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1999: Wired up

In the 1999 edition of Our Valley, titled “Working With Technology,” we focused on “how computers and other scientific wonders are affecting businesses and their employees.”

That was two decades ago, when a veritable “digital spring” was exploding across the world, changing not just our businesses, but everything we did, what was in our pockets, how we communicated — everything.

A story in that issue about computers in law enforcement had interviewees reminiscing about how dispatchers always took 911 calls on the phone, wrote down the information with a pencil, checked paper files for criminal histories, decided which agency should handle the problem and called them up.

But in 1999, according to Our Valley, all regional law enforcement agencies would be “hooked up to computers that officers have in their cars, so the information will appear on their screens instead of a dispatcher telling them over the radio.” The future had arrived.

Today, such universal, instantaneous connectivity is a given and includes officers’ cellphones, bodycams, dashcams, all intermeshed with a records management system that allows retrieval of a universe of data from a driver’s license, car license plate or anything else an officer wants to plug into his or her in-car computer.

Technology has also allowed police to solve crimes using DNA analysis.

“It’s fantastic,” says Ashland police Chief Tighe O’Meara. “Such great investigative tools, being able to have that insight into someone’s life, the relatively easy DNA analysis. It’s given us a much better chance to get justice for victims of crime.”

Because we live in an ocean of data now, some people may worry about loss of privacy, but for law enforcement, “digital forensics evidence” increases the evidence trail and makes society more safe, O’Meara says.

For instance, in 2011, an Ashland man was beaten so badly he almost died — and became homeless for several years. A suspect was arrested by Medford police and convicted on multiple other charges, but O’Meara wanted to nail down the assault charge. The assailant left a baseball cap at the scene. O’Meara sent it for DNA testing. He dug into the suspect’s cellphone, finding texts bragging about the beating, with pics the suspect shot of his own bloody hands.

“I’m not claiming any big Sherlock Holmes credit,” he says, “but the victim was a homed, working member of our community. I wrapped up my case, assault-3, in 2014, and got two years added to his sentence.”

Even if the offender is smart enough not to self-incriminate with texts and pics, cellphones communicate with towers, leaving traces of where offenders were and potentially placing them at crime scenes, he says.

Back in the day, it was common to hear police complain about paperwork and the hours needed to do it all. Now, says O’Meara, “CAD (computer-aided dispatch) does it all, types in the case number, date, names and it appears at once in RMS (records management system), with the ability to appear everywhere else.”

The bodycam video is linked to the case number and can be easily called up for use in court. Tickets are written with just a scan of the bar code on the back of your license. A geo-tag app in officers’ cellphones keeps their locations known and on-screen. Many police agencies scan license plates in four directions at all times, looking for stolen cars and wanted suspects, but this tool is only needed in large cities, he says. However, officers can scan any particular plate instantly.

Demographic tracking, required by a new state law to reduce profiling, has cops ticking off the race, homeless status, apparent gender and other such information on all stops. The data is monitored by a committee at Portland State University and, he says, any disproportionate hits will be investigated. The program starts July 1, but Ashland is already “the guinea pig,” testing it out.

What’s the impact of the digital revolution?

Instantaneous access to any piece of information you want, O’Meara says. Pictures of anyone. Access to a database that’s far-reaching and integrated. A data-extraction app that can bypass the password and pull information and pics out of a cellphone, after police get consent or a search warrant based on reasonable belief that evidence of a crime exists on the phone.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Ashland police Chief Tighe O’Meara shows how onboard computers help officers in the field. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune