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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Friday, September 26, 2008

North Charleston police take step into the future

The day when police can swipe a suspect's finger through a device and check him instantly against a nationwide criminal database, all while standing on a city street, may not be far off.

North Charleston Police Chief Jon Zumalt said a new handheld device his department acquired this week is a step in the right direction. The gadget looks like a BlackBerry wireless device and allows an officer to check a national database for warrants and vehicle information. Until now, police had to call dispatchers, costing valuable minutes.

"This is just the beginning," Zumalt said on Wednesday, as the device manufacturer trained his officers on the new equipment. "This is innovation. We're the first in the state to have this."

The gadget is made by an Atlanta-based company, the American Law Enforcement Network, or ALEN for short. The department purchased 10 handheld devices at just under $400 each. The city will have to pay about $30 in monthly subscription fees per unit.

Francine Karp, an ALEN operations manager, visited North Charleston for the training. A former police officer in Connecticut, Karp said she often pulled over vehicles without having a chance to learn the driver's criminal history until it was too late.

She said it's crucial to know that a car is associated with a violent felon, or has been reported stolen, before approaching the driver.

"It's literally walking into a very dangerous situation blindly," Karp said.

The device, developed about 2 1/2 years ago, is in use by about 500 departments in five states, she said. The North Charleston Police Department is the first South Carolina agency to get one.

Beyond wanted people and stolen vehicles, the device also lets officers look up hazardous materials on commercial trucks, and a range of other information.

Deputy Police Chief Reggie Burgess said he spent about two years working to bring the technology to North Charleston. For it to work, the State Law Enforcement Division had to allow the department to access the National Crime Information Center, U.S. law enforcement's central data depository. [Mark Godsey]

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