Survey Says: Police Officers Need Mobile Technology That’s Actually Mobile

Laptops may be standard issue, but their unwieldy size is creating issues for law enforcement officers

Two police offers using a rugged tablet to maintain real-time situational visibility and coordinate with other first responders.
by Bob Ashenbrenner
February 28, 2019

New survey conducted by Praetorian Digital via PoliceOne.com found the mobile technology tools that police officers need are not typically what they get.

Throughout my 25+ year career, I have interviewed hundreds of candidates for jobs, ranging from entry-level engineers to senior vice presidents. Most of these interviews were for high-skill jobs where there were few candidates and, thus, a lot of competition for talent. By the time they sat down with me, these candidates had already interviewed at a few places. They had their pitch down pat. So many had their “canned” answers to obvious interview questions; it was like listening to a recorded presentation. I made it my goal to try to ask relevant yet creative questions for which they likely had not prepared. I wanted to learn about the real person behind the canned responses which, I learned with time, requires a “second question.” Asking a follow up question to the standard interview inquiries is one of the most reliable techniques to get to the truth of the matter, find out how much someone really knows or how they really feel about the topic at hand.

“In what division do you work currently?” “Why in that division?” is a simple example. Often, you’ll get answers like: “XYZ Product Development” and “I had wanted to apply to ABC Product Development division, but they had no openings.”

Or, you will uncover surprising facts such as this: One candidate admitted that he wanted to work at our company only because “he could work hurt.” He literally said that, because he played hockey and lacrosse, a cubicle job meant he could work while injured. Not that he was inspired by our company, wanted to contribute to a great team or develop a set of skills. Despite an MIT degree and excellent technical skills, no offer was presented to this candidate because his true feelings became evident very quickly when I dug a little deeper.

A similar situation occurred recently when Praetorian Digital conducted a survey of law enforcement officers about their use of mobile devices via PoliceOne.com. This was a well-constructed and informative survey that outlines the current lay-of-the-land in North America, highlighting the big issues that police face with their current mobile computing devices as well as their future mobility goals.

Beyond the realization that laptops are becoming severely troublesome for officers – which I’ll dig into more in a minute – I found it interesting that the respondents were so open to sharing their honest opinions on the first question. They didn’t feel obligated to offer canned or “correct” responses to appease anyone. You’ll hear me often say that public safety people are different than professionals in other industries. They are far more collaborative with their peers and more willing to express their views to the public, in a very straightforward way. The way they responded to this survey was just more evidence that law enforcement officers will not filter the facts of the matter.  

So, what did police say they really want?

After reading the compiled objective answers to this December 2018 survey, I took a deep dive into the comments. And there were a lot of comments. Each of which helped to paint a much more complete picture of officers’ mobility – or lack thereof – in the field today. Given that public safety officials demand a certain level of operational agility and visibility, it is concerning to me that laptops continue to dominate the “mobile” technology landscape in the law enforcement sector.  It’s not what officers desire, as this latest survey clearly shows.

In the comments section, many officers indicated they are using a laptop only because it was issued by their agency. There were also a few who willingly chose a laptop, but only because they assumed that the tablets that they would be using on the clock are the same consumer devices they use in their personal lives and, thus, share the same weaknesses when it comes to durability, connectivity and capabilities.

For example, this is what you see when you look at the basic distribution of devices usage from the multiple-choice questions:

Insights from

One could assume that laptops have risen to the top of the chart because that’s what officers want or need. But, when you look at the responses from the open-ended questions, you realize that the first “canned” multiple-choice question doesn’t tell the whole truth. When the laptop users were asked why they preferred a laptop, many indicated that they actually don’t prefer a laptop or didn’t realize there are mobile computing options available to deliver the tools and features they prefer.

A trend is evident in these comments that laptops are chosen over tablets because of an assumption of the capabilities (or lack of capabilities) of tablets. It appears that many think a “tablet” is a consumer device, with smaller screens, an on-screen keyboard only, limited battery run-times and limited software compatibilities. This is understandable since most consumer tablets don’t offer Windows® operating system (OS) configurations, and Android™ tablets that you buy off the shelf run a consumer-strength OS version, not the professional grade Android for Work applications that come standard with public safety-specific rugged tablets. In reality, there are both professional-grade Windows- and Android-based tablets available that meet every requirement above, including a slate tablet form factor for optimized mobility AND an attached keyboard for long-form data entry, which is common practice for police reporting in the vehicle and office.

Now, if you look closer at the comments from current laptop users that indicate that they either prefer tablets, would accept tablets, or think tablets are less capable than laptops are, this thought experiment leads to a dramatic change:

The feedback indicates that tablet use could dominate in law enforcement because rugged, enterprise-grade configurations of this form factor are capable of delivering exactly what officers told us they want in this survey, as you’ll see below: inherent mobility, full capability to run all the software that laptops can, and keyboards. (For the record, rugged 2-in-1 tablets come standard with both wired and wirelessly-connected keyboards that feature full tactile feedback and are as good as any laptop.)

Of course, there were some officers who are currently using tablets but would prefer a laptop. (Oddly enough, these were all Windows tablet users, though the survey didn’t dig deeper to understand if they were unhappy with the tablet for reasons beyond the OS. That leaves me hesitant to draw any direct conclusions about their preference reasons.) This might also be easily addressed with a 2-in-1 solution, as the preference could drive from the need for a good portable keyboard.

