers license to determine if a motorist is wanted on outstanding warrants. Reports can be filed without the officer stopping at headquarters.
But the array of technology, especially the computer, can compete with the roadway for the officer's attention.
Recognizing the potential for accidents, most police departments have implemented policies to keep officers from becoming distracted while driving.
Winter Springs in Seminole County and Winter Garden in Orange County, for example, prohibit officers from using their computers except when the car is parked.
"We have a pretty stringent policy here," Winter Springs Capt. Kevin Brunelle said. That includesdisciplinary action if an officer is involved in an accident while looking at the computer screen, he said.
"Most of our guys adhere to it," Winter Garden Lt. Reid Revels said, though he assumes there are agencies where officers probably still sneak a look at the computer screen or punch in a quick tag number while driving.
To cut down on the amount of time an officer might look at the computer screen, Winter Springs and Winter Garden have installed voice-activated technology in their squad cars.
Criminal databases return multiple screens of information after an officer types in a tag number or name. A software program called QuickVoice extracts pertinent data and reads it aloud, first telling the officer whether or not the car is stolen or the person is wanted.
It then gives the officer other information, such as the type and color of the car. It is even designed to alert officers if a name or vehicle is flagged for possible terrorist activity by the Office of Homeland Security.
A talking computer may seem like a high-tech luxury, Brunelle said, but it improves safety while increasing productivity. There's never a reason to be tempted to violate policy and look at the computer screen, he said.
Best of all, Brunelle said, it didn't cost Winter Springs taxpayers a penny. The department spent $23,680 for the software and licensing to install it on 67 mobile computers -- money courtesy of drug dealers who were ordered by the courts to turn over everything from cash to houses following their convictions. By law, that money can be used only for law-enforcement equipment enhancements, not to replace broken or worn-out equipment.
Winter Springs added QuickVoice to its computers about two months ago. Winter Garden was one of the first departments to purchase the software, the flagship product of Advanced Public Safety Inc. in Deerfield Beach. Winter Garden also uses forfeiture funds for some of its new equipment, though Revels wasn't sure whether it was used for QuickVoice.
The software is the brainchild of Jeffrey D. Rubenstein, who has volunteered as an auxiliary police officer with the Deerfield Beach Police Departmentfor the past six years. He patrols 60 to 80 hours a month and it was during those patrols that he realized the need to add a voice to the in-car computers. So, he wrote a program and perfected it while volunteering for the police department.
The reaction from officers who used the program was so positive that it led to the formation of his company.
If a talking computer is good, one that understands a talking police officer would be better, Brunelle said. That's why he is working on a proposal for his department to purchase Advance Public Safety's newest product, QuickCommand. It is voice-recognition software that allows officers to access their computers without touching the keyboard.
ith it, officers speak tag numbers into the computer as they drive down the road, then get the results without taking their eyes off the road.