October 11, 2005 —
Police officers in the Los Angeles Police Department’s Southwest
Division typically spend the first 30 to 60 minutes of their shift
checking out all the equipment they need for a day’s work: shotguns,
tasers, hand-held radios, vehicle keys, citation books, PODDS (portable
officer data device systems), cell phones, you name it. The serial
number on each piece of equipment has to be jotted down longhand by a
“kit room” manager before the equipment is issued.
Engineering student Tomer Mor-Barak puts new barcode sticker on a police radio while Sergeant Tony O'Brien looks on.
The same thing goes at the end of the day. If something on
the inventory list is not checked in — a radio, set of keys or rifle —
the kit room manager may spend days, even weeks, tracking it down.
“We’d been looking for a way to streamline the inventory system for
several years, because the manual system was such a disaster,” said
Southwest Division Sergeant Tony O’Brien. “When we got our PODDS
in March 2004, it became a priority.”
They turned to the USC Viterbi School’s Engineering Writing Program, which coordinates
community-based service-learning projects to help engineering students
hone their communications skills. Serving the University
Park campus, the Southwest Division takes care of the USC campus,
covering an area of more than 13 square miles. It serves a
diverse population of more than 175,000 residents, including many USC
students and faculty.
Call for Proposals
Southwest Division Captain Nancy Lauer developed a request for
proposals in the fall semester 2004, with assistance from Stephen
Bucher, director of the Viterbi School Engineering Writing Program, to
solicit redesigns of her division’s equipment room.
Three groups of students in WRIT 340: Advanced Writing and
Communications for Engineers, addressed the inventory control problem
and made a number of recommendations, including a practical,
laser-based bar code and inventory control system, to remedy the
situation. The students included Tomer Mor-Barak, Amando Cope,
Taylor Fort, Sylvia Garciga, Maurice Khayat, Christopher Kolar,
Christopher Kradjian, Rodney Lim, Herman Malamud, Ian Topic and
Officer Lucia McKenzie checking out equipment at the Kit Room window.
The Southwest Division liked the recommendations and assigned
training officer Guido Merkens, a 10-year LAPD veteran, to oversee the
redesign. First he had to procure a personal computer to use with the
inventory control software and laser barcode scanner that was being
recommended. Once that was accomplished, the WRIT 340 engineering
students helped the division apply for a $1,500 grant from the USC
Neighborhood Outreach program to buy the rest of the equipment.
Good Neighbors Campaign funded the proposal because the project was
bound to have an impact on public safety in the surrounding community
and on the USC campus,” said James Moore, chairman of the Daniel J.
Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, who is
overseeing this year’s Good Neighbors Campaign for the Viterbi School
of Engineering. “Projects like these are superb examples of why
the Good Neighbors Campaign is so important.”
This summer, the students installed the system.
“Although many of the non-profit groups that WRIT 340 students have
worked with in the past received grants and implemented student
recommendations, this was the first project in which the students were
directly involved from inception through implementation,” said David
Woollard, a Viterbi School computer science graduate student and Mellon
Foundation mentor for the Engineering Writing Program, who has just
finished installing the system with former WRIT 340 students.
“We think a fast equipment checkout time should have a direct impact on
the amount of time officers spend patrolling this area, which includes
the University Park neighborhood,” he said.
Wasp 300 Barcode Kit
The system they chose was a Wasp 300 Barcode Kit, which is commercially
available and widely used for similar applications, said Tomer
Mor-Barak, a senior in the Viterbi School majoring in interactive
entertainment. “We chose it because it is simple to use, maintain
Hardware consisted of a laser scanner to capture and decode barcodes, a
barcode label printer, tracking software and barcode stickers, which
come in a range of shapes and sizes to ensure that they can be attached
to any piece of equipment. The Southwest Division’s PC and
handheld scanner were placed in the middle of the equipment room, near
the checkout window. The printer, which has special thermal
printing capabilities, allowed students to create barcode stickers that
would withstand a great deal of wear and tear, lasting up to 12
Students spent two weeks in August and September tagging equipment with
barcodes and scanning them into the computer. Once each barcode
was scanned, a student would write a brief description of the item and
enter it into the computer. That linked each tag with a record of
the item in the computer.
Each officer was assigned a personal barcode equipment number, which
was affixed to his or her ID card. The information was scanned
into the computer to link the individual with his or her barcode
Police radios are just one of many items that must be checked out to between 25 and 30 officers at the beginning of each shift.
“The scanner is a combination handheld computer and laser scanner,
with a scanning distance of 1-to-2 feet,” said Mor-Barak. “When
the item is scanned, you can see right on the scanner a confirmation of
what item is being checked in or out.”
Once the system is up and running, it will be able not only to keep
track of the equipment but allow the officers to perform daily
equipment audits without printing out long inventory lists. “We
have set up a simple management program with the software that will let
the kit manager sort items by category if they want,” Mor-Barak said.
Beyond its obvious benefits, the new barcode system will give the
Southwest Division a better system of monitoring equipment that
requires extensive maintenance, such as bean-bag guns. That
equipment was not inventoried when it left the precinct for routine
maintenance under the manual record-keeping system.
“Once we get everything bar-coded, and get the people trained properly
to use the inventory system, I bet we’ll see a reduction in the amount
of time it takes to check out equipment and get officers into the field
faster,” said Sergeant O’Brien. “I bet we won’t lose as much equipment
Over time, the barcode system could be upgraded to radio frequency
identification (RFID) tags, a faster, more efficient equipment tracking
system to install and maintain, albeit more expensive. The
Engineering Writing Program students recommended that the division
consider an up-and-coming system, called Wheels of Zeus, a two-way,
point-to-point wireless network that allows real-time tracking and
notification of missing equipment from a computer with a broadband
Internet service. That system is not yet on the market.
David Woollard holding a taser rifle that he will barcode and
inventory at the Los Angeles Police Department's Southwest Division.
“If this system is used at the LAPD, it would allow them to track and
locate their equipment at all times,” the students reported in their
proposal to the Southwest Division. “They could also locate
officers in the field, using a GPS receiver that would be installed at
the precinct. If an officer was involved in a shootout and got
separated from his radio, the GPS receiver could locate
The Engineering Writing Program has been conducting project-based
service learning in the form of requests for proposals from non-profit
groups in the Los Angeles area for more than six years. Program
director Stephen Bucher is a member of the Community-Based Learning
Collaborative (http://cblc.usc.edu), a diverse group of faculty, staff,
students and community partners who share an interest in furthering the
university's commitment to integrating public service into research and
The response to service learning — from community organizations and students alike — has been favorable.
"This was a very rewarding way of applying my skills to a real world problem," Mor-Barak said.
He's not the only student who would say that.