But when you look at why tablet users preferred tablets, 55% said simply that tablets are truly mobile computers, meaning they can stay with the officer at all times, while others like that tablets take up less room in the car than a laptop when they are mounted.

Many treat the words “mobile” and “portable” as synonyms, but in the context of computing devices, they mean different things. A laptop is a “portable” computer, it can be moved from place to place, but is typically ONLY used when stationary. A tablet is a “mobile” computer; it is easy to carry AND can be used while standing and working, while a handheld computer is a very mobile device, usable anywhere. If public safety officers need real-time information (and the answer is “yes, they do”), they need a mobile device that is designed to be used while holding it, designed for both indoors and outdoors – i.e. rugged to the core but still lightweight.

Mobility isn’t the only reason why officers want truly mobile computers, though.

There were a few open-ended questions intended to explore the features that are most used on mobile devices in the field today along with those that are most desired.

Not surprisingly, the majority of respondents said they want more mobility from their technology tools, and just as many wanted rugged computers. (In other words: They want/need rugged tablets.) But perhaps most surprising in this digital age was respondents desire for:

- Better wireless performance from their mobile computing devices. Poor performance of current systems was a shared challenge among respondents. More advanced antenna/pass-through technology could help to address this.

More speed or improved computing performance.

Greater security so that they could access CJIS or similar systems while in the field versus being restricted to desktop-only access. Desktop computers have historically been viewed as more secure, even though rugged tablets boasts equal security capabilities with multi-factor authentication, TPM, CAC/Smart Card readers, encryption and more.

A number of screen improvements. These include better outdoor viewability, the ability to adjust brightness up or down, a different size screen and/or touchscreen capability (all of which rugged tablets offer).

The ability to write reports in the field. This indicates a desire for both the proper software and preferred keyboard accessibility (which, again, rugged tablets accommodate in public safety configuration options).

In other words, laptops are failing to deliver the tools and capabilities that officers need. They may be rugged, but they aren’t mobile. They may have keyboards built in, but they are not the only mobile computer form factor with a keyboard and can’t be carried without them. This data shows that officers want an 8-12 inch, high performance, well-connected and secure rugged tablet for which an excellent attachable keyboard is available.

The recommendation to replace laptops with rugged tablets is further reinforced when you consider how officers want to be able to use their mobile computers in the future:

- 41 respondents commented that they want eTicketing, citation, and similar functionality added to their mobile platform

- 34 want better and more integrated software for report writing

- 14 want better integration with mapping software (GIS)

Law enforcement using vehicle-mounted touch screen 12.5-inch rugged tablet with full-sized keyboard to retrieve data.

Conclusion One: Tablets are a Great Fit

Most officers’ comments pointed to expectations for:

- Truly mobile devices, including long battery run-times

- Rugged, durable, always-available devices that can just as easily be used in the field on foot as in the patrol vehicle or office

- Top-of-the-line wireless performance

- Increased computing system speed

- Excellent screens that are both bright and large

- Real keyboards since data entry is a big part of the job

Conclusion Two: Significant Demand for Handhelds

A significant number of officers want to automate ticket writing and all of the aspects that entails, such as scanning drivers’ licenses, easy field entry of citation codes, printing of tickets, accepting offender signatures and cross-referencing offenders with criminal databases. Though tablets are designed to facilitate these actions, handhelds are also an ideal form factor to fully deliver this specialized function, one that would significantly increase productivity and accuracy, while enhancing officer safety.

Conclusion Three: Software Drives Many Device Decisions

As you will see, the number of deployed tablets calculated in this particular survey was skewed toward a Windows OS. This is not a surprise given that many of the enterprise-grade rugged tablets designed for public safety use in the past two decades were based on a professional-grade OS version. Windows’ security and remote management capabilities are well-refined for public safety, and the majority of public safety’s applications were built for Windows from both a back-end system and mobile workflow perspective.

But law enforcement agencies should not be quick to dismiss the viability of enterprise-grade rugged Android mobile computers anymore. While officers are right to be wary of the consumer-strength versions of tablets and handhelds, there are rugged Android tablets, handhelds and 2-in-1 computers proven more than capable of supporting public safety professionals in diverse operating environments.

It is important to evaluate your workflow, application and even ancillary technology integration requirements before deciding on a specific OS or device form factor. You may find, when you look at your total mobility solution requirements, that your officers would be better served by an Android rugged tablet that can run specific Android applications, interface with a certain mobile printer for ticketing and connect seamlessly with other communications technologies.

The point is that police departments need to take a fresh, objective look at the mobile computing technologies available in the market today and be willing to migrate to those that will best serve their officers moving forward – using officers’ current preferences to guide buying decisions versus historical agency buying habits.

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Visit Zebra booth #1016 at IWCE 2019 (March 4-8) to meet our government mobility experts and discuss the many technology solutions available to address your agency’s current operational challenges and facilitate progress towards your data management, worker efficiency and communication goals.

Infographic highlighting key findings of the PoliceOne.com survey
Download the infographic to see more key findings of the December 2018 PoliceOne.com survey about current mobile technology usage and preferences.
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Bob Ashenbrenner
Bob Ashenbrenner has more than 25 years of computer engineering and engineering management experience, with 18 of those specific to mobility and the field requirements that enable real work to happen
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