In 2010, just as the recession’s wave of fiscal calamity was peaking, George Bascom and Todd Foglesong, from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, published a report, Making Policing More Affordable. They pointed out that public expenditures on policing had more than quadrupled between 1982 and 2006. But with city budget shortfalls opening up across the country, police departments and their chiefs, once used to ever-growing budgets, were now facing a new reality of cutbacks, layoffs and even outright mergers and consolidations of entire police departments with others. With federal subsidies disappearing (federal support for criminal justice assistance grant programs shrank by 43 percent between 2011 and 2013), thanks to a frugal Congress, police had few options.
With funding spigots turning off, law enforcement agencies must find ways to operate more affordably, according to Bascom and Foglesong. One obvious way is to use technology in more efficient ways. Being more efficient with technology also means being smarter.
One example can be found in Camden, N.J., a poverty-ridden, high-crime city of 77,000, located on the banks of the Delaware River, across from Philadelphia. Desperate to cut costs, the city disbanded its entire police force. The Camden County Police Department rehired most of the laid-off officers, and hired another 100 at much lower salaries and benefits, to create a consolidated regional police force. The move is considered highly controversial and certainly radical. While police departments in other jurisdictions have merged or consolidated to cut costs, none have gone down the path that Camden has taken.
Underpinning Camden’s radical plan is an effort to run a “smarter police” operation, according to Chief Scott Thomson. The concept that he and other police chiefs have adopted is to use technology as a “force multiplier” to give cops a leg-up on fighting crime. The Camden Police Department has set up a real-time tactical operational intelligence center that pulls together data from an array of cameras, gunshot location devices and automated license plate readers. Real-time data is fed back to the cops on the beat, giving them useful information when they respond to incidents. Even patrol car locations are tracked so officers can be deployed where they are most needed.
The situation in Camden certainly is unique and it’s too early to tell whether the force multiplier approach is making a dent in the crime rate (in the first 12 months of the new department, the city recorded 57 murders, down from 67 in 2012), but in some ways it crystallizes what’s happening to police departments across the country.
As city budgets start returning to normal, police departments have increased their investments in technology and the results are beginning to show. Robert Davis, director of research at the Police Executive Research Forum, said officers are becoming more professional in how they operate and that includes how they apply technology. “They are getting better at procuring technology that can deliver capabilities they didn’t have before,” he said.
As always, funding continues to be an issue. In May, the major law enforcement agencies sent a letter to the House and Senate Homeland Security Committee asking that the National Preparedness Grant Program reconsider a series of proposed changes that would reduce funding for terrorism prevention. A 2013 survey by the Institute of Justice found that 78 percent of law enforcement agencies had their grant funding cut since 2010 and 43 percent reported cuts of between 11 and 25 percent.
With new technologies emerging all the time and a new normal when it comes to funding, how should the police proceed? New technologies must be benchmarked, with metrics that forecast just what their impact will be on operations before they are fully implemented. Second, police departments need to set policies, especially around tools that gather data about individuals, such as video, to ensure that the civil liberties and privacy of law-abiding citizens is not compromised.
Ultimately, however, police can’t forget the fact that they are in the people business. The quality of policing depends on the experience and common sense of every officer. “It’s a very subjective business in many ways,” said Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation. “There has to be a balance between the technology and the cop. If you lose the human side to policing, then you lose the compassion that’s part of the job.”
What will be the next groundbreaking technology that will help law enforcement improve public safety while battling crime? This year, the Police Executive Research Forum published a survey of its members conducted to find out which emerging tech tools could bring fundamental changes to policing. Social media, license plate readers and video streaming from wearable and in-car cameras stood out as technologies that have either received wide acceptance already or show promise. But several other emerging technologies were also singled out for their potential to change police operations:
Also known as FirstNet, the proposed network was signed into law in 2012 with the mission to build, operate and maintain a nationwide wireless broadband, radio access network for public safety. The goal is to put an end to the interoperability and communications challenges that have occurred during exceptional and complex disasters, such as hurricanes, earthquakes and terrorist attacks. Participants include the federal government, all 50 states, six territories, local governments and approximately 5.4 million first responders. FirstNet estimates the cost for the network at $7 billion, with funds to be raised by the FCC’s spectrum auctions. FirstNet is expected to provide police officers with a technology platform that will help them solve crimes more quickly and efficiently, using a secure and reliable network that could enhance everything from video streaming to real-time crime centers. But concerns over cost, participants and local control could stand in the way of FirstNet’s mission.
One of the biggest shifts in how people communicate is the explosive growth in text messaging. Not surprisingly, the public is now demanding that they be able to text to 911 when there’s an emergency. Current 911 technology is extremely limited in terms of options when it comes to receiving emergency text messages. The answer: Next-generation 911 has features based on the latest technology that runs on Internet Protocol standards. NG 911 allows call centers to integrate not just text messages, but photos, video and other types of attachments, as well as scripted responses, so call takers don’t have to type out their messages to callers. New systems can also locate where the text message was sent from (dispatchers will still need to get a street address to verify the person’s location). But NG 911 isn’t cheap. The FCC estimates the cost of upgrading every call center in the country at nearly $3 billion.
Facilities that can gather vast amounts of crime-related data, such as arrest records, mug shots and warrant information, and then push it out to officers and investigators in the field, are expected to have an impact on crime investigations in the future, according to PERF. New York City and Houston have pioneered the concept of real-time crime centers. Analysts in the Houston Police Department’s crime center monitor social media during major incidents, sifting through feeds and sending relevant information to officers on their way to a crime in progress. Satellite imaging and mapping technology also can enhance the real-time data used in these crime centers.
While not a tool for the police, cybercrime has grown significantly in recent years. But many local law enforcement agencies are unsure of their role, in part because of jurisdictional issues. According to PERF, cybercrime is vastly underreported. Local police also have been slow to take on the challenge of cybercrime, which continues to grow in scope and sophistication. Police departments need to develop cybercrime expertise, as well as develop partnerships with other local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to expand their understanding of the crime. At the same time, police departments need training to understand how to respond to victims and to provide others with information on how to protect themselves.
With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology.