Early last week, while locating a runaway in an Ashburn residence, a Loudoun County Sheriff's deputy discovered more than he expected. With the use of his Blackberry, a hand-held, wireless communication device made by Research In Motion, the officer was able to locate not one, but two runaway girls at the residence. The second girl was a 15-year-old Sterling resident whose parents had filed a missing child report two days before the encounter.
"He was just standing there talking with her," said Kraig Troxell, spokesman for the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office. "That's the first success with the Blackberry that I am aware of."
A GROWING TREND in law enforcement across the nation, Blackberries allow officers to more readily gain access to information. In the state of Virginia, the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office is the first and only law-enforcement agency to use the Blackberry as an officer's aid to public safety.
"It's a terrific asset, having your computer screen with drivers information and a 'wanted check' right in front of you," said Sheriff Steve Simpson. "You can have the same access to information that the dispatcher does."
In the case of the officer who used a Blackberry to discover the second runaway child, the device proved invaluable. Acting much like a dispatcher, the Blackberry has access to a handful of crime databases that can red flag an entered name or vehicle identification number. The 15-year-old Sterling runaway was red flagged immediately and taken into custody. By not having to wait for a dispatcher or return to the patrol car to access the mobile-data terminals, some believe that this is a more efficient way to serve the public.
"If an officer gets an identification from somebody and wants to get their status Ñ let's say they're a suspicious person Ñ it's that simple, they just run their information like in the car," said Simpson.
And officers have the ability to run information through a handful of comprehensive databases including the National Crime Information Center, the Virginia Crime Information Network and Computer Aided Dispatching. Said Troxell, the interface of the Blackberry is just like a "shrunken down" mobile-data terminal found in patrol cars. Thus, most officers are familiar with the system and don't need training, he said.
THE SHERIFF'S OFFICE CURRENTLY has 56 Blackberries that cost the department about $150 apiece. With service provided by Nextel, the same company that provides the office's two-way mobile phones, the system was purchased with money received from a federal grant. Only a few weeks into their use, the Sheriff's Office is still distributing them according to need.
Beginning with the administrative staff, Simpson said that they are now branching out to patrol officers and motorcycle units. As Simpson sees it, "Officers who don't have access to the laptop in their car will have quick access on their hip."
The success of this experiment might transfer into statewide use of these devices within law enforcement. As the first law-enforcement office in Virginia to use the Blackberry, their success in Virginia depends on the success in Loudoun.
"We are going to put the word out soon," said Simpson. "We will wait to give it a test run and talk with the Virginia State Police."
BUT WITH THE RECENT NEWS of lawsuits filed against Research In Motion Inc., Blackberry's maker, by the patent-holding NTP Inc., the future of these devices in Virginia law enforcement might be out of the hands of the Loudoun Sheriff's Office.
With a disputed settlement of $450 million from a lawsuit filed four years ago, the case is currently underway in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. According to a press release, the district court ruled Nov. 30 that "the Term Sheet filed between the parties in March 2005 to settle the litigation was not an enforceable agreement." The unsettled suit also carries threats of an injunction, which would prohibit Research In Motion from using, selling, manufacturing or importing the devices.
However, also in a press release from Research In Motion the company has"been preparing software work-around designs, which it intends to implement if necessary to maintain the operation of Blackberry services in the United States."
So what does this mean for the Loudoun Sheriff's Office and the future use in statewide law enforcement? According to Simpson, not much.
"Whenever you have something like that, it is a concern," said Simpson, referring to the lawsuit. "But whenever someone makes a change, another steps up to the plate. It wouldn't be a huge blow, just an inconvenience," he said.
Pending an agreement in the Blackberry lawsuit, the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office might just be a trendsetter for its use in Virginia law enforcement. Research In Motion Inc. is expected to file a request that the U.S. Supreme Court accept an appeal of the federal Circuit's Aug. 2 affirmation of the company's patent infringements. The process of the Supreme Court's decision whether or not to hear the case could take several months.