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By Danielle Samaniego
CONTRA COSTA TIMES via Knight Ridder

The long arm of the law will soon stretch across the city at the touch of a keyboard.

High speed "Wi-Fi" wireless Internet access is going up around town for law enforcement use, bringing instant access to squad cars to pull up information like rap sheets and mugshots. Pleasant Hill struck a deal with GCS Technologies of Austin, Texas, making it the first city to jumpstart a system that authorities hope will be used throughout Contra Costa County.

"Right now we don't have the ability to send photos or videos of suspects ... there's a lot of things you can do with this technology that you can't right now," said James Ziegelman, Pleasant Hill's network manager.

Six to seven squad cars are on the streets at any one time in the city and will have access to "video, mug shots, shared technology and inter-operability," Ziegelman said. "It offers everything from the office in the squad car. That's the entire goal."

If it's a success, the Contra Costa County Sheriff's and Fire departments as well as other cities such as Concord will soon join in. That would allow the agencies to share the same database when looking up suspect information. Extra security measures like firewalls and necessary software would prevent anyone outside of the law from tapping into the database or using the Wi-Fi for free.

About 75 percent of Pleasant Hill will be wired by next month, Ziegelman said. The first phase cost $150,000 and it's not clear where the estimated $148,000 will come from for the next phase, he said. Still, the system is expected to be complete within a year, expanding Wi-Fi services to city employees on the field needing quick access to documents.

With that kind of equipment in place, Pleasant Hill would be able to offer Wi-Fi to the public if it wished. City officials are already mulling over the idea, but the City Council would have to approve it first.

"Once we have coverage for the city and once the public safety aspect is running smoothly, then we can decide whether the City Council wants to make it citywide," said Mike Ramsey, Pleasant Hill city manager. "And if they do, do they want to do that for a fee and recover costs or simply as a public service and allow folks to sign on without a fee? These are conversations we'll have to have, but it's months away."

Those are conversations some Bay Area cities are already having.

San Francisco is planning to offer Wi-Fi citywide, but the move is stirring up telecommunication service providers who could stand to lose money. In San Ramon, officials have looked into the feasibility and risks of offering similar access, but no project is on the horizon yet.

At this point, Pleasant Hill and the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Department are only concerned about how the technology will apply to public safety.

"If it goes as well as we think it will, we will be expanding it to all the station houses, including the Valley, the Delta and Richmond as well as downtown Martinez and the Martinez detention facility," said Terry Betts, communication systems manager for the county sheriff's office.

"The advantage to this is it's all standards-based, so our cars will be able to roam through Pleasant Hill and their stations to get to these databases," Betts said. "It allows the high-speed downloads that we direly need in vehicles today."
 
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