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Ride shotgun in the high-tech cop cruiser you don’t want in your rearview mirror

You’re in Portland, Oregon, and you just stole a car. You bastard!

How long will your joyride last? Not very long at all. That’s because the Portland Police Bureau wields a vast array of felon-sniffing technology in their patrol cars and in person, stuff that law-abiding citizens should be glad they are using against the bad guys.

Portland Police Bureau (PPB) officer and patrol car tech overseer Garret Dow gave Digital Trends a tour of the tech that’s been loaded into Portland’s Ford Crown Victoria (or “Crown Vic”) patrol cars. Corey Wilks, Information Systems Supervisor from the City of Portland, coordinates closely with Officer Dow and the PPB. He gave us the scoop on their new Chevy Caprice.

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Meanwhile, enjoy your time in the clink and here’s a dime for the payphone.

Smile, you’re on camera. LOTS of cameras.

Outside of sidearms, shotguns, stun guns and rifles, video has become the weapon of choice for many police agencies, and Portland is no exception. One dashcam? That’s so 1992. Portland police cars are practically a TV station on wheels, and sport no fewer than five digital video cameras, including a 720P camera looking ahead and four tiny GoPro-sized wide-angle cameras that can see pretty much anything happening around the perimeter of the patrol car.

Another camera keeps an eye on whoever is unlucky enough to get a ride in the back seat, and if they should decide to spill their guts about that bank job they pulled last month, a microphone will pick up every word that will be used against them in a court of law.

Each camera is viewable by the officers in the car using a small LCD screen and controls above the rearview mirror.

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Officers also wear a wireless mic that more clearly picks up their (and your) voice in noisy environments or far away from the car, but Dow wouldn’t say exactly how far away. The bureau is also testing out body-mounted video cameras for officers to wear, something already being used in other departments.

Wilks also noted that Portland police canine units – those furry, not-so-friendly German Shepherds you are not about to outrun – are also outfitted with doggie-mounted video cameras.

Serving 8,000 plates a day

Mounted on the roofs of a select number of the 300 Portland police cars are a second suite of cameras that won’t record your pitifully failed sobriety test, but instead keep a constant, unblinking eye out for license plates. Boringly called the License Plate Recognition system, or LPR, Dow says the system is a boon for tracking down stolen and wanted vehicles. And it’s amazing.

Dow says a cop on patrol can call in about a maximum of 300 license plates on a shift – if he or she is not busy chasing down fleeing tweakers or saving drowning tots. Then it’s a lot less. An LPR system more than makes up for it. While the officers in the car go about their business, the LPR is also on the job, using some very sophisticated software to see, read, check and identify up to 8,000 license plates a day.

…my goal as a developer of the technology that goes in the cars is to make every function doable in under two to three seconds, and then automate it.

The LPR is “always on” says Dow, reading plates as the patrol car winds through city streets. It reads the plates of oncoming cars, cars parked along the curb, cars crossing the street in front of the patrol car, basically any plate in it’s field of view, which is essentially all around the car. It uses an on-board computer with OCR software to read the plates and then sends the data via the Verizon cellular network to the police’s main computer system, which compares them to a database of cars that are wanted or stolen. The LPR doesn’t take nights off, either. Infrared lighting invisible to onlookers illuminates the plates at night. Even if the license plate is dirty, seen from an angle or is mangled, the LPR can usually make a good read.

If the LPR hits on a plate for a car that is stolen or otherwise wanted, the officer gets a heads-up on the in-car computer. He can also make manual changes to what the LPR reads but while we watched it tirelessly work, it was clear that its accuracy level was high – scary high.

Dow said that by using the LPR systems, which is currently in more than a dozen patrol cars, they’ve cut their typical stolen vehicle response time to just a few days. It’s probably the most impressive bit of tech in the car, and it’s even more impressive in how it works autonomously, requiring little to no action on the part of the officer.

