Handhelds help monitor race profiling

Handhelds help monitor race profiling

BY MAGGIE ROSS | SPECIAL TO GCN

Amid nationwide contoversy over racial discrimination by police on the street, the handheld PC racial profiling system first used by the Montgomery County Police Department (MCPD) under a federal mandate is earning praise from officers and civil rights activists.


Montgomery County, Md., police officer Brian Walker uses a handheld PC as part of a program to monitor and curb racial profiling during traffic stops. A PIN protects each officer's anonymity.
Police departments in about 12 cities are considering following the Maryland county's lead. Police officers in Los Angeles and Las Vegas already are using handhelds and racial profiling software in pilot programs.

'I have talked to police chiefs from across the country about the system,' said David Linn, director of technology for MCPD in Rockville. Linn said the use of handhelds and their applications, including the one for monitoring racial profiling, is a hot-button issue among law enforcement managers.

The racial profiling system also pleases civil rights activists, who expect that having officers track their policing patterns by computer will help prevent racial discrimination.

'One advantage of the Pocket PC is that it lets the troopers or officers monitor their own conduct,' said William Mertens, a lawyer at Asbill, Junkin, Moffitt & Boss Chtd. in Washington. His firm represents the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

'They have a better sense of what they are doing,' he said.

MCPD uses the Aero 1550 Pocket PC from Compaq Computer Corp. running Traffic Stop under Microsoft Windows CE 3.0 to track the race, age, gender and 19 other characteristics of every person stopped.

The unit comes with 16M of RAM and a 70-MHz RISC processor. Synchronizing the Traffic Stop data with the department's mainframe takes about seven to 10 seconds, depending on the amount of data.

The equalizer

Bob Michels, president and chief executive officer of Mobile Commerce and Computing Inc. of Reston, Va., manufacturer of Traffic Stop software, said the software is compatible with just about any handheld PC.

'This should replace the notepad or the 3-by-5 card, or even the back of a ticket,' Michels said. The software was designed to be easy to use and to reduce errors that occur when an officer manually types in information, he said.

MCPD spent about $375,000 for the system. Linn said the handheld PCs have already proven cost-effective and leave a lot less room for human error.

'The officers use a pick list, and unless they want to write a memo, there is no writing the officer has to do,' Linn said. The pick-list system, he said, 'is easy and helps compile good, accurate data.'

The pick list is a series of questions with predefined answers. After an officer makes a traffic stop, and the driver pulls away, the officer enters an assigned four-digit personal identification number into the handheld PC.

MCPD separates its force into subgroups of six to eight officers for purposes of traffic stop monitoring. Each subgroup uses a unique PIN. The PIN protects the anonymity of the officer collecting the data but allows supervisors to track traffic stop patterns on a small scale.

All of the handheld PCs are password-protected. Michels said that MCPD does not use wireless handhelds, but the Traffic Stop software could be used on wireless units.

Stop and collect

MCPD has collected data from more than 32,000 traffic stops so far. An independent counsel has validated the information and has handed the data to two independent contractors. The contractors, one hired by MCPD, will analyze the data and file a report with the final statistics in the next few weeks.

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