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Computers may put Largo police on beat

The image of the police officer cruising the beat all day to catch the bad guys is just that: an image.

The truth is, officers spend a lot of time writing reports and filling out forms.

A federal grant should help the Largo Police Department enter the computer age and keep officers out of the office and back on the beat.

The department wants to buy 15 portable computers for officers to use on patrol. The computers, similar to laptops, would allow officers to quickly access criminal and warrant records and communicate with other municipal departments. Some other local departments are in the process of getting similar computer systems for officers.

"Let's not fool each other," said Largo's Sgt. Brian McKeon, "it costs a lot of money to put an officer on the street."

The U.S. Department of Justice recently awarded a $56,000 grant to pay for the computers. If city commissioners vote to accept the grant, the Police Department will match the funds by training officers with in-house staff and by paying for an Internet connection service necessary for the computer system. The computers would be ready for use sometime this year.

McKeon says the switch has several advantages.

First, officers would be able to enter criminal and incident reports into the computer system, rather than having to write them out by hand, which is more time-consuming.

Second, the system would give officers access to local, state and federal criminal records and warrant information. Currently, an officer on patrol must contact a dispatcher to get information about a person's car tag or other background information.

With only one dispatcher on duty for about 18 to 30 officers some nights, McKeon says, officers must sometimes wait in line for the information. The new computer system would allow them to get the information themselves, saving time and resources, he said.

Officers are better prepared when responding to calls if they know whether people involved are wanted for warrants or whether there is a history of criminal activity at a given address, McKeon said. Also, officers involved in neighborhood watch programs could share the information quickly with watch groups that want to know what types of crimes are common in their areas and what to look out for.

The system will be linked with other Largo departments. For instance, an officer who sees a pothole would be able to message public works through an "intranet" system, McKeon said. Right now, that officer has to fill out a form, contact a supervisor and go through a number of other steps before the notice gets to the right person, McKeon said.

"We're cutting back on the amount of time that we have sworn, uniformed police officers doing redundant administrative tasks," McKeon said. "It gives the community the officers they're paying for."

The Clearwater Police Department has purchased similar laptop computers. Clearwater officers, however, already have the ability to communicate directly with other local departments by radio, said spokesman Wayne Shelor.

"This is the way many law agencies are going," Shelor said.

Pinellas sheriff's Sgt. Greg Tita said deputies have used computer systems with similar capabilities for a number of years.