Hot pursuit

Even though OJ made the “police chase” a crime cliche in the 1990s, actual police chases still happen on a regular basis – thank goodness! Does anyone ever tire of watching live police chases on TV or the Internet? We don’t. Fortunately, the outcome is usually the same as the fleeing driver, once so certain of their mad driving skillz in evading the police, ends up face down on the pavement while a dozen officers swirl around, guns drawn. Why were they not able to get away in their souped-up Civic? Easy: Cop cars are fast, and cops are damn good drivers.

Officer Dow says Portland’s Crown Vics boast built-up 4.6L V8s putting out about 250 horsepower, and the officers behind the wheel have way more training in pursuit driving than … well, pretty much everyone except other cops. Wilks says the new 6.0L V8 Caprice that’s in the queue tacks on another 100 horses and even better handling. So unless Jeff Gordon decides to give up his day job at NASCAR and robs banks while driving a LaFerraria (overall chances of this happening: small), expect more videos of drivers spinning out after a PIT maneuver and kissing asphalt as the cuffs go on.

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And while the Crown Vic truly is a big car, trust me, you don’t want to ride in the back seat of the police version. The seat is made of hard plastic with no soft surfaces whatsoever (making it easier to clean), but the worst thing is that the thick wall of steel preventing you from climbing into the front seats has removed about 90 percent of the rear legroom in the once-roomy Vic. Only suspects under about 4 feet tall will not complain about the lack of space. At 6 -1, I was balled up, leaned over and looking to make my escape at the earliest opportunity – and I wasn’t even handcuffed. 

Dow said the Crown Vics cost about $26,000 for the city to purchase,  but once loaded up with electronics and other gear, each car can total out as high as 80 grand. Most cars are in service for 5 years, or about 120,000 miles, Dow said. 

See the (LED) light, feel the power

The array of warning lights on a police car have come a long way from the days of the single magnetically-mounted red light used by Starsky and Hutch on the Striped Tomato. A modern police car is a pinball machine of lights, but each one is designed with intent and purpose.

While the overhead lights still occupy center stage, other lights spread around the car are designed to alert increasingly headphoned cyclists and pedestrians as well as distracted drivers that the police are nearby. That includes side-facing lights on the front push bar (used for PIT maneuvers) that Officer Dow says has cut way down on cross traffic smashing into patrol cars. Simple, but effective. 

Other lights on the roof can point down side streets and alleys and the top bar can also be used as a traffic advisory or direction device, with the lights blinking in a pattern to direct drivers around a crime or accident scene. Dow said that when an officer activates the lights, the video cameras in the car activate automatically, making one less thing the busy officer needs to remember.

Another nifty trick: Officers can disable the brake lights on their cars, so if the LPR hits on a license plate on a car driving past the officers that comes back as wanted, the cops can play it cool for a few seconds, then hit the brakes, spin the car around and begin a pursuit. Of course, this is especially effective at night.

Dow and Wilks added that the LED lighting and new battery technology – namely gel-based car batteries – have made a big difference for police officers on station with the lights and gear turned on in the patrol cars. Instead of idling and wasting fuel just to keep the juice flowing, the low-draw LED lights let officers shut off the engine for hours at a time if need be.

Dow said that the new Caprice will actually feature two batteries, one of which will be dedicated to running the onboard computers and other gear while the “regular” battery will remain in place to make sure the car starts up reliably. Wilks said the car battery will also help power the tech, but will have an automated cut-off feature to make sure it isn’t drained dead by the lights and computers, leaving an officer stranded – and his tech armory useless.

SCMODS

In the Blues Brothers, Jake and Elwood’s felonious entanglements (and hilarious chases) begin when police officers pull them over for a traffic stop and use a then-novel innovation for 1980: a computer in the police car. “I’ll be those cops have got SCMODS,” Elwood says dejectedly as the 8-bit display tells officers his license is suspended (116 parking tickets, 56 moving violations). “State, County, Munincipal Offender Data System,” he groans.

Over 30 years later, computers (and the binary spawn of the fictitious SCMODS) play an even more central role in the patrol car. Portland police use a specially kitted touchscreen Panasonic Toughbook laptop in their cars. The computer displays a rather hypnotic feed from the LPR system and of course data on suspects and all else related to a cop’s duties. It is in constant use.

