Text-to-speech app gives police a virtual partner

The Aventura Police Department's Officer Aldo Alfonso uses Virtual Partner on a handheld device.

Courtesy of Detective Anthony Angulo, Aventura Police Department, Aventura, Fla.

Sometimes it just takes a shift in perspective to solve a glaring problem.

That's what happened to Jeff Rubenstein, a reserve police officer in Delray Beach, Fla., who shifted from night work to the daytime beat a few years ago. On sunny afternoons, he couldn't read the screen on the notebook PC in his cruiser because of glare.

Rubenstein hit upon the idea of using text-to-speech software that could read aloud license plate and other vehicle information involved in a routine traffic stop.

Rubenstein, who before joining the police had been president of Internet service provider CyberGate Inc. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., found himself catapulted back into the IT world. He's now president of Advanced Public Safety Inc. of Deerfield Beach, Fla., maker of Virtual Partner, the software inspired by Rubenstein's days in the too-sunny squad car. Now Virtual Partner is used by more than 300 police departments in the United States and Canada.

One, in Aventura, Fla., has seen officer safety improve and unpaid tickets decline as a result of using the software.

In a typical traffic stop, an officer will run the car's license plate information through the FBI's National Crime Information Center 2000 system, as well as the Florida Motor Vehicles Department database, said Aventura's Sgt. Tom Labombarda. Before an officer even gets out of the car, Virtual Partner will send back a voice response, letting him know if the tag is valid or the car is possibly stolen. The software also lets the officer know if the driver is a habitual traffic offender, has a valid license and registration, or is wanted on an arrest warrant. The officer receives this information without having to take his eyes off the subject.

'That's a huge officer safety benefit,' Labombarda said.

Virtual Partner uses a human voice, not a computerized, robotic-sounding voice, Labombarda said.

Aventura also installed mobile thermal printers from Zebra Technologies Corp. of Vernon Hills, Ill., in 26 police cars, Labombarda said. The Bluetooth connectivity-equipped printers are also distributed by Advanced Public Safety.

'Every year, 150,000 citations in the state are dismissed because of bad handwriting and simple errors,' Labombarda said. Florida was losing as much as $10 million each year in unpaid tickets.

With Virtual Partner, officers use a pull-down menu to select the violation and issue the citation, reducing the possibility of error. As a result, tickets aren't contested in court as often and more tickets are paid.

Traffic stops also take less time with Virtual Partner, which had an unexpected side effect'fewer complaints against officers, Labombarda said.

Virtual Partner works with any Microsoft Windows operating system and overlays the mobile data terminal the department already had, Labombarda said. 'It works with all of them.'

Aventura runs Virtual Partner on Dell notebooks, most of them with Windows XP. Officers also use the software on handheld devices equipped with bar code scanners'to scan driver's licenses'from Symbol Technologies Inc. of Holtsville, N.Y.

Virtual Partner 'was developed by cops for cops,' Labombarda said. 'The majority of software vendors out there have little law enforcement experience. When [Rubenstein] wrote this program, he did it to make his job easier. And most of his technical people he works with are former law enforcement officers.'

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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