iPhones and iPads have totally changed how this police department works

Many police officers around the United States are still using fixed-mount laptops like this one inside their vehicles to do their work, but iPads, iPhones and other mobile consumer-based devices are being used in an increasing number of police departments. Credit: Flickr by ibmphoto24

After budget cuts forced the layoffs of 19 police officers in 2009, the 79-member Redlands Police Department in southern California knew that help was needed so that the same police services could be provided in the community with fewer officers on the streets.

"We had to downsize," said Lt. Travis Martinez, of the department's Community Policing Bureau. "So we're always looking for force multipliers to make our officers more efficient."

At the time, the remaining officers still used pagers and old-style cellphones to communicate. So the department started to look at new technologies, including smartphones and tablet computers. To move things ahead, the department sought and won a grant to help pay for the technology.

"We realized that there are so many other things that you can be doing with smartphones," said Martinez. "We needed to do more with less. The department decided that smartphones could be one of those force multipliers we needed."

The grant money allowed the police department to buy about 110 Apple iPhones and 67 iPads, which were deployed in 2011 to the officers and command staff members. Some of the iPads were given to citizens in the community to help them assist police officers in local crime fighting efforts, said Martinez.

The gadgets have been making a huge difference in the department, he said. "Officers can take photos using their devices, and they have GPS capabilities. They can type in the GPS coordinates of a suspect after getting that information from a cellphone provider, which allows us to locate the suspect."

The main benefit of the iPhones is their portability. "One of the biggest assets with iPhones for our officers is that we can respond to a robbery at a local convenience store and when the first officer pulls up to the scene, he can capture the video from a security camera," said Martinez. "Then the officer can transmit and send it to all our other officers and it can be compared it to possible suspects. We can email it to other officers, and then all can look for the bad guys."

The same capabilities are useful in missing persons cases or to help distribute flyers about crimes.

"Any time you can share the information and the actual pictures, it's great," said Martinez. "You think about the time it took to investigate crime 20 years ago and now it is just amazing. We can get information back in just seconds."

The iPads also help by letting officers bring more information with them.

"We use them for community presentations, when community policing officers meet with people in the community, developing partnerships," said Martinez. "The officers can access the Internet and all the crime databases on a secure website using a VPN connection. We can search all these databases out in the field. We don't have to drive all the way back to the office to do all the research anymore. And we can get this information in front of victims anywhere" to help solve crimes more quickly.

"We can put a photo lineup together at headquarters and send it to officers via email for victims to look at," he said. 

The devices have even made one other old standard police tool obsolete – the printed community map books officers have had to lug around for years to find addresses and streets.

"A simple thing is we don't even carry around those map books anymore," he said. "Now we have access to anywhere in the U.S. at our fingertips. We just plug in the address and the location on an iPad or iPhone and we go."The department also developed an app that lets officers conduct field interviews with suspects who haven't yet committed a crime but who are acting suspicious. Using the app, the officers can collect information from the suspects and then have it available later if an investigation warrants charges or arrests.

As useful as they are already, officers are always coming up with new ways to gain more value out of the new devices, he said.

One officer created a way to fill out and save their incident reports on the iPads using PDF templates, said Martinez. Previously the officers had to fill out paper copies, which were less efficient and not easily shareable in the field with other officers.

"We're a mid-sized department, so we are really hands-on," he said. "We encourage officers to bring technology ideas to us for improved crime fighting. We are all a team, and when you have the knowledge of everyone together it's so much better than just the knowledge of one person. We're all public servants and we have a duty to provide the best level of service possible to the community, so we are willing to try things."

Some of those attempts haven't worked, but Martinez declined to mention them. "If you're not willing to take risks, then you're not going to see any rewards," he said. "We try it out and if it doesn't work, we may need to make some changes or maybe we'll have to scrap an idea."

So far, officers in the department also continue to use the fixed-mount laptops inside their police vehicles, but because those laptops aren't as mobile, they can't meet every need, according to Martinez. 

"They haven't quite figured out how to use iPads in our cars yet," said Martinez. "I know they are testing it."

Overall, the iPads and iPhones are making a big difference in police work, said Martinez, an 18-year veteran of the department.

"We just have so much information now at our fingertips," he said. "It's so vital to be able to research suspects, to find out where they live, find out about their pasts, and to be able to access phone records on the fly."

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