Laptops 'imperative' but limited

Metro - Charleston County Deputy Kevin Harvey paid for his own laptop, car mount, and internet connection in his patrol car. He said it helps him navigate his patrol area and fill out and send reports from remote locations in his beat. (Alan Hawes/The Post and Courier) 9/23/09

Charleston County Sheriff's Deputy Kevin Harvey has a sleek laptop mounted in his cruiser to help him navigate to calls, file reports more efficiently and quickly share information with other officers.

Harvey considered the rig such an important tool that he foot the bill for the whole thing himself, from the cost of the laptop to the $200 mounting stand and the monthly charges for wireless Internet service.

That's because he had no other option.

In this digital age of iPhones, Twitter and lightning-fast downloads, Charleston County deputies are among a number of law enforcement officers in South Carolina still hacking out reports by hand and waiting for dispatchers to feed them information over radios.

Most agencies see the benefit of adding wireless terminals, which allow officers to run license plate information, research criminal backgrounds, check warrants and access other important data from the road. The problem is finding funding to pay for the gear. North Charleston police, for example, put the cost at about $9,000 to outfit each of their cruisers with mobile laptops.

Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon's staff applied for federal grant money this year to buy mobile terminals, but that funding didn't come through. So now he's talking to Council members and exploring other options.

"This is, quite frankly, technology that much of the country has had for the past 20 years," Cannon said.

County Administrator Allen O'Neal said county officials are evaluating a number of options, including seeking grant money, to assist Cannon with improving technology in tight times.

Some deputies, like Harvey, have taken matters into their own hands, bringing in personal computers and printers from home to help them do their jobs. While Harvey bought a specially made mount, others fashioned makeshift work stations in their cars using galvanized pipe, metal parts, Velcro and other items, officials said.

While their commanders applauded the ingenuity and can-do spirit, sheriff's officials still issued a recent memo warning about the potential safety hazards posed by the homemade work stations. In an accident or air bag deployment, the stands could break apart and seriously injure someone, they warned. The deputies were told to remove the homemade stands.

The other drawback of using personal computers is that they can't tie into the department's main system or be used to check criminal backgrounds through the National Crime Information Center. Still, Harvey sees his mobile unit as a big plus.

With a GPS program on board, he no longer has to consult map books to plot the fastest route to a call. If he should end up at an incident on Wadmalaw Island, he can write his report at the scene in 10 minutes and e-mail it to detectives, if needed. That's quicker than driving back to the sheriff's James Island substation to get it all done, he said.

"I try to be as efficient as possible," he said. "And this substantially improves my ability to do my job."

Efficiency was a major reason Charleston police started adding mobile laptops in recent years. As part of a $2.4 million technology upgrade, the department outfitted 75 cruisers with computers and police are looking for money to do more.

North Charleston police recently received a federal grant of about $792,000 to buy 50 mobile laptops. Before they can proceed, Police Chief Jon Zumalt said, he has to get word on another grant that would pay for the software and infrastructure needed for the system. "Wireless laptops are absolutely imperative for us," he said.

Cannon said incident reports produced by deputies and police are fed into the State Law Enforcement Division's high-tech "fusion center," where analysts look for critical intelligence on terrorist plots and suspicious activity.

With so much at stake, why are people on the front lines equipped with no more than a pen and paper in many instances, he asked.

"You're dealing with a modern technology in terms of SLED but its based on the antiquated manual operation on the front end," he said.