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Computer Revolution: The Story of the VPD’s MDT Pilot Program

A promotional photo that appeared as the front cover to the 1979 VPD annual report, features an officer using the first MDT.

Policing is not a word often thought synonymous with cutting-edge technology. Television crime dramas have played up the image of lone-wolf detectives, who favour instinct and “gut feelings” over fancy gadgets. The reality is that modern police agencies rely heavily on technology to do their jobs.

Historically, the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) has always been among the first to adopt new technologies, from motorcycles and traffic lights to call boxes and two-way radios. But in 1979, the Vancouver Police made an incredible leap forward when they installed computer terminals in patrol cars, something that would not become common practice among other police agencies for almost another decade. 

In the late 1970s, the computer industry was going through a time of rapid innovation. The personal computing race was in full swing and advancements in digital networking connected people like never before. Computers were finding their way into homes and workplaces, as components became cheaper, more capable and more user-friendly. 

 

Motorola’s D-1118 Mobile Data Terminal, one of the first purpose-built computers for first responders. Photo: Vancouver Police Museum Archives P05563

It didn’t take long before police agencies took notice of the computer revolution happening before them; nor did it take manufacturers long to realize the untapped potential of the first-responder market. As early as 1976, tech firms were designing in-car computers known as mobile data terminals (MDTs), which were capable of communicating with a central dispatch centre remotely. 

This technology caught the attention of the then less than a century old VPD, who had just finished building a state-of-the-art radio communications centre at their Main Street headquarters. Plans were made to continue the modernization of the communications centre so that it would be equipped to handle computer-aided dispatch and communication with MDTs by 1979. This plan was supported financially by grants from the City as well as the federal government, totalling over $600,000. The Canadian Government’s investment was largely allocated for the development of generalized software that could be used for other applications outside of policing. 

In 1978, in preparation for the eventual arrival of MDT units, the VPD purchased and installed a minicomputer at a cost of just under $140,000. Minicomputers were like mainframes, except they didn’t cost millions of dollars and take up the space of an entire room. The VPD minicomputer functioned a lot like a modern server, which once operational, would be able to manage data requests received by MDTs in the field.

 

A VPD Member using his patrol car’s MDT during a traffic stop. Photo: Vancouver Police Museum Archives P04674

After three years of laying the groundwork, in 1979 the VPD installed Motorola D-1118 MDTs into twelve cruisers. This initial roll-out of twelve units acted as a trial period so the VPD and City could gauge the value of computer-aided dispatch—which, at the time, was largely unknown. 

To understand how truly forward-thinking the VPD was, consider the fact that personal computers wouldn’t become common in Canadian households until the mid-late 1980s. Most other police agencies didn’t install MDTs until the late 1980s and some didn’t have them until the early 1990s. For the VPD officers assigned to these twelve test cars, interacting with the data terminals was likely one of their first experiences with a computer.

After a year-long trial period, the VPD considered MDTs a success; though, they were not without their issues. While being able to run a license plate or search the stolen property database on a self-serve basis was incredibly convenient, the terminals were notoriously slow, sometimes receiving responses so long after a request that the waiting officer forgot they ever asked. There were also concerns with the quality and construction of these early Motorola units; the keyboards were not durable enough to handle daily wear and tear of the job and the screens were difficult to read in daylight. 

Regardless, there was no denying the value of MDTs. Officers in the field could request information from dispatch without tying up a radio operator, resulting in nearly twice as many overall database requests in the first four years. A study looking into the VPD’s use of MDTs from 1980-1984 saw an increase in arrests, specifically minor bench warrants and bylaw offences. Many of these arrests were considered impossible by the arresting officers without the help of MDT technology. 

 

The interior of a VPD cruiser in the late 1990s, showing off a later model MDT and radio terminal. Photo: P08472

In 1980, the VPD returned the twelve trial terminals back to Motorola, ordering replacement units that were manufactured by a Canadian company, as well as an additional 48 units to be installed in the remainder of the fleet. This order took the MDT from a proof of concept to an actual tool that would be used by the Vancouver Police for the next forty years. 

There’s no doubt that MDTs improved the efficiency of policing when they were introduced to the VPD. Today, modern machines like Panasonic’s “Toughbook” rugged laptops, have long since replaced purpose-built MDT computer terminals, but they use the same principles to ensure officers can get the information they need quickly to do their jobs well. 

While we don’t know which technological innovations linger on the horizon for the VPD, we do know that the innovations of the past have been well preserved within the confines of the historic Vancouver Police Museum. Visit our “Behind the Lines” traffic exhibit to see an MDT on display and learn about advancements in other policing technologies.

 

By Matteo Miceli

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