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Posted on Thu. Dec. 27, 2012 - 12:01 am EDT

Device cuts digital distraction

Police chief says lockout a godsend

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About a year and a half ago, Chief Rusty York noticed his police officers getting into more and more crashes. He thought a primary cause was the easy-access laptops in squad cars and the distractions they presented.

Most of the crashes were minor, but York saw the increase as a safety and liability issue for the Fort Wayne Police Department. He searched for solutions and didn’t find any until his department teamed with a local company.

The result was an invention called Archangel II that, once installed in a squad car, prevents an officer from entering data into the in-vehicle computer while going faster than 15 mph. Now, nearly all of the department’s 360 squad cars with a laptop computer has the device.

It was a decision made despite complaints from patrol officers who believed the device hindered their ability to do their jobs, according to a police union official.

Nevertheless, the pioneering effort has attracted interest from police departments around the country looking to curb digital distractions in cruisers loaded with technology.

It’s also grabbed some national media attention. Last month, “NBC Nightly News” aired a segment about distracted driving among police officers and highlighted Fort Wayne’s decision to install Archangel II.

The broadcast prompted a flood of calls to SRRS, the local company that makes the device, a combination of software and external hardware.

“Our phones started ringing off the hook,” marketing director Jim Kroemer said. “Our business has really started to take off.”

While SRRS has not signed contracts with police departments anywhere other than Fort Wayne, Kroemer said the company is in talks with 25 to 30 departments in Canada and in states including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, New York, Minnesota, Florida and Texas.

Law enforcement agencies in Buffalo, N.Y., and Salem, Va., are field-testing Archangel II, and in Indiana, the Elkhart Police Department and the Indiana State Police have inquired about the device, he said.

“We really think our product is going to find a spot in the marketplace,” Kroemer said, adding that other devices similar to Archangel exist but they rely on GPS technology, which can be less precise.

Formed almost a year ago, SRRS is a small company with few principals, one of them being Don Ross, an executive with the Sherman Group and Deister Concentrator. It was conversations between Ross and a Fort Wayne police officer that led the company to develop Archangel II.

After some testing, city police chose the threshold of 15 mph, but the device can limit computer use at other speeds or allow the computer to function only when a squad car is stopped.

When city squad cars exceed 15 mph, the device blocks officers from putting data into their computers, but they can still see their GPS for directions to calls and receive updates from dispatchers.

Officers “continue to get all the vital information that they need,” York said.

The total cost to install the device in Fort Wayne’s police cars was less than $100,000, paid for with money seized in drug cases, he said.

Even though the department has committed to the product, many officers still have strong reservations about it freezing the computers they use to message each other and search police records, according to the president of the local Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the union that represents rank-and-file officers.

“The feedback from squad officers who tested the many versions of this device over the last year has been universally and unabashedly negative,” said Sofia Rosales, by email.

York acknowledged that officers have complained about the device, but he believes they’ll quickly adapt.

Department policy prohibits officers from using their computers while driving, but the chief does not think a policy alone is sufficient, especially if a squad car crash prompts a civil suit. He said the Archangel II device “is definite proof that we can provide that the officer wasn’t using his or her computer.”

In her email, Rosales rejected York’s claim that the number of crashes caused by officers distracted by in-car computers has significantly increased. York told The Journal Gazette he did not have specific numbers of such crashes.

“It seems as though the administration is trying to create a problem to fix where there really isn’t one,” she wrote. “Spending money, except for essential equipment, during these tough fiscal times seems frivolous.”

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