The use of mobile data products by police departments has gained such rapid acceptance across the country this year that it may be emerging as the most popular current application of wireless data technology, according to wireless data carriers and vendors.

Cellular Digital Packet Data networks deployed by Bell Atlantic Mobile, GTE Corp. and Ameritech Cellular Services, among others, all have experienced increased interest by police departments that have purchased software packages allowing them to use the wireless networks in their daily law enforcement duties.

Using various software systems in conjunction with the CDPD network, officers can check for warrants or stolen vehicle information, confirm vehicle registration, determine the vehicle’s primary owner by name and retrieve the driver’s license information.

Because these searches are done outside the radio channels, the department’s routine operations that depend on the radio dispatch service are not disrupted, like they were in the past. Also, with encryption technology, the transmissions can be sent more securely because police scanners cannot access the transmissions.

One of the more popular software products created to support law enforcement functions is PacketCluster Patrol, a mobile data system made by Cerulean Technology Inc. According to Stephanie Smith, program manager, marketing communications at Cerulean, orders for the PacketCluster Patrol product have steadily increased during the last two years.

“The adoption rate for our technology has been tremendous,” she said, estimating some 250 police agencies in 37 states use the service. “It’s been quite a boom. We’ve experienced an incredible sweep across the country.”

Maggie Rohr, spokeswoman for Bell Atlantic Mobile, estimated that about one-third of all police departments now using the company’s CDPD network signed up in the last year. Bell Atlantic said it is signing up larger police forces, for example, some with 400-car fleets.

“We’ve had amazing success in the last year in the Northeast,” such as Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Rohr said. “They all kind of adopted it at once.”

The city of Philadelphia in particular is considered an addition that might act as a banner example to others. “We’re hoping to see more momentum in the next couple of months,” Rohr said. “The Philadelphia City Police is the first major city to go on. We hope we’ll see other brand-name cities fall in line.”

As significant as the number of police department customers gained recently is the almost unanimous declarations of satisfaction from them.

The Delaware State Police recently reported that the use of laptop computers equipped with wireless data technology has been responsible for more than 500 traffic and criminal arrests in the state this past year.

Police have praised the system’s ability to provide “nearly instantaneous access to critical online information,” according to a release issued by Bell Atlantic.

“Mobile data terminals are definitely the wave of the future for policing,” said Colonel Alan Ellingsworth, superintendent of the Delaware State Police. “In short, it gives us a new weapon in the fight against crime.”

Cops like the technology for several reasons. A research project undertaken by law enforcement officers in Ohio determined officers equipped with wireless data services are more effective than those without.

The study combined Ohio’s Law Enforcement Automated Data System with a CDPD network and found that officers equipped with the technology made an average of almost 19 more arrests.

The most beneficial aspect reported of wireless data information systems was officer safety. Respondents said the more they can know about a driver before approaching, the better.

Much of the recent popularity has been due to increased competition among application developers, which resulted in lower prices and upgraded products, and the expanded rollout of CDPD networks. Because of continued feedback and suggestions for improvement, application developers have been able to make such modifications as: an audible alert to sound when the requested information appears on screen, condensing information on one page, a day/night feature that changes the color mapping of the screen to defeat glares and an online reporting application that allows officers to file paperwork electronically from the road.

Further developments include online access to police procedure manuals for cops to ensure they handle matters by-the-book so the arrest won’t be thrown out on a technicality, especially for smaller police forces that are inexperienced in certain types of crimes.

Police are particularly looking forward to voice-recognition applications, so they no longer have to type the information into the computer. However, the noisy nature of a police car can make that application difficult.

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