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Chief: Police need computers

Property taxes might rise to help pay for a series of projects in the city, including putting computers in police cruisers as early as 2004.

The current police computer system is antiquated, Police Chief Lester Aradi said. Patrol officers who want to check a license plate number or other information must talk with the one dispatcher on duty. As a result, the system takes time and creates a logjam during busy periods.

Installing computers in the cars would allow patrol officers to type in tag numbers while they are on the streets, call up historical data on previously reported crimes and reduce the amount of time they devote to paperwork.

It also could result in the city having to raise taxes for the first time in 10 years to pay for the equipment, which would cost between $3.5-million and $5-million.

There is one case in which new equipment might have helped the department steer clear of an embarrassment last summer. Police officers responded three times to racially motivated threats at a Walsingham Road KFC without knowing other officers had written reports on similar incidents there. Had there been a more technologically advanced system available, the second and third officers might have noticed a pattern in the calls, Aradi said.

Another advantage: more arrests. As officers run tags and other checks, they are likely to find more people who have criminal backgrounds, he said.

Installing computers in police cruisers has been going on for at least 20 years, and Largo's system hasn't kept pace with those advances, Aradi said.

The equipment caught on because productivity improved at departments in which it is in use, said Brian N. Williams, the author of Citizens' Perspectives on Community Policing and a professor of human and organizational development at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

"The sooner you get the information jotted down, the better," he said.

Still, there is a downside to having the equipment, Williams said. In some communities, residents have said their officers spent more time in their cars than in the community and that "technology can be a deterrent to community building."

Largo's proposal calls for at least 90 computers.

It is not clear how the city would pay for them. All police expenditures must be paid out of the city's $40-million general fund. A $5-million system, for example, would represent about 13 percent of that fund.

So at a commission meeting last week, the discussion quickly turned to property taxes.

"We haven't done it in a long time," Commissioner Jean Halvorsen said during the work session. "If we need it, we need it."

Commissioner Pat Gerard agreed. She has heard complaints about how cumbersome the current system is and supports giving police officers what they need to do their jobs well.

"It's something we need to do," Gerard said. "Obviously, we don't have that kind of money lying around. It's a long time coming, and I'm kind of surprised it hasn't come up before."

Charlie Harper, the city's newest commissioner, said he would support the "smallest tax increase necessary."

First, he wants the city to squeeze the budget for every cent it has. But he realizes the city might come up short on the funds needed to complete the project, especially when it is discussing the construction of a $22-million library.

"I think it will be a challenge for the city to accomplish all of these major ventures we've got on our plate and stay within a reasonable budget," Harper said.

Other options that could help pay for the computers include delaying a city program to allow police officers to take their cars home or borrowing the money.

In the end, the commission agreed to make a decision about a tax increase, if any, during budget discussions later this year.