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Can Tech Boost Police Morale, Hiring and Retention?

Early intervention software is getting more sophisticated, with wellness dashboards and other features. In this era of heightened police-community tension, can these tools make the job both more accountable and attractive?

Five police officers standing in a circle talking outside of a building.
Washington, D.C., has more police per capita than any other U.S. city.
David Kidd/Governing
Burnout, stress, frustration, loneliness, exhaustion — police officers are intimately familiar with such problems, either through their own or their coworkers’ experiences. Software, though, is getting better at helping departments not only identify personnel who might need extra attention but getting them help.

And among some law enforcement leaders and public safety vendors, optimism is growing that such tools could help police agencies with hiring and retention, two growing challenges in public safety.

Early intervention software (EIS), the catch-all term for the technology, is nothing new. Darrel Stephens, whose half-century career included nine years as chief of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina, told Government Technology that almost two decades ago he put one in place for that agency.

Such tools function as an early warning system for officers who might, say, be too aggressive or engage in racial profiling, or who are at risk of job-related mental health issues — or workers who simply need a vacation. The tech can also highlight officers who deserve commendation.

“We could not find off-the-shelf software capable of meeting the needs of a large department so we developed our own, essentially tracking six variables against a threshold for intervention,” he said. “It was state of the art at the time but still not adequate.”

Since then, the technology has significantly improved and become more streamlined, with various gov tech firms — including giant Tyler Technologies — selling their own versions. Detroit used that product to improve its police work and image after facing a consent decree from the U.S. Department of Justice, along with $124 million in payouts from misconduct lawsuits over 13 years.

“[EIS] can improve operations and public trust because it will reduce police misconduct and the time required for administrative investigations and discipline,” Stephens said. “The continuing challenge, though, is the back-end ability to provide needed services to officers that have been identified.”

As more vendors get into the EIS business, cities are investing meaningful sums to deploy the technology.

Officials in Berkeley, Calif., for instance, want to spend $100,000 toward building its own early intervention and risk management system, part of a broader effort at police reform in that famous college town following the death of George Floyd and the unrest that ensued.

Other departments are buying off-the-shelf tools from public safety tech vendors.

That’s the case in Livermore, another Bay Area municipality, where in recent months the department began using a tool from Peregrine that includes a digital officer wellness dashboard — not only an example of the evolution of EIS technology but of how dashboards are becoming a bigger part of the larger public safety world.

As Livermore Police Department Capt. John Reynolds told Government Technology, the tool enables the department to track calls in real time, and break down to the type of call that specific officers are handling, such as violent crimes or suicides.

The tech allows officials to compare calls for specific periods of time — say, 30 days — and, combined with supervisors’ observations and intuition, help spot potential red flags. Sometimes the knot might be as simple as an officer not having enough time off, a common problem as departments struggle with low staffing levels.

“It’s a good way of tracking what officers are exposed to,” Reynolds said. “It gives you a snapshot. I would prefer not to have to sift through pages or spreadsheets of data.”

When the system spots a potential issue, the next step is “initiating conversations with employees, like a check-in,” he said.

That can lead to a referral to the employee assistance program, via which Livermore officers can get up to 33 visits per year with a mental health professional.

With time, success could be measured through a variety of metrics, he said, including a reduction in sick calls, or counting mental wellness-related claims. Less tangible but still important signs — things that officers and their supervisors tend to sense — could include less burnout and boosted morale.

The past two or three years has brought an “uptick” in what Tim Connors, president of CI Technologies, a public safety tech and EIS firm bought by Versaterm in March, prefers to call “early identification,” not “early intervention,” tools.

Artificial intelligence, the policing profession’s ongoing embrace of wellness programs, and retention and hiring issues promise to keep fueling the growth of such software and dashboards, he said.

Indeed, he said police unions are getting on board with such tools because they are increasingly being seen not as punitive but as promoting officer resilience and health.

Colleagues at Versaterm, along with some of his peers at competing tech firms, say that such new-generation EIS tools can help departments hire and retain officers, who — the theory goes — will be attracted to agencies that use proactive wellness software in this era of heightened antagonism toward law enforcement.

For his part, Stephens, the former chief who is now a member of the think tank Council on Criminal Justice, is skeptical of that idea.

“I don’t think EIS has any connection to the staffing crisis that police face. It is a tool to help police departments help officers avoid potential performance problems,” he said. “Although officers may not have the same view, [it’s] very unlikely to be a factor in an officer’s decision to leave a department or join one.”

Back in Livermore, the reaction of officers so far to the dashboard is positive, which is probably at least partly due to a generational shift in police culture, Reynolds said.

“When I started 23 years ago, we didn’t talk about [problems],” he said. “We went out after our shift and had a couple of drinks with people you worked with. It’s not like that anymore.”
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in Wisconsin.