June 16, 2010 By Matt Williams
With new technology that gives deputies direct access to dispatchers and criminal databases, the Sheriff's Department in Potter County, Texas, is in the middle of a major systems upgrade.
"We're moving into the 21st century," said Potter County Sheriff Brian Thomas. "Officers will be able to run car tags on laptops and get hits back instantaneously instead of waiting to go through dispatch."
This new tool, Thomas said, will for the first time ever allow county deputies to see and hear the same information that dispatchers do. But the software package in Potter County is just one piece of the larger push to enhance law enforcement efforts in the Texas Panhandle. The tech makeover project includes installing 120 Panasonic Toughbook mobile terminals in squad cars across 26 Panhandle counties and going live with a data hub so officers can access state and federal criminal databases directly.
"This program puts information at the fingertips of law enforcement officers in vehicles," said John Kiehl, regional services director for the Panhandle Regional Planning Commission (PRPC), the intermediary between the law enforcement agencies in the Panhandle. "Now they'll be able to query databases simultaneously and get information in a quick and secure fashion."
The Toughbooks were purchased with about $800,000 in federal stimulus funds, Kiehl said, distributed through the Bureau of Justice Assistance, a sub-agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. The Randall County Commission applied for the grant last year on behalf of the law enforcement agencies in the Panhandle.
But the Toughbooks would have no real value without a secure connection to critical information, he added. Hosted in a series of servers by the Amarillo Police Department, the new data hub will give officers immediate access to criminal databases from their squad cars.
The PRPC received $312,000 from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to build the portal, and officials expect to see the Toughbooks installed and the data hub up and running by the end of September.
A third component of the Panhandle Regional Information and Data Exchange (PRIDE) project will give officers access to a regional Class C misdemeanor database. This means law enforcement officials in a participating county can identify and pick up someone with an outstanding warrant, Kiehl said.
The Potter County Sheriff's Department will also use its share of the grant -- about $406,000 -- to help streamline its management system. In years past, the department had two separate programs, built in-house: one for dispatch, one for records management, Thomas said. And the computers in the squad cars had no communication capabilities.
For example, a big part of the department is the jail, Thomas said, which sits 15 miles away from the downtown office. Technology limitations have led to serious connectivity problems for deputies. But with the latest upgrades, he said, those issues should disappear within the year.
"I'm sending tons of information through a garden hose," Thomas said, "and I really need a fireman's hose."