It takes us about three minutes to write out a citation at our agency. For some, especially rookies, it takes longer. In the battle to bring better technology to the patrol car, few places are more target-rich than citation production.
This month we’re going to look at digital citation tools (DCT) and, rather than recommending any particular one—there are many products available, some absolutely excellent—we’re going to try to focus on the value proposition. These aren’t simple commodities: You can’t just run out and buy them off the shelf. There’s customization required, such as integration with existing records and court and state DMV systems, as well as the simple task of making the DCT capture all the fields your current paper citation does.
Similarly, an agency must understand they’re in for in terms of what they get and the short-, medium- and long-term costs. The benefits of DCT can’t be judged solely on the time saved and efficiency gained or the reduction in mistakes and processing time. They can extend to better information to the courts, the RMS and the crime and intelligence analysis units. The data they produce can make statistical analysis simpler and more inclusive—a query from an intelligence commander of, “Compare citations issued to post-2006 red two-door cars to post-2006 blue or green or black four-door cars or SUVs on Fridays between 6 pm and midnight,” sounds a lot less insane if your DCT is capturing both DMV and driver license information on every stop.
All this is great, but as with hand-written tickets, the devil is in the input. Once again, GIGO—garbage in, garbage out—and garbage can come from many sources.
First, let’s look at the handheld units themselves. You’ll want something big enough to tolerate dexterously challenged (and occasionally, well, fat) cop fingers and a screen large and contrasted enough to cater not just to cop eyes, but to those of the general public (“Sign where?”). But the whole package has to be small enough to not cause offier safety issues.
It’s got to be patrol tough, standing up to extreme heat, cold, drops, smacks, tosses, skirmishes and coffee spills. (So everyone who read the first part of this paragraph and thought, “I got it! We need an iPad citation app!” can just stow that idea right now, thank you very much). They need to take pictures, scan a range of magnetic stripe sources and barcodes, and allow writing and signatures from a stylus entry on the touch screen (if a signature is required in your state.) They need to pair with a similarly rugged, high-functioning, very small printer capable of producing clear, easy-to-read tickets that don’t curl up like a ’90s-era fax and roll under the front seat or fade after 18 minutes in the glove-box.
Oh, and we’d like these units to be as cheap as possible, please, because, after all, we’re in law enforcement, and we don’t have the budget for it to begin with.
These two items—the handset and the printer—occupy the lion’s share of time when vendors and agencies speak. They’re very important conversations to have—ask any officer who usues DCTs and they’ll tell you that the challenges of making these things work on a daily basis come down to input—and not just keyboard entry.
The condition of the magnetic data strip or barcode on driver’s license and ID cards are on a continuum that ranges from “Perfect!” to “There’s an interesting story behind how my license got like that.” The backup when the swipe doesn’t work, which happens much more frequently than many vendors would like, is manual entry. This adds time to the process, especially if the keyboard is silly or requires a stylus or the user interface is bad, slow, unintuitive or temperamental.
We can justify easily the cost of even an “expensive” handset/printer combo that meets the above needs well. But we believe agencies should look beyond commonly cited metrics of cost justification, like the number of minutes saved on the average traffic stop. Those are important inputs, of course; if your agency runs traffic even modestly aggressively this is almost always a pleasantly surprising large number.
But to us, the real, long-term value to an agency is cleaner, deeper and more consistent data. In our estimation, vendors who focus their energies on post-production elements have their priorities right.
The Value of Citations
Citations alone are worth a bit of money to an agency, but not as much as the public thinks. Healthy cuts of the face value go to the state and county government, meaning that the ultimate share of the revenue pie basically offsets the cost of the exercise. (Tell that to the furious motorist: we laugh lustily at the “quota” accusation regularly.) But the revenues generated by citations improve as efficiencies in the process improve. DCTs let you do that.
An important criteria for any DCT vendor should be its ability to integrate with your current court software. Unless you’re looking to change the entire way you and your court clerks do business—and you’re not—we need to get this citation stuff out of the DCT and into your court software.
That’s why we recommend your conversation with the DCT vendor start there: Do you integrate with our court software? How? How often have you worked with this particular combination, and which agencies can we speak with about how it’s worked out for them?
Speaking of integration, how do we get the information out of your system for our own records, our own analysis? Are you using a proprietary database? Or can we get this as a SQL or CSV dump? We don’t want to be locked in to you to get access to our data. (If you don’t know what some of the terms in this article mean, make sure you have an IT person on your review team. Like many projects involving tech, you need to engage them early and often.)
What’s the process when we have to make a change to the input form or output printout? Is this a professional services engagement, and how much should it cost? What if you get acquired by another firm, or go out of business—are we stuck? Have you used open standards so we can migrate to another system in the future?
The real power of DCT is the information: information obtained electronically from the registration certificate is simply better, more accurate and more complete than that entered by an officer looking at the vehicle; an image of the driver in the car is a wonderful tool; the information from the magnetic data strip of a credential is more completely and accurately rendered on a citation with lower chances of transposition, misreading or omission—we can go on and on. Along with this comes the obvious benefit of having to bounce back fewer citations than before.
Less obvious is the value of creation and maintenance of an ever-increasing corpus of data about people whom your officers have contacted. To leverage this information, some integration with records management is critical. So ask the same questions about integration with RMS as those about the court system.
Important: Speak with your crime analyst about their wish-list. When it comes to using data effectively, they’re pretty much the best bet you have to recognize the potential of a better way to capture data. Ask them what they would like to see. Can we, for example, mash up the data we get from DCT with that we get from LPR cameras? Can we make correlations about who was where and when based on this? Your analyst will have ideas. Use them to guide your decisions.
If you have a warrant department, speak with your longest-serving warrants people about what drives them nuts. You’re likely to discover it’s bad and missing data delivered too late. The whole GIGO thing affects warrants perhaps most profoundly, and everyone will appreciate more efficiency here. From the judges who sign them to the officers who serve them and even to the people to whom they’re served (if they’re served faster, fines, interest and penalties are lower), everyone in the lifecycle of a traffic-based warrant benefits from greater efficiency.
If you have a grant-writing person on staff, speak with them about this too. What data could help them justify grants to make your community safer? We’re willing to bet you that information about speeding and other traffic infractions is directly tied to this, and your grants person can help you think this through. All too often, vendors think of ways to help you get grants that will help you buy their product and too few think of ways their products can help you more specifically justify grants.
There’s one more big factor: how your court gets along with the system. Your court clerks have different criteria in judging the efficacy. This could include issues of employment of data-entry clerks. It’s our belief that those clerks will still be needed, but for different tasks than before. Discuss it. The PD and court must ultimately be happy with the software features, but each have independent, and sometimes competing, criteria for measuring “success.”
You must view the DCT not as merely a time-saver, but as a more efficient and effective data collection and court document creation tool. If you do, all the efficiencies around saving time in the field can truly be icing on the cake.