Forbis explained that they are currently testing one model of "ruggedized," laptop-size computer, and then they will switch and test another one. Each computer costs from $4,000 to $6,000, installed, so the chief wants to be sure he is making the right choice. He explained that an ordinary laptops would be cheaper, but it probably wouldn't stand up to traveling in a patrol car 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and being used by different officers.
Forbis anticipates that the computers will be entirely paid for by grants, partly from the stimulus money, and partly from the governor's highway safety office. Applications for the grants will be submitted on May 14.
The computer in Officer Dac Burrow's patrol car was a Panasonic Toughbook, mounted on a pedestal bolted to the car body. Burrow, a 24-year law-enforcement veteran, said that he had to study for a couple of weeks, and take a test to get certified to use the computer.
"It's a valuable tool to have," Burrow said of the computer, explaining that it frees up time for dispatch, and reduces radio traffic.
Burrow demonstrated how he could use the computer to check the license plate number of any car. It can also check on a person's driver's license status, either by license number or by name and date of birth, or by social security number. If there are any outstanding warrants for the person being queried, those will pop up as well - not just Tennessee, but nationwide. This is all information that officers ask dispatch to look up for them.
Do the officers work on the computer as they drive down the road?
"Oh no," said Burrow. "The first thing is safety!"
So if he were in hot pursuit of a vehicle, he would be radioing in for dispatch to run the license plate just as they have always done. However, once he got the car stopped, he might use his in-car computer to check the suspects' identities.
The day I rode along with Burrow for a few hours, he was assigned to "Zone 4," the west side of Lewisburg, all the way to Exit 32 on I-65. Burrow has been a police officer long enough to be grateful for a morning with no excitement. His dash-mounted radar detected no speeders, and the radio was mostly quiet. Not all shifts are like this, Burrow said. Sometimes he barely finishes with one call when another comes in, and there is still a pile of paperwork to complete at the end of the day.