New Tech Brings New Issues to Public Safety Agencies

How are public safety departments handling employees’ changing attitudes toward technology?

by / July 23, 2012

In Osceola County, Fla., Special Operations Lt. Amaury Murgado is admittedly an old-school guy. Although Murgado said he has come around to the idea of all the technology on the job, he bristles when it’s not used properly as one deputy found out the hard way.  

By the Numbers

• In fall 2011, IDG research surveyed more than 1,990 respondents and found that 84 percent of IT departments supported employees’ personally owned devices, including smartphones and tablets.

• CDW-G surveyed 414 federal employees in 2012 and 62 percent of agencies allowed employees to use personal devices for work.

• AT&T also claimed in 2011 that the bring-your-own-device trend was picking up in state and local government.

“He had his nose dug into that mobile data computer,” Murgado said. “He never noticed that the driver and passenger were changing positions because the driver was wanted for aggravated assault. He managed to sneak out of the vehicle under the deputy’s nose —walked around and escaped.”

The deputy was so absorbed by his vehicle’s data terminal that he didn’t notice until it was too late: a huge mistake in Murgado’s opinion. A suspect can kill a police officer who’s not paying attention, and Murgado disciplined the deputy for the mishap. “Technology’s a wonderful thing but not when it’s used as a crutch,” he said.

In Boston, new police department recruits wonder why they can’t use their iPhones for certain tasks, and they’d rather use a smartphone than their radio. It’s part of the growth in public safety as agencies try to adopt policies to acknowledge and leverage the influx of young employees who grew up with mobile technology.

A Shift in the Workplace

As elsewhere, younger employees enter the workforce ready to operate electronic gadgets that they use on personal time.

“People sit there in class on their iPads and they type stuff in,” said Donald Denning, Boston’s public safety CIO. “We have the same thing in police and fire and EMS. As younger people come into the workforce, they demand that technology.”

But a technological generation gap isn’t unique to today’s workplace, and the youngest workers aren’t the only ones forcing change. Denning ran into a fifth-generation firefighter who didn’t want to use a mobile computer at work because he preferred the radio, and Denning challenged him on that line of thinking.

He told the gentleman, “Let me guess. So your great-grandfather was the same guy who, when we put those radios into those trucks, he said, ‘I’m not going to use that new-fangled thing. I’m going to go to that box and use that telegraph.’”

Denning likens today’s technology transition to that same situation from the past, especially with so many officers ditching radios for mobile phones. “We have entire units of people who don’t carry radios anymore just because they don’t need to, and it doesn’t fit their business model,” he said. “Those guys are creating an unbelievable demand on us because now they want more.”

Mallorie Teubner, director of information sharing programs for the nonprofit organization Search, noticed the same kind of shift when she was assisting the Navajo Nation Tribal Police Department with its IT strategic planning earlier this year. Officers purchased their own cellular data cards to use on department mobile computers so they’d have personal access to police data.

Shawn Romanoski, director of telecommunications for the Boston Police Department, has also observed people using speech recognition software to control computers simply by talking to them, which was unheard of not too long ago. Depending on the jurisdiction, embracing these technologies could involve software, hardware and policy changes, but perhaps that’s inevitable.

“These are the things that we need to embrace,” Romanoski said. “As painful as it is for the infrastructure guy, this is what we must do.”

Growing Pains

Challenges arise with the adoption of new technologies, even as departments’ reticence rapidly slips away. Teubner has witnessed jarring culture shock for young professionals starting work. Some Generation Y officers, for example, are stunned when they learn that people can’t send text messages to 911.

In Boston, many officers use their personal mobile devices for work instead of corporate ones because they want more control, but the situation doesn’t always go smoothly.

“People opt to buy their own device and put it on our systems. That is a microcosm of where we’re going because, as we move forward, people want to be able to bring their own USB jump drives and move their data onto it,” Romanoski said. “If there’s a database in their system right now, they want to be able to access that database and make updates to it. Well, how open do we make our system? On the infrastructure side, you have an entire team trying to prevent those breaches in security.”

The police department wants to protect its data, but the agency’s cybersecurity pros can’t exactly shut down the network if cops need to use it. So their problem is how to keep things both secure and open even though they’ve got an influx of devices they don’t control directly.

According to Denning, Boston policy doesn’t allow firefighters to take personal devices with them on calls, but the police department allows it as long as officers use them for work. Developing and enforcing these policies can be difficult. “We’re trying to get better with that,” Romanoski said. “We’re working with our legal departments to do that, but we’re slowly trying to use policy to fill the gaps that are created by technology. Is it a fix-all? Absolutely not.”

Murgado sees technology as a tool, but not a solution to problems that can be solved with good old-fashioned policing. In fact, he feels that a reliance on modern tools can harm an officer’s ability to do his or her job.

“You can have all the toys you want, but you still have to know how to talk to people and you still have to know how to interview people,” Murgado said. “You still have to know how to knock on doors. That’s the threat of technology.”

Sometimes Murgado takes computers away from cops during training to force them to rely on other skills. They object but Murgado feels the situation is necessary to teach critical lessons. He’s seen enough embarrassing infractions to prompt him to go extreme, like officers being absorbed by their mobile computers or smartphones and not paying attention to driving. One deputy used her mobile data terminal to scope out houses to buy and drive by the properties while she was on duty.

 “I don’t have a problem with somebody using a smartphone, I just have a problem because of the distraction,” Murgado said.

Moving Forward

For now, departments are adapting to keep up. In Boston, the network will accommodate a growing number of personally owned devices for the foreseeable future.

“We still have to keep these networks open enough to allow the business model to continue to expand, and the more we allow that business model to expand, the more productivity we get per user,” Romanoski said.

The city will implement policy where technology falls short, but the digital evolution in law enforcement will be difficult to rein in. Murgado advocates policy in Florida, but he doesn’t have much faith in its effectiveness.

“Most departments have policies and procedures that tell you, ‘You can do this. You can’t do that,’ but nobody follows them.”

This story originally appeared in Emergency Management magazine.

Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.

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