Zephyrhills police may be the first in the country to use handheld computers to ease a once arduous task.
By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
Published December 5, 2005
ZEPHYRHILLS - The meeting could easily have taken place in Silicon Valley.
Instead, it was Zephyrhills. Five months ago Zephyrhills Police Sgt. Jeff McDougal was meeting with representatives of Pitney Bowes, a national corporation that helps streamline organizations.
The company was pitching a software product to the police department that McDougal didn't think it needed. But McDougal told them what the department really did need: a better, more efficient way to track the more than two dozen sex offenders living in the city limits.
Could Pitney Bowes do that?
The answer lies in the personal digital assistants Zephyrhills Police detectives are now using to efficiently track the city's sex offenders.
"As far as we know it's the first system like that in the country," Zephyrhills Police Chief Russell Barnes said.
Tracking sex offenders has taken on a new urgency in Florida this year. Convicted sex offenders are both accused in the much-publicized deaths of two children, Jessica Lunsford and Sarah Lunde.
Now the Zephyrhills Police Department is using the information revolution to keep tabs on the city's own offenders, and if the need arises, to quickly and efficiently investigate them.
Using handheld computers and a new database, police can quickly organize, collate and confirm information about offenders. It's quicker for police and for the offenders required to regularly check in with law enforcement.
"It was a concept that I threw out there, and Pitney Bowes was good enough to stay with me as I was rattling off this idea," McDougal said. "Not only does it save time, it also provides assurances and documentable proof that we've made contact with a sex offender."
McDougal heads the department's criminal investigation division and has three detectives under his command. They're the ones who go out and make regular, periodic contact with the 25 registered sex offenders who live in the city.
In the old days - actually, just weeks ago - detectives had to collate information about the offenders from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and other organizations and departments within the police agency.
Then they go out, make contact, and make sure the offenders are obeying the terms of their release, or probation, or the restrictions placed upon them by state law. And if they wanted to go back and see who checked up on who, it required a visit to the filing cabinet and tracking down that particular detective.
Before the new system was in place, the typical visit took about 15-20 minutes, and that didn't include the time spent tracking down the offenders. Now with each offender's information downloaded into a handheld computer, it can take mere minutes.
Now the offender can check their own information on the database, make corrections, and use their electronic signature as proof they're complying with the law, and that police are, too. Then detectives report the information to FDLE, which keeps the public informed about sex offenders' whereabouts.
The pilot program is designed for smaller agencies and is costing the department just $5,000. Pitney Bowes is picking up the rest of the tab.
"I went out and used it and it only took a few minutes per contact," McDougal said. "They signed the form. I took a look at the driver's license, we ran a few warrants checks on them, verified that they're still living at that address. It worked beautifully."