The Los Angeles Police Department on Tuesday announced plans to pursue improvements to the city's 911 system, saying callers in the future will be able to use text messages, photos and even video from cellphones to seek emergency assistance.
Officials told the L.A. Police Commission that they were beginning to seek money to install the new system, which they believe could aid crime fighting by providing callers with alternative ways to alert authorities and provide evidence swiftly.
"Sometimes a person calls 911 and says they just saw a robbery and they've snapped an image or video of the getaway car," said Sgt. Lee Sands. "We want to find a way to get that to officers in the field as fast as possible."
Officials said there are times when it's easier for someone in need to text for help rather than call. "There are circumstances when a person during a kidnap or robbery can't talk to an operator but they can message them," Sands said.
The new system speaks to the rise of the text message as a form of communication -- especially among younger cellphone users -- as well as the proliferation of phones with cameras.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in January announced that New York would make similar efforts to allow the public to help catch criminals.
But allowing people to send photos and text messages to the 911 call center also raises the danger of data overload for LAPD workers.
The center handles more than 2 million calls a year. And over the last decade, officials in L.A. and elsewhere have been educating residents to only call 911 for actually emergencies (311 lines have been created in many areas for less urgent calls).
Tim Riley, the LAPD's chief information officer, said the potential for data overload is forcing the department to go slowly.
Initially, the LAPD will start a stopgap system that allows the department to get photos and video from cellphone calls only from callers it solicits. The operator would send a text message to the caller's phone, and images would be attached to the reply to the operator.
Councilman Eric Garcetti this week urged the LAPD and city Fire Department to install newly available software that allows operators to receive digital images from cellphones.
"Los Angeles should be at the cutting edge of using new technologies to improve public safety," Garcetti said Tuesday. "I'm pleased to see that the Police Commission agrees and wants to harness the increased connectivity of our city to help fight crime or to assist at accident scenes."
Police officials said they hope to have some pilot programs by the end of this year.
"This will eventually become a commonplace practice in policing," said Deputy Chief Charlie Beck. "This could be a real innovation."
Connecticut-based PowerPhone last year developed Incident Link Multimedia software, which allows cellphone photos and video to be delivered to 911 call centers. The technology is now being used in call centers in Colorado and Alaska.
LAPD Assistant Chief Sharon Papa said the first phase of the system -- soliciting photos from certain 911 callers -- could be up later this year. But it could take three years or more to complete the project. No price tag has yet been established.
The LAPD 911 centers only last year began handling wireless calls. Previously, all cellphone calls went to the California Highway Patrol, which rerouted city calls to the LAPD.
The LAPD is one of several departments nationwide seeking a technological edge over criminals. The department has security cameras in many areas of the city, electronic license plate readers on cruisers to find stolen vehicles and street cameras that relay images to police cars in the area.
LAPD officials believe their department would be the first in the state to use the technology to enhance 911 services beyond verbal communications.