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Laptop Computers in Police Cars: Benefits & Drawbacks


The Issue or Problem on Which the Investigation Focuses

As criminals become more sophisticated, elusive and technically perceptive, information and communications technology (ICT) has been harnessed to optimize the effectiveness of law enforcement in general and the police in particular. One such technological advance is the by-now ubiquitous portable handheld and car-installed laptop computer. These inroads occurred no later than the mind-1990s, a rather belated response considering that IBM introduced the first commercial portable computer in 1975 and Dulmont Magnum the first flip-form design in 1982.

There are obvious advantages to police on patrol being able to access crime and vehicle registration databases in some detail, efficiently bypassing desk clerks and 911 operators. There have also been a few unforeseen problems associated with the use of the laptop computers in police vehicles, such as safety issues, data security issues, and health issues. This paper will investigate these problems and their prevalence in respect to the utilization of the laptops in the police vehicles. Lastly, this paper will attempt to discover alternative solutions to the problems examined.

Stakeholders and Locus of Investigation

The primary stakeholder for this investigation is the Morgan’s Point (TX) Police Department, in particular officers on the beat and manning patrol cars. As well, one can count the Police Commissioner for administrative issues, the city government and the citizenry for whatever benefits mobile devices lend to police efficiency and civic order. More generally, stakeholders can include the Federal government (whose predisp-osition for giving grants to equip police forces may well be reinforced by the outcome of this study) and other police departments around the nation (drawing lessons from the salutary effects or drawbacks, as the case may be, of the Morgan’s Point experience).

Organizations, Policies, Programs and Services Affecting the Issue in the Local Context

Law enforcement agencies that utilize laptop computers in their patrol vehicles are responsible for creating and governing the policy and procedures for the use of the laptop computers in the police vehicles. There are policies and procedures in place set forth by City, State, and Federal government agencies, as to the security of the confidential information stored in the laptop computers in the police vehicles. The police departments must also examine any possible health risks faced by officers using the laptops.

Research Purpose

The purpose of this investigation is to determine what the advantages are of equipping police mobiles with laptops, at least going by the experience in Morgan’s Point. At the same time, the research will examine the extent to which safety, privacy, and health of all stakeholders may be compromised by officers using laptop computers in their patrol vehicles. Accordingly, the study should enable a conclusion as to whether the benefits of the laptops in the patrol cars outweigh compromises and risks.

Significance of the Study

Enabling as it does an evidence-based and updated assessment of the positive and negative benefits associated with installing laptops in police cars, this study should afford police departments nationwide the opportunity to either rapidly expand or proceed more cautiously with the use of laptop computers in police cars.

Relevant Literature in Brief

Federal grants and special municipal budgets have been necessary owing to the large outlays entailed for ITC capital equipment, training, database creation/conversion/.

maintenance, and network subscription costs. Nonetheless, police use of laptops goes back at least as far as 1997 in the case of the West Broward, Fort Lauderdale, FL police department (Lorente, 1997). That same year, a Federal grant of $300,000 enabled the Hickory (NC) PD to give all officers on patrol a laptop so they could bypass already-overworked dispatchers and obtain criminal and vehicle registration records while going about their job (Charlotte Observer, 1997).

Other than as more modern and efficient means of retrieving data, Snow (2007) points out that in-car laptops save officers the task of writing down notes on next assignments, send reports by filling in ready-made forms, leverage the combination of geographic information systems and city maps to locate fellow officers and emergency “hot spots”, and identify known criminals with facial recognition technology. All in all, police officers attest, laptops free up time spent on desk work and increase street presence. On the other hand, one danger come in the form of laptops becoming projectiles during high-speed chases.

Proposed Methodology

Since the public discourse about equipping patrolling officers with handhelds and in-vehicle laptops can be strident one or the other, this research must at least begin to establish the incidence of: a) injury and loss of life pedestrians face because officers are distracted when accessing their laptops while driving; b) any occupational safety issues that the officers confront owing to the ergonomic or radiation properties of laptops; c) advantages fostered by detailed and instantaneous access to police databases; d) the risk of data and identity theft when laptops are stolen; and, e) other negative outcomes. Moreover, this investigation should be so empirically rigorous as to enable quantification in later stages and so reliable as to be replicable using the same methods and equivalent samples in other settings. Ultimately, it is the purpose of this and similar investigations to permit evidence-based alternative solutions and actionable decisions to be carried out.

Given the defined stakeholders and locus, four target respondents apply for the purposes of this study: a) user or non-user police officers; b) the city government and upper ranks of the police hierarchy insofar as they decide on, fund and evaluate the use of, laptops in police vehicles; c) ordinary citizens for their perceptions about police effectiveness as enhanced by remote data access; and, d) other “target publics” such as reporters on the local crime beat and community media in general.

The context of this study has two elements. The first is familiarity, centered on the fact that all stakeholders have either used a laptop or seen one used close at hand by family, peers at work, and in public places such as diners, parks or malls. Secondly, attitudes towards police use of laptops and handhelds have undoubtedly been shaped by movies and mass media. This second factor means accepting or rejecting opinion bear tracing for sources of information and attitude change.

In the absence of precedents – similar studies in other cities and established study instruments relevant to the research purpose – the researcher must therefore formulate an exploratory research approach based relying principally on qualitative interviews and case study. Stringer and Dwyer (2008) articulate the rationale for these as founded on the value of participatory research in the community work aspect of law enforcement, the idea networking value of having feedback from multiple stakeholders, that both depth interviews and the case study method are characterized by being open-minded about differing perspectives, and how a trained investigator can lend value to the raw data by informed interpretation.

The choice of individual depth interviews over, say, focus groups is a matter of trading the insight of individual experience or perspective for the synergy gain normally expected of group sessions. The researcher expects the investigation to be informed by a wide range of anecdotes that illustrate the advantages and drawbacks of portables and in-car laptop units. A focus group may be cost-efficient but combining reporters, citizens, representatives of city hall and the police superintendent, user and non-user police officers is liable to be raucous and ineffective because the different stakeholders just do not share each other’s perspective. Rejection rather than synergy is likely to result. As to the case study, the researcher will trace the introduction of mobile computers in the city police force and the results as the project rolled out. Data-gathering will be both primary (interviews with decision-makers) and secondary (examination of the project proposals, field evaluation reports, etc.).


(1997, Sept. 5). All Hickory police to carry a laptop. Charlotte Observer, p. 1C Metro section.

Lorente, R. (1997). Sunrise police get laptops computers in cars will give officers more time to do job. Sun Sentinel – Fort Lauderdale, p. 3.

Snow, R. L. (2007). Technology and law enforcement: From gumshoe to gamma rays. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Stringer, E. & Dwyer, R. (2008). Action research in human services. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.


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