Across the Digital Divide

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The City of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., which covers 39 square miles in San Bernardino County about 35 miles east of Los Angeles, was ranked 42nd on Money magazine’s 2006 list of the 50 best places in the United States to live. Among other factors contributing to that designation, the city with a population of about 174,000 residents maintains a crime rate that is well below the national average. 

In 2006, and for a few years after that, though, you would never have known that crime was low in Rancho Cucamonga by walking into its police department headquarters. The police department’s offices were a maze of boxes and storage bins of reports and forms waiting to be typed and filed. The city’s police officers would go out on patrol, conduct their investigations, and then dictate their findings and daily event logs onto analog tapes that would be submitted, along with reams of paper and reports. The tapes and supporting documentation would then sit in large color-coded files waiting for the typists to get to them, which could take a week or more depending on their priority levels.

“There would just be lines and lines of boxes filled with reports that needed to be typed,” recalls Detective Steve Wolff, the department’s technical investigative support officer.

But with the introduction of speech technologies about a year ago, appearances and reality have come a lot closer together. “On the organizational side, things are so much easier now because we do not need to have a large setup for work waiting to be done,” says Wolff, who is responsible for rolling out digital dictation and transcription solutions from NCH Software across the department. “It’s all stored electronically.” 

Electronic storage of data was one of the primary reasons the Rancho Cucamonga Police Department decided to upgrade its reporting system. “No one is making basic tape recorders anymore. It’s all digital now,” Wolff says.

So about a year ago, the department switched from analog to digital recording, and brought in Express Dictate digital voice recording and Express Scribe transcription playback software from NCH Software, which is based in Greenwood Village, Colo.

Express Dictate is a voice-recording program that lets officers create and save audio files in .WAV, MP3, or .DCT formats on their portable Olympus WM300 recorders and then transfer the files to their computers (PC or Mac) through an integrated USB connector. Once stored on their computers, the digital audio files can be emailed to members of the clerical support staff for typing, transcription, and storage. 

Express Scribe audio playback software, which is compatible with the Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux operating systems, allows the clerical staff to control audio playback using a transcription foot pedal or keyboard with hot keys. It also features variable-speed playback, multichannel control, file management, and more.

Wolff first heard about NCH from other law enforcement sources who were already using the company’s products with great success. “An Internet search for dictation software also showed the NCH product relatively high on the list,” Wolff says.

NCH also beat its competitors on price. Express Scribe is free and can be used without restriction. “We make it free because we know you will love it so much you will use and recommend our commercial digital dictation suite to others,” the company states on its Web site.

“The fact that the Express Scribe application is free is definitely an advantage,” Wolff says. And at a few dollars apiece per license for Express Dictate, “it is certainly affordable,” even for the most budget-constrained users, he adds.

Another selling point in NCH’s favor was its ease of use. According to Wolff, the user interface is “easy to understand and follow and ultimately simplifies the workflow process.” The Express Dictate product interfaces nicely with Express Scribe software, further enhancing the process.

Now, about 90 percent of the officers assigned to the department, which comprises about 130 deputies from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and another 50 civilian employees and volunteers, use the digital dictation products to file their reports. “It has made a huge difference in how we do things,” Wolff states, noting that the amount of time needed to record and file the audio has been greatly reduced.

“We’ve stepped into the 21st century,” he adds. “We’re years ahead of where we were with analog.”

Proceeding Slowly

Admittedly, however, the department took baby steps to get there. Wolff started with a test group of five or six officers on one shift, and “as we worked the kinks out, we added more and more [officers],” he says. “Then we went to one whole shift, and it wasn’t until about six months [later] where we had everyone doing their recordings digitally.” 

On average, it took a month or two for most officers to become fully familiar with the new hardware and software. Probably the most difficult part initially was retraining the officers, but the vast majority were on board within about 60 days, Wolff says.

Since bringing in the digital solution, one of the biggest benefits has been improved sound quality, which has made the workflow much smoother, faster, and easier for both officers and support staff. “The quality of the voice recordings is far superior to what we had with our old analog recordings. You can hear every nuance of what the person is saying. The sound is crystal-clear,” Wolff says.

Prior to adopting the NCH solutions, the department experimented with a digital recorder that officers were already using to record interactions with suspects, witnesses, and other members of the public. “We tried to use them for dictation as well for a while, but there was no editing capability. Also, it was kind of cumbersome for the deputies, and the audio was not very clear,” Wolff says.

The current solution doesn’t allow for on-the-fly editing, but it’s a shortcoming of the hardware chosen rather than a software issue. Express Dictate features automatic editing, encryption, compression, and voice-activated recording, all of which were important considerations for Wolff when hunting for a solution. “We needed to allow the officers to edit [their dictations] on the fly,” he says. “Express Dictate gives officers more control over editing the dictated report.”

But the Olympus digital recorders originally chosen do not provide adequate editing and playback options. Wolff is looking to upgrade to Olympus DS2400 model recorders that will allow for full editing capabilities. “The officers can stop, rewind, fast-forward, record over, etc.,” Wolff says. “They will not have to quit the session and start over, and they can edit on the fly.”

The department’s officers can generate 15 to 20 reports on any given day. The average report is about five pages long, but some can go longer depending on how in-depth and widespread an investigation becomes. The majority of those written reports are dictated by patrol and traffic officers and then transcribed by clerical staff. After transcription, the reports are reviewed for completeness before they’re sent off for archival storage.

The NCH solutions “seem to have made a considerable difference. We’re far more organized, and there aren’t piles and piles of tapes lying around any more,” Wolff says. "We were looking for something easy to use that performs reliably. NCH so far has measured up to our expectations.” 

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