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In-car computers and officer safety

Like it or not, the MDC/MDT is here to stay, so how can we increase our officer safety when we use it?

I’ve spent much of my career in very low-tech squads, and many days I wish I were back in my first real squad, an ’89 Caprice with a 14-
channel radio, no cell phone, and two toggle switches on the dash. One of those switches was for the halogen light bar (which, when cold, the rotators would lock up) and the other for the siren (hit the switch and you get one setting: YELP!).

Even the LE pickup I drive today is pretty low tech by most standards, but I still sometimes have more gadgets than I can keep track of.

My “MDC” in the old Caprice was a wooden box that had a clipboard and notepad mounted to the top, filled with daily essentials. It sat on the passenger seat. When I got trained in the use of the MDC, I was a bit hesitant to utilize this new-found technology. For about the first year or so, the MDC tray served its other critical purpose: holding coffee cups and fast food.

Over time, I began to slowly take advantage of this piece of equipment, and after a few months of having a clipboard attached to it with Velcro, I began to actually utilize the capabilities of the MDC. Instead of the coffee cup, I threw the computer in the tray and never looked back.

These days, I hardly remember how to function without a computer in front of me.

I can run plates, people, do time sheets, reports, and several other things all with the computer. One thing that still bothers me, though, is the fact that after doing things the “new” way for several years now, I still have a hard time feeling comfortable with my face in the computer screen when I am dealing with a potential bad guy.

You see, the old way made perfect sense — you sit in the driver’s seat, left hand on top of the steering wheel and holding the ID, right hand on the radio calling it in and eyes forward looking for anything that might get your attention.

Maybe you even had one of those top notch dispatchers who could tell by the tone of your voice over the radio if something was a little abnormal with your contact?

Things today are far more impersonal. There’s no dispatcher running info for us, we are occupying both hands on the computer, the ID is who knows where, and eyes are on the computer screen (messing with our night vision) and we are not paying attention to what is going on in front of us.

In fact, with all the stuff in our cars we can easily be in disarray within the confines of our own squad... where’d I set the flashlight? The radio mic? Oh geez, I misspelled the bad guy’s name again... Oops! I checked female instead of male. Is my camera recording?

Lots of distractions.

Like it or not, the MDC/MDT is here to stay, so how can we increase our officer safety when we use it? This is one of those topics that we could ask many different cops and get many different answers — which is why I am writing about it, hopefully to spark some good tips on how to best utilize this piece of technology and stay tactically aware.

For instance, a couple of tricks that I have found to be of some value:

1.) Find a good place to put the ID or notebook you need to get the info from. Laying it on your leg, passenger seat, or hoping it doesn’t slide off your computer while you type are poor ideas. Digging under your seat for a dropped ID during a contact is obviously tactically unsound.

Make a trip to the hardware store and buy a small spring clip to place somewhere on the dashboard in front of you. If you’re lucky you will find a small one that has a suction cup and will stick to one far side of your rear view mirror or a larger size that will allow you to clip the ID right to your mirror.

Put the ID in the clip, and you’re forced to get your eyes unlocked from the computer and look in front of you (as well as check your six) while you enter data. If you have to initiate a pursuit, the ID is in front of you and not going anywhere, you might even be able to call the info to dispatch while driving if needed.

2.) Think about trying to position your squad at an angle so that you are looking over the top of your computer to see what is going on in front of you. There are some schools of thought that teach this type of squad positioning on vehicle contacts for several reasons, and it is worth some research.

To me, looking over the top of your screen without having to turn your head is good for a couple reasons. First, it is far easier to do, so human nature says you will likely look up more often rather than keep your eyes on your data entry. Second, you will not be showing the bad guy any indicators every time you turn your head away from the computer as to when you are looking at him and when you are not.

3.) Try to avoid the bright overhead dome light. Use a smaller light mounted lower than the level of where the dashboard and windshield meet so your interior is lit up as minimally as possible to do what you need to do. Also, keep you computer screen dim.

4.) Like anything we do, when one of our senses is occupied try to use another. If your eyes need to be on the computer, increase your awareness by leaving both your front windows open a few inches so you can hear doors slamming, engines revving/starting, footsteps, firearm action or anything else that should put us on alert.

Technology can be an excellent tool, but like all our other tools we need to think tactically about the operation so we can utilize these tools as best we can and stay safe in the process.

Technology can be an amazing thing. No doubt about it, it helps us out. However, for every item of technology we seem to obtain, I think we lose a minor skill or awareness in something else. Young officers who have not known life without some of these items may very well not realize the amount of awareness we lose by tapping computer keys, answering cell phones, texting...

Every second that an officer’s eyes are on the computer, is time not spent watching the bad guy.

We need to remember that every time we are tapping the keys.

Stay safe out there.

Patrick (Pat) Novesky has spent most of his life working in a rural environment not only in law enforcement, but also has been employed as a wildland firefighter working several states and as a guide for a hunting outfitter. Pat’s law enforcement background consists of a 20 year career ranging from positions as a sheriff’s deputy, ranger, and police officer holding assignments as intelligence officer and investigator. Pat has also been assigned to two narcotics task forces. Pat has served as a police firearms and Verbal Judo instructor and has been involved with various training for all types of law enforcement & other users of the outdoors and remote areas. The past several years of Pat’s career have been spent working as a conservation officer in Northern Wisconsin. Pat’s goal is to bring a common sense approach to issues that pertain to the rural law enforcement officer. Contact Patrick Novesky