FEATURED IN TECHNOLOGY AND COMMUNICATIONS
This month, our emphasis is on information technology, which has dramatically impacted policing over the past quarter century. Computers are commonplace in patrol cars, and there s a phenomenal amount of information available on virtually any person, place or thing. And let s not forget that we now have the ability to analyze virtually any situation or group of information, such as a series of crimes or traffic accidents, to figure out how we can work more effectively.
For the past seven years, I ve focused on working with technology, from computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems and mobile computer environments to automatic license plate readers and wireless infrastructures. Along the way, I ve reminded myself that no matter how fancy the technology, law enforcement must still rely on solid people doing good police work to make the right things happen.
The old adage keep it simple has never been more important than when integrating sophisticated technology into one of the most complex jobs in the world. Think about this challenge for a moment keep it simple while integrating sophisticated technology into a complex task. Is that even possible? Absolutely, but we must make it happen.
It all comes down to this: We must insist on clearly established standards with data-sharing capability and discourage the continuation of proprietary processes. Fortunately, there are significant and commendable national efforts underway in the form of justice information standards. Look at the National Information Exchange Model at www.niem.gov, which continues to evolve. These standards came about largely because we had created the information equivalent of the Tower of Babel.
When I got into policing, calls were handwritten on time-stamped 3x5 cards and then filed away. It proved a little inefficient and challenging to research, but it worked and is still used in some small departments. Today, most agencies rely on CAD systems to handle their calls and gather the information documenting who, what, when and where data. Computerized systems do this extremely well and keep track of more information than any human being ever could.
The problem: Along the way, we failed to insist on systems that could easily share information. Vendors, understandably profit motivated, wanted to provide a product that clearly stood apart from the competition and developed customized and feature-rich programs that remained incompatible with other systems. The result: Though our desire is to be more efficient, we ve become woefully inefficient.
There are more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies around this country, and most of them use some type of record-keeping system that some well-intentioned administrator thought was the best for that agency. With few exceptions, this has created silos of information all over the country. In many cases, it takes a phone call, fax or personal visit to get information that should be available via electronic query. Even agencies located right next to each other or with overlapping jurisdictions often maintain totally separate and incompatible records systems. Certainly we can do better.
One of the most promising enforcement technologies, automatic license plate reading (LPR), is rapidly gaining acceptance in law enforcement. As products like LPR develop, it s critical we don t repeat the mistakes of the past. Practitioners must insist on efficient data standardization sources and support vendors that use this approach.
I ve had the opportunity to work with LPR industry officials and have found the vendors to be generally supportive of a collaborative effort towards developing a data standard. The National Institute of Justice has agreed to support this effort, dubbed Project Leopard. This is a big win for law enforcement and will ultimately be a great boon to public safety. In addition, it will ensure the developing technology has the opportunity to flourish because agencies won t be locked into using a single brand of LPR. They can choose what works best for a particular application and remain confident the data can be combined with that obtained from other agencies or future equipment.
For this to work, we must shift our culture and take a more proactive role when dealing with technology vendors. Next time you re making a tech purchasing decision, consider the compatibility factors: Can you use it with existing equipment? Will any data generated be in a common format so you can easily share it with other agencies? Will the data process comply with NIEM standards?
Vendors have repeatedly told me they ll build what the customers want and ask for. You re the customers. It s up to you to make compatibility and data standardization a priority. Dale Stockton, Editor