The Technology Craps Shoot

The odds seem to be stacked against us. Technology is exploding into law enforcement from every direction; so many cops have a story of painful failure to tell. It is about someone else, of course. Does the stuff not work at all? Nope; that would be an exaggeration. It works, but not the way you EXPECTED that it would work. There is the old business axiom born in the Disney organization: there is no disappointment so stinging as the disappointment that comes from an un-met expectation.

This technology stuff seems so overwhelming. As the choices and options abound, making good buying decisions is getting tougher. I have better luck keeping my wife smiling. I'm thinking that making a good choice with technology has about the same odds as winning the lottery. Successes are rare. A guy needs the Luck of the Irish.

So, what brings me to this topic here and why now, you ask?

The Feds Are At It Again

This could be a long story, but I will avoid that. The enginerds at NHTSA have decided the current crash report is way too short. It is missing vital information that will make the roads more safe: longitude & latitude of the crash, how the tow operator is chosen, the color of the cop's underwear and other critical data. In coppery, we have a technical term to describe this push for more paperwork: Bullsh*t.

States are not required to be 100% compliant all at once (how gracious of them), but progress must be made in order to keep federal highway funding. In my home state of Florida, a brand new crash report will debut (and be mandatory) on January 1, 2011. It has 32 new fields and 530 new data elements. Yippee.

Our current short form has just two pages. Next year, the shortest crash report in Florida will be seven pages. I know that you are thrilled. Me, too.

The state is not fighting the federal mandate because the state folks believe the changes will drive more agencies to electronic crash reporting. The state's goal has long been to get rid of paper crash reports. So, these changes are seen as an ally in meeting that goal of eliminating paper.

The New Reality

For a number of years, we have been seeing ads and reading articles on electronic crash reporting and electronic ticketing. (DISCLAIMER: I have worked for some of these companies as a trainer.) I have trained patrol cops how to use the stuff and do it safely. I have witnessed cops who are pleased and cops who are pissed. I much prefer to work with the former.

The increase in the amount of the time required to write a crash report is just the trigger that many agencies have needed to make the move to the computer. Most vendors bundle crash reports and tickets together. The million-dollar question: how do I know which one to buy?

For most cops, the mere thought of getting this assignment from above brings an immediate grimace of anguish. It is a no-win situation. It's like hitting a moving target while using a malfunctioning weapon with poorly aligned sights. I am here to say: there is a way to win. Listen up.

Think and Talk About the Subject From the Ground Up

The fancy theory: figure out what your agency needs from a functional aspect - rather than from a technical viewpoint. Think and talk only in the functional terms.

The practical guide: make a list of what operational changes/goals you want. For electronic crash reporting, here is a sample of such a list:

  • Reduce the time required to complete a two-car, non-injury crash with only two drivers (no passengers) from the current average of ____ minutes to an average of ____ minutes.
  • Allow all information from FCIC, NCIC or the local records system to be imported and populate any field on the report relating to: people, vehicles, citations, and property.
  • Increase data accuracy on the recording of VINs from the current ___% to ___%.
  • Improve the officers' ability to maintain situational awareness and recognition of potential threats.
  • Allow electronic submission of reports to supervisors for review.
  • Allow electronic approval or rejection of each report along with supervisory notes regarding reason for rejection, as appropriate.
  • Eliminate the need for paper reports at least 80% of the time. Also eliminate the need for physical storage space for those reports.
  • Allow citizens, insurance companies or other stakeholders to obtain copies of reports without involving agency personnel, i.e. the records bureau counter.
  • Cause all crash report information to be electronically submitted and stored in our records management system.
  • Cause reports/tickets to be uploaded to the Court computer without human editing or intervention.
  • Allow electronic submission of all crash data to the state.

When you start thinking and talking in these terms, you stay on solid ground which is familiar and that you understand. You move the discussion from geek-speak techno-terms to the real reason that you are spending this money.

It Is Really Tough To Do

Every agency has at least one self-styled, amateur techno-nerd. You probably know him. He spends endless hours surfing the web. He helps others when their computers lock up. He reads each issue of PC Magazine within hours of receipt. He probably has a spare beanie + propeller stashed in his locker. He sounds really smart. You are reluctant to challenge him on anything technical because he will swamp you with jargon, making you look like the village idiot (technically speaking). He knows how many pixels are on a 15" monitor and how many nits your mobile computer screens have, but he wouldn't understand functional benefits if they bit him in the butt.

