YORK -- Sgt. Keith Wills spotted a car with a cracked windshield. Its driver pulled into a gas station parking lot, and Wills slid in behind it. That was easy the part.
But was the car stolen? Was its registration expired? Was its driver wanted by police?
The eight-year patrol officer picked up his radio and read the tag number to a York Police Department dispatcher.
"Now, we have to wait," Wills said Friday from his patrol car. "It might take her three to four minutes to get it, or it might be right away, depending on the volume of phone calls she has."
The wait is typical for York's officers, but change is coming. A $233,825 federal technology grant from the U.S. Department of Justice will buy computers for the patrol unit's cruisers, meaning those delays should end soon.
York Police Chief Bill Mobley said 12 to 18 cars will be outfitted with the computers by the end of the year.
The effort has been embraced by York's officers.
"We will have instant access in our cars," Lt. Gary Messer said. "We will be able to verify information that's on the (computer) screen against driver's licenses without having to go over the radio to the dispatcher. We will have the same information ... in our cars."
Authorities will be able to check for things such as suspended or expired driver's licenses and stolen vehicles. They also will be able to check whether motorists have outstanding arrest warrants.
For now, York patrol officers rely on dispatchers for motorists' information.
"The problem is the dispatcher has to answer the phone and deal with the general public while trying to get the information we need," Messer said. "Sometimes, we don't get the information in a timely manner."
And that has consequences, he said.
"Sometimes, we have to release the motorist not knowing if his driver's license or vehicle registration is expired," Messer said. "We could have just released a driver whose license was suspended or a (motorist in a) stolen car because we didn't know."
Already in use
Other agencies, including the Rock Hill Police Department and the York County Sheriff's Office, use similar computer systems in their cars.
The Sheriff's Office uses them in more than 100 cars, including those driven by detectives and patrol, school resource and code enforcement officers, Sheriff Bruce Bryant said.
"When officers are in the field, they take complaints and send them back by computer," Bryant said. "It's a tremendous time saver."
Sgt. Phillip Jamison of the county's patrol division used to rely solely on dispatch, but he prefers his car-based computer.
"If we came up on an individual and we wanted to see if he was wanted locally or nationally, we had to call dispatch," Jamison said. "Now, I can pull that information myself."
In York, officers frequently have to leave patrol duties to complete paperwork, Mobley said.
That will change with the new computers, he said.
"The computers will allow officers out on patrol to do their reports in their cars and stay on patrol instead of coming to the office to do their reports," he said. "The computers will free them up from having to come to the station as much."
And there's at least one other advantage, Bryant said.
"When officers are looking for a particular individual, they can pull up a photograph of the individual before they arrive at the scene," he said. "This is a feature that keeps our officers safe."
Ready for change
Back on York's streets, Wills pulled up behind a van that displayed an out-of-state tag and no expiration date.
If he had the computer, "I could reach over and type in the tag number and tell if the van's stolen or if the driver's wanted," Wills said.
Instead, he followed the burgundy van, reached for his radio and called a dispatcher with the tag number.
"I'm excited about the computer," he said. "I'm anxious to see what it can do."