When the Great Recession struck in 2008, it dealt police a hard blow. State and city budgets were starved of tax revenues, and law enforcement staffing stagnated as a result. Layoffs, furloughs, unfilled positions — it all mounted as roughly a quarter of American cities, surveyed by the U.S. Department of Justice, reported cuts to public safety budgets.
Even though the recession has passed and the economy is recovering, law enforcement levels are more slowly making gains. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the 5 percent growth in police jobs is dramatically lower than the national average of 11 percent, from 2012 to 2022.
Despite this, technology may serve as support for police. California’s Palm Springs Police Department is piloting a new mobile app called SceneDoc that securely digitizes paperwork and slashes reporting time for incidents by more than 45 minutes. So much time is saved, and Palm Springs Sgt. William Hutchinson said that testing indicates the potential to put more police on the ground and keep current officers out longer — instead of bogged down in paperwork.
“The officers can just open up their iPad, open up the SceneDoc app, knock out the paperwork, and if someone needs a copy we can email it,” Hutchinson said.
SceneDoc is essentially an Evernote or Microsoft OneNote for law enforcement. It takes the roughly 50 to 60 paper forms officers are required to carry with them when they respond to incidents and populates them in a user-friendly mobile dashboard. Instead of just digital forms, however, the app embeds reports with recorded audio and video, and files the information in real time. District attorneys and detectives can review data and suggest corrections while officers are on scene, and each file modification is noted and time stamped.
There is also a feature in development that aims to allow officers the ability to scan drivers' licenses and have the information autofill in the necessary forms.
Hutchinson said that according to a study conducted by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, which previously deployed the app, the county saved $80,000 in paper costs alone in its first year, and about $800,000 in salary costs. Taking figures to heart, the Palm Springs Police Department will consider a full-scale deployment, with 100 licenses for its officers.
“We we’re looking to improve the efficiency of officers on the street, keep them on the street longer, on scene and off of scene quicker,” Hutchinson said, adding that on busy nights an officer can tally as many as 15 incidents.
And the work required for 15 incidents under the previous method is substantial — for Palm Springs, SceneDoc turned a seven-step process into a single step.
Previously officers would fill out necessary forms, drive to the station for filing and enter notes into a digital database; supervisors had to be sought for approvals, the records division processed and photocopied the documents and then files had to be sent to involved parties in a case; finally a courier finished the process by transporting mail bins of paper encyclopedia-sized case files to other departments.
The procedure was exasperating and yet all too common in police departments across the country.
“We’re rarely replacing competing technology; most of the time it’s old-fashioned forms and pencils,” said Alex Kottoor, SceneDoc's co-founder and CEO, who noted that SceneDoc was hatched in 2011 with the aid of fellow co-founder and CTO Adrian Bubalo.
Far removed from law enforcement, the startup began when the two were selling software and hardware to banks and insurance companies. Bubalo, who would coordinate deployments, observed that whenever technicians were sent to deploy or fix a problem, they’d always be grabbing mobile devices for documentation — photos, audio, video, etc.
“I guess being in the line of work that Adrian had been in for so many years, he thought, 'Why can’t you do that with a smartphone [for law enforcement]? Snap a picture, create some content and share it,'” Kottoor said.
The idea grew into a BlackBerry app that went through a year of iterations with the help of law enforcement experts. Kottoor now advertises the app as a one-of-a-kind cloud service, encrypted and compliant with stringent federal security requirements like those of the Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS).
SceneDoc, which is undergoing a third major update this year, is part of growing wave of new digital tools for law enforcement. Other popular police apps on the market are those like MobilePD, a civic engagement app piloted in San Francisco’s first Entrepreneur-in-Residence program for tech startups; the Code for America Web app AddressIQ that tracks and analyzes 911 superusers; and Incident Aware, an iOS app created by IBM and Apple that informs officers of best tactics and latest on-scene alerts.
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.