- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 29, 2000

New, hand-held computers that record traffic-stop information may help Montgomery County, Md., police dispel assertions of racial discrimination, police officials said yesterday.

The "palm PCs" officially go into use Friday as part of an agreement between the Department of Justice, the Montgomery County Police Department and the police union.

The agreement, which stems from complaints that blacks were treated unfairly by police, calls for officers to record the race and gender of people pulled over in traffic stops. Police also are required to note other details about the incident, such as whether a search or arrest took place.

Police Chief Charles A. Moose said he looks forward to seeing the results of an independent analysis that will show his officers don't engage in racial discrimination.

"This will show if their perceptions are real or not," Chief Moose said, referring to those who have accused the police of racial unfairness.

"There's no evidence our officers do racial profiling, so we won't have to do anything" to fix any problems.

At the same time, the high-tech, tiny devices help officers in many other ways, but most importantly by reducing paperwork, officials said.

After an officer writes a traffic citation, recording information from the stop takes about 45 seconds, said Officer Chris Johnson, who showed off the computer to reporters during a mock traffic stop yesterday.

Officer Johnson recently down-loaded 76 traffic stops into a computer at headquarters in 2 and 1/2 minutes, cutting his paperwork to a fraction of its former amount.

"It makes it a lot easier than filling out the paperwork, handing it to someone, who gives it to someone else, who gives it to a data entry person," Officer Johnson said.

The devices also hold telephone number lists, state and county statutes, police procedures and a calendar. They can record witness interviews or dictation from an officer, and they offer Internet access as well.

The computers exchange information via infrared lasers, so an investigator can get a crime scene's basic information from an officer in seconds.

The 1,200 Compaq Aero 1500 series pocket computers which cost the county $375,000 will go to every sworn member of the department, and all civilian members are trained in their use. Some officers already are using the devices.

The computer recording of traffic stop information is one of the main components of an agreement that stems from complaints by the Montgomery County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People starting in 1995. The civil rights organization claimed police treated minorities unfairly and, in 1996, referred more than 300 cases of suspected police misconduct to the Justice Department.

The federal agency investigated and found, in a review of citations over a two-year period ending in 1998, that 21 percent were issued to minorities, who represent just 12 to 14 percent of the county's licensed drivers.

The probe did not find any evidence that police used excessive force or engaged in a pattern of harassment or mistreatment of minorities.

The agreement requires that complaints be investigated and resolved within 90 days, and that officers receive additional training to improve relations with minorities.

Some police officials seemed surprised at the silence of the local NAACP about the new computers, since the group was responsible for the federal probe and resulting agreement.

Two telephone messages left by The Washington Times at the NAACP's Montgomery County branch were not returned yesterday.

A message left for the president of the Fraternal Order of Police Montgomery Lodge 35 also was not returned yesterday.

Under the agreement, Montgomery County police were scheduled to begin recording race and gender information from traffic stops July 1. But officials were looking for a way to comply that wouldn't weigh officers down with time-consuming extra paperwork.

Then Mobile Commerce and Computing of Reston entered the picture. The company's software program could help officers comply with the agreement far faster than the old-fashioned way.

The starting date for recording traffic stop information was delayed until Friday so the department and software company could get the computers programmed and train the officers, Chief Moose said.

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