Small-town police force thinks big
Every winter thousands of ice fishermen descend on tiny Isle, Minn., a rural community about 100 miles from Minneapolis-St. Paul that bills itself the “Walleye Capital of the World.” The influx puts quite a strain on the 700-person community’s seven-person police force with only one full-time officer.
However, Isle’s police force recently got a big boost when a broadband fixed wireless provider, Genesis Wireless, came to town looking to provide high-speed data service to residents, businesses and tourists.
In early March, Police Chief Gene Hill estimated between 5,000 and 6,000 ice houses were set up on nearby Lake Mille Lacs. While these tourists contribute to the community’s economy, Hill is more concerned about others who come to Isle for the wilderness but contribute nothing but trouble.
“Our biggest crimes right now are the portable methamphetamine labs,” Hill said.
Drugmakers set up their labs in the remote woods around Isle, where the 60-foot pine trees mask what they’re doing and the constant breeze whisks away telltale stench that accompanies the cooking drug. By the time they’re set up, it’s usually too late for the cops to do anything to stop them. Hill and his force must catch a whiff of the perpetrators before they set up.
Enter Genesis Wireless. “They were looking to expand their business and they wanted to use our water tower [as an antenna base],” Hill said. “The city went for that, and now we have the [802.11b Wi-Fi] Internet service not only in the cars, but in our office.”
Genesis programmed the town’s two patrol cars with Ethernet converters, fitting all the electronics for Internet connectivity into a bulletproof box placed in the back of the car and running Category 5 cable from that box to a laptop computer in the front seat, said Jay Mankie, the company’s chief technology officer. The broadband-equipped laptop also is voice-over-IP [VoIP]-enabled.
“When they’re mobile, they have connectivity,” Mankie said. “The 802 [Wi-Fi] covers the town. The cops get it all around the city limits.”
Cars equipped with portable broadband connectivity contribute to “a higher arrest rate on warrants,” because it’s easier to identify wrongdoers before they get the chance to set up shop and do wrong, Hill said.
“When people come into the area and we think they’re associated [with potential] drug trafficking, we’re able to run their driver’s licenses if we make a traffic stop,” he said. “We can determine on the spot if they’re lying to us by looking at their picture, because when we pull up their driver’s license record, it also pulls up their [arrest] record.”
The broadband connection makes it easier to do what Hill calls “investigative work.”
“We just keep a running log of people who are in certain areas who don’t belong in those areas,” he said. “We can link a lot of people in investigations, specifically drug trafficking, that way.”
Isle’s squad cars already had laptops, so officers can do paperwork while continuing to visibly patrol the community. Now, those same officers have VoIP-enabled phones and broadband connectivity.
“The first week we had it, the laptops contributed to about six arrests,” Hill said. “It’s growing every week.”
With its new wireless broadband capability, Isle could become the envy of police departments throughout rural Minnesota. Communities across the state are moving to an 800 MHz radio system that is used by the state police. The state has been divided into implementation phases, with small communities like Isle at the end of the line.
“Until that technology is in place, this is our only avenue to get that stuff [wireless broadband] into cars,” Hill said.
The broadband connection also speeds the process of researching state and federal funding grants, which are crucial for small-town police forces, according to Hill.
“We used to have dial-up before, which is ungodly slow,” he said. “This is as fast as a T1 line [1.544 Mb/s]. It’s instantaneous. It speeds up our process of working and communications, and reduces our long-distance bill because we’re talking over the Internet.”