Photo: Mark W. Clark
For all the user-friendly, humane, low-cost, collateral-safe alternatives that have been developed to improve it, the conventional mousetrap remains commercially viable decades after the old adage of building a better one began making the rounds. So you might reasonably wonder where all those mousetrap inventors have been beating a path to. Could it be that large segments of humankind have perhaps not been waiting with bated breath for the next big thing in rodent eradication? If the mindset of mousetrap consumers is similar to some in law enforcement, the answer might well be yes.
That mindset, if not defensible, is at least understandable. Routinely exposed to "That's the way it's always been done" assertions and "Don't rock the boat" caveats, would-be change agents within the profession are not wanting for inhibiting distractions when it comes to deliberating over some new protocol or tool. Sometimes, established protocol is still around for a very good reason: Like the ancient mousetrap, it works. And when it comes to newer machinations, who needs the self-inflicted trauma of Wile E. Coyote? Leave it to some other crash test dummy reflects the prevailing wisdom.
Yet the past decade has seen risk management professionals and gurus exploiting modern technology with growing enthusiasm. If the fruit is often of the low-hanging variety, the seeds are clearly there for even greater changes to come. In some cases, streamlining is the goal; in others, it is but an ancillary benefit. In all instances, new technology and modern practices are saving wear and tear on everything from budgets to personnel. In an era of doing more with less, it just makes sense.
Deployment and Communications
You can't get there from here—at least, not without knowing where you're going.
Today's field personnel have a better idea of not only where they're going, but what they're going to face when they get there, be it their radio car assignment for the month or the next call. Scheduling matrices optimize field deployments and GPS systems afford navigational safeguards to ensure that officers reach their destinations quickly and safely. Increasingly, they know where other units are, minimizing the likelihood of one of the deadliest aspects of emergency driving: blue-on-blue traffic collisions. With dispatchers also knowing where field units are situated at a given moment, those closest to problem locations can be assigned without tying up radio frequencies with transmissions of varying estimated ETAs.
Once on scene, officers are no longer tethered to their car antennae and obligated to face the tower just to reach base. This is thanks to the deployment of 800 MHz radios. As beneficiary cousins to Gordon Moore's maxim on the acceleration of microprocessor speeds, radio batteries are smaller and capable of lasting an entire shift—and then some. And the roll-out of 800 MHz radios means that the signal carries much further and the radios are much more capable.
"On the upside, each officer is now identified by dispatch by his or her radio," notes Mike Cochran, chief of the Hanahan (S.C.) Police Department. "On the down side, officers can no longer key up and make funny sounds without being identified."
When it comes to large scale operations, such as those revolving around missing children, disasters, or outstanding suspects, coordinating resources is being streamlined on multiple fronts. Door-to-door notifications or PA-assisted navigations of neighborhood streets in patrol cars are largely things of the past as area residents can be alerted simultaneously through a variety of emergency notification systems. Messages sent from jurisdictional smartphones are deliverable to other smartphones, as well as desk phones, overhead paging systems, digital signage, and more. Cloud-based broadcast services permit images, text, and pre-recorded audio notifications to be sent to mobile devices running iOS or Android systems. Such technological advancements permit field resources to commit themselves to the problems at hand instead of peripheral issues.
Increasingly, that communication works both ways. Police agencies advised of a speeding problem can deploy speed measurement devices to assess the magnitude of the problem. Once the data is in, officers can be deployed specifically when the chronic violators are on the road. And though the sight of a black-and-white may still instill instant behavior modification, officers have to monitor traffic intersections with diminishing frequency as photo enforcement systems automatically issue red light violations and/or speeding summons. For those enduring the personal touch, traffic data collection devices have made traffic enforcement a lot easier. With a swipe of a driver's license, citation fields are immediately populated with the subject's personal data and the copy given to the motorist seconds later. The advantages don't end there.
"I may be in three or four counties in a given shift," notes Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources' Rich Waite. "Using the MDT I can transmit citations electronically to the courthouse, and don't have to fool around with mailing paper copies. Plus, they don't 'disappear' in the mail anymore."
While traffic and other citations may never be appreciated by their recipients, might the appreciably shortened period of detention result in a lessening of frayed nerves and, therefore, fewer frivolous complaints? Perhaps.
Documentation and Reporting
A maxim of law enforcement is that the first time something happens is when it's documented and that documentation has obligated generations of law enforcement personnel to episodes of sedentary confinement and carpal tunnel flare-ups from spending long hours at a keyboard. Today, ergonomic friendly devices spare the hands from needlessly repetitive motions and the eyes of others from having to decipher indecipherable citations.
Such devices include voice-to-text transcription technologies. Speech recognition software allows officers to dictate their reports and have them simultaneously transcribed faster than most people type and with up to 99% accuracy. And whereas a single incident in years past may have entailed multiple versions of the same narrative to be drafted by hand, the ability for data and narratives to be seamlessly populated in multiple fields obviates the need for such redundancy. Less time documenting crime reports means more time doing something about them.
Perhaps the greatest assets to field investigators are the body-worn cameras they wear with increasing frequency. The availability of start-to-finish video documentation immediately obviates required supplemental documentation, including the need to transcribe the verbal accounts of witnesses whose perspectives of the incident roughly mirror what has been captured by the camera.
