Bill Lowery has a police officer's poker face and a flat and factual Jack Webb voice.

"I'm not a police officer, but I talk to a lot of them," he says. Lowery is a salesman, and he sells the future of police work in a box of circuits and silicon chips, a turbocharged cruiser for the information superhighway.

The MDC, for MobileData Computer--by a Phoenix company of the same name, MobileData Communications--is a rolling computer work station, four times more powerful than an ordinary laptop and rugged enough to drop out a window. It mounts above the squad car's transmission hump and, with a touch of a finger on the screen, can pull up maps and mug shots and incident reports, run license checks, tell the dispatcher where the car is. In between calls, the officer can use it as a word processor to write reports.

Lowery thinks it's a product on the verge, with 25,000 public safety departments in the United States alone, with municipal budgets on the upswing, and with a new generation of computer-literate police officers and firefighters.

"Industry prognosticators say that by 1998-99, there will be a $4 billion to $8 billion market for in-vehicle computing," he says.

Most public safety vehicles today have MDTs on their dashboards; the "t" standing for "terminal" instead of "c" for "computer." MDTs are "dumb" terminals, to be precise, because they only transmit data from the station to the vehicle and back, but don't have the capacity to process it.

MobileData's main competitor for in-vehicle computers is Motorola, but Motorola's machine works only through its keyboard, meaning the officer is supposed to stop his car before he can use it. (However, one Phoenix police officer told us that they don't stop very often.)

Lowery fires up his MDC. Color lights the screen.
"Here's your call," he says as an address flashes on the screen. He touches the screen and a street map appears with a star pointing out the target address.

"Let's say you're not yet in the area shown on the map," he continues. Then he puts a finger on the map and slides it across the screen. The map moves as if his finger were dragging it; lines and labels fill in from the sides as if the image were unrolling from a scroll.

With another touch, he zooms in on a portion of the map; if the right data were entered, he could focus all the way down to a trailer-park layout, even an apartment-building floor plan, information that many departments already store in computers, but that officers have to call in for in an emergency, wasting precious minutes.

"You could keep the entire map of Maricopa County--or Los Angeles County, for that matter," Lowery says; it would fit in a 30 megabyte corner of the box's 120-megabyte hard drive.

The MDC came about five years ago. MobileData's parent company, AED, which specializes in diagnostic computers that automotive engineers use to repair and design cars, was asked by General Motors to design a computer rugged enough to withstand the shock and vibration and heat and cold of its desert proving grounds.

MobileData immediately saw the public safety applications. The firm incorporated the touch screen not just to simplify the machine, but also taking into account that the users would be trying to run it while driving. It would be too dangerous to be looking down while hunting keyboard buttons. Standard computer tools such as a mouse or computer pen would only be lost or broken in the hustle and adrenaline of police and fire work.

Police in West Covina, California, have used a keyboard version of the MDC for three years already.

"The officers will not take a car out if the computer's not working in it," says commander Ken Fields, who had the computers installed in all of his department's squad cars.

"When we send somebody out to an address, we automatically do a warrant check, and if we get a hit, the officer knows before he even goes in the door that somebody there has a warrant," Fields continues. "They get the five previous calls to that address, the nature of the calls, if there were any comments put in by the officers who handled those calls--like 'the residents were uncooperative, be careful'--that's all in our mainframe."

Not only did arrests increase, but so did auto-theft recoveries. During slow late-night hours of patrol time, officers cruise through hotel and airport parking lots randomly entering license-plate numbers, which are then transmitted back to the station, relayed to downtown Los Angeles, bounced to Sacramento, where motor vehicle records are kept, and back to the squad car MDC. In the past, officers had to call those numbers in to a radio dispatcher, who keyboarded the information into computers at the station, a time-consuming process.

"Our auto-theft recoveries have increased tenfold," Fields says. "It's very convenient to do on a computer, when it's not convenient to annoy a dispatcher."

The West Covina department already has its mug shots stored digitally in a computer, and plans to upgrade its PC software so that those photos can be sent by modem right to the squad-car computer screens, to help with suspect identification.

By Bill Lowery's estimate, fewer than 1 percent of all public safety departments have in-car computers. Big-city departments are cost-conscious--MDCs cost about $5,000 per unit, not to mention the cost of radios and modems and other peripheral equipment. Customers tend to be midsize departments ordering 50 to 250 units, especially those departments that can raise funds through asset-forfeiture programs (selling the belongings of criminals). They usually start out using the machines in the same way they used that last generation of "dumb" terminals, mostly for license checks and dispatches. The machines do much more.

Built into the box are receivers that pick up signals from Global Positioning Satellites orbiting the Earth. The computer can triangulate its own location in terms of longitude and latitude from the GPS signals, then radio that information automatically back to the station's computer, which can then track the car's location across a map on a dispatcher's screen.

The MDC has ports that can accommodate a variety of plugged-in peripheral attachments. It is already possible to equip a car with a digital camera so that police officers could photograph suspects and radio those images to the station.

"Better than that," says Lowery, "within a few years, they'll have a fingerprint reader in the car. You take the guy's thumbprint, send it back to NCIC [the FBI's record center], and they'll tell you who he is."

One attachment that already exists is an overhead projector that will beam the image on the PC's screen onto a rearview-mirror-size screen that makes it look as if it is suspended over the dashboard of the car. The officer can then read the screen without looking down. The projected image can be seen through, so it doesn't block the cop's line of sight.

MobileData also has programs for fire departments and utility companies. The fire program automatically keeps track of how long firefighters have been inside a building or out on the fire line. It allows fire commanders to sketch in hose lines or buildings just by using a finger on the screen as a drawing instrument.

"L.A. Fire was interested in [topographical maps] because they have so many canyons," says Lowery. "They want to be able to put in the previous burn areas because those are the natural fire channels. If it's burned before, it's probably going to burn the same way again."

West Covina's success with the MDC brought in other police departments for a look-see. Pasadena officials were so impressed, they've ordered the units for their police squad cars and helicopters. MobileData is also closing deals in South Florida and the Midwest.

Back home in Phoenix, they've been overshadowed by their neighbors at Motorola. The Phoenix Police Department has recently installed Motorola units in all of its squad cars and some of its unmarked cars, and it uses them essentially as "dumb" terminals.

Motorola, meanwhile, is entering into agreement with MobileData to let the Motorola sales force represent the MDC, perhaps as a concession to its quality.

Terry Sewell, a former Flagstaff police officer who works for a systems integrator (a firm that puts custom computer systems together) in Lexington, Kentucky, says, "When you put the two side by side, the customer will always pick the MDC. It's a full-blown computer with a touch screen. It has more functions, more features, and it's lower cost. That's basically it in a nutshell."

Sewell just sold the system to the Salt River-Pima Community tribal police department. MobileData's right here in town. Sometimes it takes an out-of-towner's recommendation to steer you back home.

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Michael Kiefer