Picture this: surveillance cameras are trained on a Westchase District business. Monitoring software detects a group of individuals congregating in a corner of the parking lot and sends a notification to a patrol officer on duty. With a few finger taps, the officer then pulls up the video feed on an iPad and spreads his fingertips on the touchscreen to zoom in to get a better look at faces and to determine if he should investigate or call for assistance. The scene reads like science fiction but it’s happening today, thanks to new technology acquired by Westchase District to help its patrol officers stay on top of suspicious activity.
Tools for the trade
While on duty for the Houston Police Department, officers have access to mobile data terminals (MDTs), in-vehicle computer workstations that allow officers to check license plates and drivers’ licenses, communicate with HPD dispatchers and perform other information-gathering tasks. Those MDTs aren’t currently available to officers while they’re working Westchase District patrol, so the District recently purchased four iPads for public safety use in the field. “They’re not full-blown MDTs, but they’re definitely more than high-tech toys,” said Don McKinney, Westchase District’s public safety director. “They give the officers a variety of tools that they can use on the go while on patrol. Kudos to my predecessor, Mark Hubenak, for implementing this technology.”
In a huge clerical leap forward, the devices allow officers to complete their shift reports electronically rather than fill out paper forms. “Previously, we would have to manually enter the information from their work cards into a database,” McKinney said. “It was time-consuming and it meant there was a lag time for us to be able to review the data. Now we can track the officers’ calls for service almost instantly. It helps us identify what types of calls our officers respond to the most and determine whether there’s anything we can do at a higher level to target those concerns.”
Via the iPads, officers also can access contact information and gate codes for all Westchase District apartment communities, refer to a list of HPD call codes and view the patrol schedule. They can capture still images as well as videos for McKinney and other officers to reference. “They also can view Google Maps and search criminal records and documents via the Harris County District Clerk’s website,” McKinney said. “The portability is key, so they don’t have to come in off the streets to a desktop terminal to perform these tasks.”
Smarter and smaller
McKinney said he thinks one of the best features of the new iPads is the ability to connect with video surveillance cameras positioned in select locations throughout Westchase District. “This technology allows our officers to assess a situation before they roll up on it,” he said. “Being prepared when approaching a scene gives them an advantage that’s immensely helpful.”
The apps have proven to be so successful with the officers that McKinney is planning on loading them on work-issued iPhones as well. “The screens are smaller, but the officers can wear them on their belts and have both hands free,” he said. “The important thing is that they have timely access to the information they need in the field to do their jobs effectively.”