System will give police boost

Columbia County Sheriff Clay Whittle pointed Tuesday to a large LCD screen hanging from a wall inside the sheriff's office's 911 center and bragged on his newest weapon to fight crime: a computer system.

"You see those dots there? Those are where all of our patrol cars are at in real time," Sheriff Whittle said.

The nearly $1 million OSSI/Sunguard computer system might prove to be a lifesaver, the sheriff said. It will decrease response times, curtail expenses, add accountability and improve training, he said.

"The different colors on the map represent beats, but a deputy may be way on the other side of their beat from where something is happening," Sheriff Whittle said. "A dispatcher can now see if someone else is closer and get them over there."

Deputies trained this week on how to use the new system. Each officer will get a laptop equipped with a GPS tracker to take with them in their police cruisers.

In the past, dispatchers sent out radio calls to deputies to find out who was near an incident location. Now that dispatchers can see who is closer, the need for time-consuming radio chatter is eliminated, Sheriff Whittle said.

Though it's too early to say how much faster deputies will respond to an incident -- the new system went live Nov. 27 -- Sheriff Whittle believes it could shave as much as two minutes off average response times.

"Two minutes could mean the difference between life and death," he said. "It could mean the difference between catching a bad guy, or letting him get away."

Each sheriff's office computer, including laptops, is now tied into a central database. Patrolmen can now file reports from the field, and each sheriff's office employee will be able to more easily find data from previous incidents.

The laptops also give deputies access to the National Crime Information Center and the Georgia Crime Information Center.

"Before they (deputies) ever even pull somebody over, they can type in the (vehicle license) tag number and get that person's information," Sheriff Whittle said. "A worst-case scenario would be that they could find out that person is wanted for murder and can call in for help before they even get out of the car."

The computer system also will add accountability for 911 dispatchers, said sheriff's Lt. Tina Stacy, of the Communications Patrol Division.

Each facet of a call to the sheriff's office is now time-stamped, from when the call is received to when a report is filed and the call is ended.

"Before, we had no way of measuring how long certain calls should take," Lt. Stacy said. "I didn't know if a domestic call took one minute or five. This system allows us to review how long each of those calls take and averages them for us. If someone is taking 90 seconds on a call that averages 60, we can go back and find out why."

Before Sunguard, the sheriff's office used a computer system introduced in 1992. It was slow and difficult to learn for new employees used to modern software, Lt. Stacy said.

"If you can use Microsoft Windows, like most kids in middle school can, you can use this system," she said. "Where it would take us a year to train a new dispatcher, we can train them on this system in three to six months."

Eventually, Sheriff Whittle said, he wants to purchase handheld devices similar to patrolmen laptops for the bike patrol, and possibly introduce a component that would allow the public to access police reports from the Internet, but those are long-term goals.

"It really is an incredible system," Sheriff Whittle said. "It's going make our jobs of serving the public a lot easier."

Reach Donnie Fetter at (706) 868-1222, ext. 115, or donnie.fetter@augustachronicle.com.