Mobile broadband/SSL VPN solution keeps police officers in the field

An Alabama police department mobilized its officers by creating a mobile broadband and SSL VPN solution, forgoing a costly private network installation.

Using an SSL VPN for remote access is a convenient way to connect users. Mobile broadband extends the reach of being online even further beyond the cubicle or home office. One Alabama police department married the two, despite some roadblocks, to provide its officers with reporting capabilities and information in the field to eliminate desk time.

Filing paperwork, while an important part of the job, can take officers out of the field and tie them to a desk in the police station. The officers of the Clanton Police Department in Clanton, Ala., were no exception. Required to file their reports before leaving for the day, the officers spent the last portion of their shift at headquarters. The manual process slowed the updating of information in the police departments systems and, more importantly, diminished the public visibility of the police force.

“The mere presence of a patrol car parked alongside the main drag encourages drivers to slow down and drive safer,” said Sgt. Neil Fetner, information technology officer for the police department.

Some public safety agencies rely on private data wireless networks and licensed spectrum to link patrol cars back to headquarters, but the millions of dollars necessary to deploy such a system was beyond the budget for the 30-employee police department. Instead, the department chose a mix of low-cost, off-the-shelf products and services.

Mobile broadband provides a secure link

The Clanton Police Department has outfitted the laptops in its patrol cars with Verizon Wireless mobile broadband adapters. Upon making a connection to the wireless network, the software installed on the laptop automatically redirects the officer to log in and authenticate with the department’s Astaro ASG220 firewall. The ASG220 creates a secure SSL VPN link to the car, allowing the officers to remotely access the department’s systems. Officers often pull into retail parking lots or other high-traffic areas to file their reports while maintaining a visual presence within the community. The mobile solution has led to faster processing of paperwork, and those documents are immediately available for the department’s supervisors and other officers to view, Fetner said.

 Mobile broadband and SSL VPN solution faced hurdles

The Clanton Police Department faced several roadblocks to deploying its alternative to an expensive public safety network. First, the department's policies and reporting procedures had to be reviewed and modified to adapt to the new mobility afforded to the officers. Once the technology was deployed, the officers quickly discovered a number of dead zones within the Verizon mobile network, most notably on a stretch of the interstate highway that runs through the department’s jurisdiction. According to Fetner, the department is working to identify and improve wireless coverage in these high-traffic areas.

There was also a human element to overcome, as some of the officers—ranging in age from 23 to 64—balked at the process changes. Additional training and policy reinforcement has helped the majority of the officers embrace their new mobility.

Broadband/SSL VPN marriage brings benefits

In addition to giving officers more field hours, the new system delivered cost savings and streamlined report processing. Public wireless networks also have an inherent advantage over a private public safety network; mobile broadband adapters offer Internet access, allowing Clanton’s officers to access government, law enforcement and military websites and resources while in the field.

Thanks to adding an automatic vehicle location (AVL) system in the patrol cars, the department can quickly determine the location of its vehicles in the event of an emergency.

One might assume that Internet access could also lead to personal use, but the Astaro firewall and VPN allow the department to define Internet access policies. The system allows access to websites for official use but blocks social media and other personal sites. “We don’t need our officers on Facebook for hours in the car,” said Fetner.

The combination of the Astaro SSL VPN and Verizon's mobile broadband offers the Clanton Police Department of more functionality compared to a dedicated public safety network, without the expense or maintenance needed to put up its own tower and deploy specialized equipment in the vehicles.

This was first published in July 2011

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