“The laptop is the primary thing the officer is looking at all day long,” Dow said. The Computer Aided Dispatch system shows what calls are holding and what other officers are doing, Dow explained. It can also show the best route to a call and more information than can be sent by radio. “This is the brain hub of the car,” Dow said.

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The computer sits in a special cradle that features an external keyboard. A quick turn of a latching key and the computer transitions to battery power and can instantly be used in laptop or tablet mode at a crime scene or to do the mountains of paperwork police have to complete. It only takes a few seconds to snap it back in. The LPR computer and other systems in the car hook back up automatically and it’s back to crime-fighting.

In the Crown Vic, the computer system is essentially retrofitted into the car and mounted on a metal post. It works, but ergonomically, it’s a tight fit and cramps quarters. It also vibrates while the car is on the road. In the new Caprice, Wilks showed how the LPR and the Toughbook – still removeable – rides safely in a sliding tray in the trunk and a larger, improved touchscreen is snuggled up to the dashboard and more solidly mounted. A swiveling keyboard with a trackpad eases typing duties. Wilks says in the near future, a small printer may also appear in the cabin so officers can print out tickets, reports and your hilarious mugshot.

Radio, radio

Outside of the siren and lights, the police radio is perhaps the oldest bit of mobile law enforcement technology, but it has certainly kept up with the times. Modern systems like the one used by police in Portland are now “trunked,” which is not to say the radios are in the trunk, but rather they use a spread (or trunk) of about 80 channels in rotation to make sure the officers always have a clear channel to and from dispatch.

The trunking system made it tougher for people – including criminals – to monitor police activity with scanners until, of course, scanner technology caught up, which it did many years ago. So the next step, according to Wilks and Dow, is digital encryption of the broadcasts and conversations. Sell your scanner now, it’s about to become useless.

More tech tricks of the trade

Another trick piece of patrol car kit is a small, wireless fingerprint reader officers keep in the trunk. About the size and shape of a metal detector wand used by the TSA, the fingerprint reader has a small window and built-in optical reader and connects wirelessly to the car’s computer system. Suspect gives a false name? If they consent to having a fingerprint read and they are in the system, the police now have a good idea of who they are.

Many cars are also equipped with Lojack tracking systems to further speed the recovery of stolen vehicles that have the GPS-based theft deterrent system installed. Wilks said some patrol cars have as many as three GPS systems tied to various technologies in the cars – some of which they said they could not elaborate on.

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Technology has touched nearly every aspect of police work. Portable radios are smaller and more powerful, even a cop’s flashlight has been upgraded to a sun-bright LED unit with a pulse mode that can stop a crazed methhead in his tracks . Uncooperative scofflaws have an even chance of a high-voltage greeting from a stun weapon rather than a close-in smack from a baton – or worse. And like civilians, police typically carry smartphones – sometimes more than one.

Too much tech, not enough attention?

It’s a testament to officers’ driver training and discipline that you very rarely hear about a patrol car involved in a crash because the cop behind the wheel was on the phone, talking with dispatch on the radio and tapping away on the computer – all at once.

Dow says distracted driving is a major concern for officers and the in-car tech wasn’t just thrown together without a plan in place. “That is a concern and my goal as a developer of the technology that goes in the cars is to make every function doable in under two to three seconds, and then automate it,” Dow said. 

Dow said much of the equipment makes a specific noise (a beep or tone, etc.) that tells the officer what is happening without taking their eyes off the road. The automated plate reading system, automated in-car cameras are “all designed to minimize the interaction the officer has… with the technology.”

“Most of the technology can be dealt with after the vehicle is stopped or the officer can get audible warnings,” Dow said. “Information overload is more of an issue than the distraction of the noises.”

Wilks says with the new Caprice, they’ve basically made each car a small mobile computer network and the pace of automation will continue to increase. The city and police department work hard to keep up with the latest technologies that can assist officers, including background improvements like wider implementation of 4G-based data streams for quicker exchanges of information between the cars and the main police computer system.

With the implementation of the new Caprice, “we’re actually re-inventing all this technology and making it more functional for the officers,” Wilks said.