Maintaining the functional focus is your job. You must keep this train on the track and not allow the geeks to derail it with their demands for the latest and greatest gizmo that was just announced by Intel or Dell. Bring up the topic of automating a job, and within seconds, someone will convert the discussion into one of gadgets rather than process. STOP THAT!

Make the list of desired functional improvements. When a vendor starts talking about all that his technology can do, hand him your list. Tell him you want to see how his stuff does the tasks that you have listed. After that, you would be glad to look at his power point showing the number of wire strands used in the backplane bus or let him show off his nits. However, if the gear doesn't cut the mustard from a functional standpoint, you don't care about the rest. Period.

Also tell him that his gear and his company will be measured on how well it meets your functional goals. You will retain a percentage of the money due for a predetermined time until you are satisfied that your functional goals have been met. That will send the scam artists heading for the exit. Ask each potential vendor for a list of at least three agencies that can be contacted for a reference.

You Should Be Making A List and Checking It Twice

I recently developed a survey for a department that asked for my help. They were considering the acquisition of e-ticketing and e-crash reporting. Like all good surveys, it was very short. It is NOT scientific. It is NOT statistically correct. It will NOT satisfy the dweebs, but it DOES show a striking trend. Someone wanting a happy ending to their technology story should consider using this tactic.

The list of agencies to be surveyed came from the one I was helping. They were from various areas of the U.S. I called each one. There were:
14 agencies, in total
8 sheriffs' offices
6 municipal police departments

I asked each if they were using e-tickets and crash. I also asked the name of their supplier/vendor. I then asked five questions to determine the level of functional success. I am happy to share the detailed information with you (send me a request by email). For the purposes of this article, I will summarize the information received.

Four programs were found to be used by the 14 agencies. ONE program/system which had nine customers had a 100% success rate. ONE program/system which had four customers had a 25% success rate. Two other programs/systems which had a combined total of 3 customers had a 0% success rate - yes, zero percent.

Again, there are gradient measures of success, but the above statistics represent the percentage of agencies where the expectations of the original purchase were (or were not) met - in full. For the mathemagicians among us: there were two agencies that are each using two vendors.

It took a couple of hours to complete the survey and included some phone tag. If your agency is prepared to spend some serious money, this is time well spent. It can mean the difference between an atta-boy from the chief versus a permanent assignment to the property room.

Watch Out For The Pitch-Men

I recently read an article on the topic of e-ticketing in one of the LE publications out there. The writer was a command officer from a Florida PD. He was extolling the virtues of one of the companies represented in the statistics above (hint: their success rate was well below 50% - email me for more info). His article told of how great this particular company's products are. The writer must have forgotten to mention one minor fact: he has been paid spokesman for the outfit in the past. (ahem)

Let the word get out that your agency is seriously considering a move to e-ticketing or e-crash report and the walls will be crawling with sales people - like ants on a sugar cube. Every One of those sales types will have exactly what you need. (ahem, again)

In Summary... The push by the feds for reams of additional information on each and every crash report will probably force automation on your agency - whether you want it or not. Before you look at the first demo, participate in the first webinar: through-think what you consider success from a functional standpoint. Don't worry about the gizmos - they will take care of themselves. Reduce time, improve accuracy, improve safety, electronic transmission to the court and state are some examples. Make the goals measurable - which means assign numeric values to your goals. (if you need assistance, email me)

Ask potential vendors if they are interested. Tell them right up front that they will be picked and judged based on how well their products get you to your functional goals. Many will drop out right there. Ask the vendors on your short list for specific references with contact names, phone numbers and email addresses. Create a questionnaire. KEEP IT SIMPLE & SHORT. Find out how well each vendor has done with other agencies.

Remember that price is only ONE of many items that must be considered. Officer training is frequently overlooked, or it is treated like a step-child. Good training will directly affect how well and how quickly you meet your goals and possibly make the difference between life and death for a cop who uses the stuff.

I can be reached by email. Simply click on my name below.

It all comes down to saving just ONE life. Make sure you are doing your part.