Body-worn cameras also allow supervisors in the office to monitor evolving situations in the field, more effectively sending resources where they are needed most. Videos captured in the field are also seamlessly uploaded to secure servers at the station, making storage and retrieval of video evidence easier than ever.
Software and Apps
The use of computers has long been an integral component of police dispatch systems. With the use of laptop computers in patrol cars and sophisticated computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems, no longer do officers have to remember what dispatch tells them, as all of the information is on their laptop's CAD screen. And they don't have to figure out why someone looks familiar, as they can make an inquiry to the Master Name Index of their CAD or records management system (RMS) to see how many times a person has been in contact with officers from their agency. Some areas of the country are linking into statewide databases, as well, further breaking down the barriers of data integration. Interoperability is a key component here, allowing law enforcement agencies to share information with one another.
"Having computer and Internet access in the field has made a world of difference in wildlife enforcement," says Waite. "Instead of arbitrarily picking a vehicle and hoping it might lead to a case, we can run license plates, the license status of the drivers, whether they have already checked in their quota limits, etc. It's far from foolproof, but it helps quite a bit on picking a vehicle to sit on to wait for hunters to come out."
Of course such systems are also vital in urban law enforcement. "LASD and LAPD can search each other's crime database and field incidents, citations, arrest, crime report data by accessing Palantir and Coplink programs," says LAPD's Andre BeLotto. "Even license plate readers can be accessed to track vehicles by license plates and locations. For a county of 14 million, it's not bad information sharing."
Police also have access to online databases maintained by pawn shops. As pawn shops catalog merchandise that they receive, police can access the databases to check for stolen property, saving them valuable time and energy traveling from store to store to investigate the activities of criminals.
Additional valuable information for officers can be found using a variety of law enforcement-related apps on smartphones and iPads. DroidLaw allows officers to download and search through state penal codes and Supreme Court case studies. Gone are the days of lugging around code books. The U.S. Cop app contains training articles and case files conveniently sorted by subjects like traffic, DUI, and drugs. Having such a wealth of information at the fingertips of patrol officers coupled with improved report writing tools keeps them in the field and more mobile and productive.
A variety of language translation apps allow officers to look up key phrases or have entire conversations translated into other languages.
"Google Translate is probably the most incredible application ever made," says Cochran. "Officers can now speak with people in more languages than one cares to count without having to call the language line. Officers can now communicate and serve their diverse communities even easier."
Some agencies have developed their own apps, giving the communities they serve timely notifications of both emergent and non-emergent situations. Investigative databases consolidate multiple agencies' files and develop searchable criteria that can link conventionally disparate problems (e.g., sex crimes and property thefts) to single suspects.
Booking and Administration
With the increased civilianization of many patrol and custody responsibilities, community service officers and custodial assistants are handling aspects of the job that in the past would have eaten up substantial portions of an officer's shift. Less time is spent booking and fingerprinting prisoners; more time is spent doing proactive police work instead of documenting non-workable reports.
From a command level, proficiency with a variety of computer software is a must. "Excel has made budgeting a breeze. When I first got involved in budgeting about 10 years ago, my chief was from the 'pencil and paper generation,'" says Cochran. "I would watch all the old timers go into the conference room, one with an adding machine, and it would take them weeks to do a budget. That year I set up an Excel spreadsheet for the agency, one with linked worksheets to budget codes and all that. It was slick. The next year I went into budgeting with them and took a projector. It took a day and a half and the budget was done. For the rest of my tenure there, budgeting was part of my job function."
Video Conferencing and Training
With today's video conferencing technology, it's no longer necessary for administrators to gather together for hours in stuffy conference rooms. A laptop with a built-in camera and an Internet connection can connect officers and administrators from miles away. They can view and edit documents in real time and move on to their next assignment.
The same video conferencing system can also facilitate training without having to spend the department's limited resources on travel.
The sight of teens texting messages at crime scenes inspired Boston's Police Commissioner Ed Davis to join forces with an advertising agency that set up the department with the software needed to develop a "text-to-tip" line. This enhanced familiarity with the department not only encouraged people to text tips from outside of Boston, but may have contributed to an ensuing increase in the volume of calls to the department's 1-800 tip line.
Virtual ridealongs, typically conducted by a public information officer riding shotgun with a media-savvy patrol officer, allow the public to interact with officers in real time as events unfold in the field. Using a variety of social media, including Twitter and Facebook, departments post both pre-scripted and spontaneous comments online, encouraging citizens to respond and engage in a group dialog. In March, more than 150 law enforcement agencies participated in a concerted virtual ridealong to bring attention to this new aspect of community policing. That day, Chief Dennis Burns from the Palo Alto (Calif.) Police Department was the first chief to take to the patrol car on his own virtual ridealong.
Law enforcement agencies have not gotten much of a toe-hold in podcasting, which can be used to edify the public on a variety of fronts, including their rights and responsibilities when detained, use-of-force policies, complaint procedures, and more.
Individually, these changes are saving money and lives. Collectively and in concert with one another, their synergy becomes a force multiplier.
Many of these new advances are also scalable so that even small agencies can implement them without the need for large influxes of capital or reliance on larger agencies.
As laudable as these changes are proving themselves to be, they represent only a small fraction of what is already technologically viable. Just imagine what things will be like when they become politically and fiscally viable, as well.
All of this tinkering with technology may not result in the world's most sophisticated mouse trap, but it will certainly lead to the apprehension of more of society's rodents.
Social Media Ridealongs