As Johnstown Police Chief Gregory Horning scans his computer screen, pointing out the red circles that represent patrol cars, he almost seems like a football coach studying last Saturday’s game film.
One thing is for certain: He cannot be compared to the dispatcher in the old TV show “Car 54, Where Are You?”
Since late last fall when the department installed GPS units in all seven cars, there has been no question about where they are. The accompanying software updates car locations every two minutes.
Horning switches to the satellite imagery function, zeroing in on a car just then passing Jansen Avenue School and the baseball diamond at Briggs Field.
Another car is stopped near Pleasant Avenue School, and Horning said it is apparent that the officer there is monitoring traffic with his radar.
“It’s a great tool,” said Horning, and one that protects the officers and the public. “It benefits them, it benefits the city, it benefits everyone.”
If someone complains that an officer is parking his car at his home for prolonged periods each day, the tracking system may disprove it, showing perhaps that the car is there only a few minutes, Horning said. If there is no communication from a car, the system will locate it. In the event of an accident, the system will show exactly what happened — information that may protect the officer and the city.
Horning acknowledges that the system was not universally welcomed by officers, especially after they learned in January that it had been operating in their vehicles for at least a month. Horning said he waited to inform the department until he was confident that the system worked as expected.
He said he understands the initial concerns. “It’s a tough thing to know Big Brother is watching you,” Horning said. But “these officers get paid to do a job policing the city. You want your officers doing what they’re paid to do.”
The system has many functions. There are alerts when cars exceed 50 mph and when they leave the city limits. The system knows when a car is running and when it is turned off.
Horning said officers are encouraged to shut off vehicles as often as possible to save fuel, wear and tear. Since the monitoring began, Horning said there has been a slight decrease in fuel consumption.
The GPS records can be compared to an officer’s activity sheet. Horning said the two accounts are matching up well. If there is a need, the computer can now provide a record for a particular car going back months.
The GPS units cost the department $359 each. The yearly subscription for the software monitoring package costs another $1,500.
Johnstown police are the first locally to equip with the GPS system. Gloversville Police Capt. James Lorenzoni said there are obvious benefits to having the system, but Gloversville cannot afford it.
When the Fulton County Department of Solid Waste equipped its 13 recycling trucks with a simpler GPS several years ago, it was the first municipal waste department in the state to make the move, said Director Jeffrey Bouchard.
Bouchard said the county’s system does not offer a live feed. Information has to be downloaded later, he said.
Still, he said, it has been very effective in ensuring that trucks and crews take the most direct routes and work efficiently.
As in the Johnstown Police Department, the staff had some reservations about being monitored, Bouchard said. But the system is credited with securing the staff a raise by documenting the department workload.