This issue will be distributed at the International Association of Chiefs of Police's (IACP) annual conference, so it'll be read by a lot of leaders who don't normally receive our magazine. I want to address an issue that really needs their attention, although this topic is pertinent to any decision maker.
It's time to make a significant change in our fundamental methods of policing the ways we protect and serve. Regardless of your location or agency size, this column is aimed squarely at you, especially if you have uniformed officers.
For well over 100 years, we've been policing in a manner that boils down to handling calls and looking for bad guys. In most agencies, call-handling gets a disproportionate amount of time, especially when you consider the paperwork, and randomly looking for bad guys seldom yields significant results. In essence, we're squandering precious and expensive public safety resources.
Let's address call handling. Far too many agencies have turned their cops into data-entry clerks in an effort to effectively gather crime data. In most agencies, when an officer handles a call, they end up documenting the information on some type of computer (in-car or at the station). The report is usually full of neat little data elements that are useful for crime analysis but go way beyond the essential crime elements.
Often these efforts are subsequently repeated by data-entry clerks who validate the information before input into a records system. Although a few agencies have dropped this last step because of the officer's efforts, we can accomplish information gathering much more efficiently by simply assigning tasks to those with appropriate skill sets.
Here's the approach: When the initial call comes in, the call-taker actually initiates the reporting process by entering information that begins the report. As long as it's not a crime in progress, the caller is then told that a report-taker will be coming on the line to gather additional information. The report-taker is a data-entry clerk trained to follow the report format and use high-speed keyboarding skills.
The resulting info will be sent to the responding officer who will now have full knowledge of what's been reported. The officer will then complete two essential tasks: 1) Confirm a crime has occurred, and 2) look for and gather evidence. Thus, the officer's report-writing responsibilities are dramatically reduced, only requiring the addition of information provided by the on-scene investigation.
If desired, on-scene reporting and evidence work can be done by a community-service officer trained in these specific tasks. In many agencies, this restructuring and reordering of tasks will require little or no personnel increase but will result in a net gain of potential patrol time.
Whether or not you use the above suggestion, there's also a significant likelihood you can dramatically improve the manner in which officers use their patrol time to look for bad guys. Most agencies use what can best be described as randomized patrol officers drive when and where they want within their area of responsibility. If properly utilized, however, technology can move us into a far more efficient mode of proactively targeting evolving crime hotspots.
Not only does the call taking and data-entry strategy provide additional officer time, it can result in close to real-time crime awareness. With immediate entry of the call into the reporting system, officers can receive timely information based on trend and call-volume analysis. And I feel obligated to point out that incident documentation will probably improve because officers won't be tempted to kiss-off minor reports, giving us a better idea of our true crime and activity picture.
Consider this analogy: Our traditional method of policing is like a fisherman heading out without knowing where the fish are. The method I described above gives fishermen information about where the fish are and what they're doing, allowing the angler to direct their efforts squarely at areas most likely to yield results.
Don't be locked into inefficiency by tradition. Empower your troops with information that's readily available. Most departments have technology capable of helping you find the fish. It's time to use it.
As mentioned in the print version of this editor's note, this topic was just too important and too multi-faceted to fit on the one page allocated in our magazine. So, here is the rest of the story:
Technology , if properly used, can take us firmly into 21st century policing. Randomized patrol and delayed reaction policing should have been left behind long ago. Law officers are much too valuable a resource to be used without specific and focused information that puts them on top of crime as it is happening. And cops should not be reduced to glorified data entry clerks because of some well-intentioned but misinformed manager's decision to use a new fangled report writing tool. We really need to focus on utilizing the strengths and inherent skills of our personnel. Having street cops or detectives doing data entry is the ultimate square peg in a round hole effort; they just aren't programmed that way.
When I was tasked with researching and rolling out a major tech effort, I did a lot of due diligence by checking with other departments to see what worked and what didn't. (I like learning from the lessons of others when possible.) Time and again, I found that agencies that tried to implement automated field reporting (a nice way of saying that cops are entering all the requisite statistical elements) had experienced some real challenges. Efficiency went way down, report writing times increased, the accuracy often suffered and morale often dipped. There were even cases where very expensive tech efforts were scrapped and departments reverted to their previous systems.
The original concept seemed to have merit. After all, the beat officer was headed to the call so he or she might as well gather all of those neat little details that provide lots of statistical fodder for further analysis, right? Well, sometimes attempts at efficiency are not necessarily effective in real life. Consider this analogy: You have a plumber at your home to fix some serious plumbing problems and, while the work is being done, you notice that your lawn and hedges are terribly overgrown. Since you've already got this guy at your house, why not get the lawn mown and the hedges trimmed? Hmmm, that would be a pretty ineffective use of a skilled and expensive resource, wouldn't it? Not to mention the fact that your hedges might end up looking a little lopsided.
The key is to obtain the stat info on the front end, when the call comes in, by transferring the call over to a trained clerk who can get the information quickly, accurately and then electronically make it part of the call record. The officer can then concentrate on the core elements of contact, confirmation, crime investigation and, if time permits, canvass.
If properly executed, officers might actually have an opportunity to conduct a little meaningful follow-up and engage in crook catching instead of tackling check boxes and pull down menus that never seem to have all the needed choices.
There's another very important aspect to using officer resources more effectively and here's where technology can play a really important role. That's right, after bashing the inefficient use of technology, I'm advocating the use of tech and, surprise I'm recommending that we dump one of the most traditional of policing practices - randomized patrol. In most agencies around the country, we go through a routine that has changed little during the last century: A supervisor reads the logs; cops walk out of the briefing room, get in their cars and drive around in their assigned area. While on patrol, they handle calls and presumably try to interrupt crimes in progress. Unfortunately, this just doesn't happen. For you skeptics, try this: Next time you're at a gathering of experienced cops, ask them how many have interrupted a true crime in progress based solely on their own observations. I have tried this many times, often with people who have spent ten to twenty years in patrol, and the answers always range from zero to two. Think about that, twenty years of pushing a patrol car around looking for bad guys and the success rate is almost non-existent. It's not that we're bad at our job, it's that we don't have the right tool for the job. What we really need is real-time information so we can deploy our resources right on top of crime.
Although computer aided dispatch programs do a pretty good job of managing the dispatch process, virtually none of them actually give us the information we need to deploy where and when the activity is developing. If properly tweaked, technology is capable of supplying actionable intelligence based on analysis of incoming data and the monitoring of call volume. Systems should provide advance notification as problematic precursors occur, much like the weather center provides advance warning when conditions form that might cause a tornado or severe thunderstorm. It's not an absolute but it's a lot better than driving around hoping to stumble across an unlucky felon at a specific moment in time.
Patrol deployment and tactics should be fluid and driven by incoming information. Much like modern battlefield commanders, patrol supervisors should have the tools and authority to shift resources on the fly and address problems as they develop. Uniformed resources are just too valuable and specialized to waste them in efforts that are so minimally effective.
Dale Stockton, Editor