When Hi-Tech Becomes No-Tech

It was about 11:30AM on a weekday. I was out on the road and hungry, so I decided to stop at Wendy's for a grilled chicken sandwich and a salad. On entry, I noticed the place seemed especially quiet. Yet, I could hear the fries cooking in the grease and employees preparing food.

Before I could order, the clerk said, "We can't sell any food right now. Our computers are down." I was dumbfounded. They obviously had food. I had the right amount of money to pay. Yet, they were out of business. The computer had become the lynch-pin of their ability to operate.

In a similar situation, I recall my wife telling how she went to Wal-Mart for a couple of items. While standing in the checkout line, all of the cash registers simultaneously shut down, without warning. Seems that too was a computer glitch. Even though she had the exact change needed, the cashier refused to allow her to pay and leave with the needed items.

HOW DOES THIS RELATE TO POLICING?

In my native Michigan, it is the norm for officers to be assigned a car at the beginning of each shift, usually during roll call. It is not uncommon for an officer to return to the sergeant asking for a vehicle change because the computer in his assigned car was broken. The car would be red-tagged and sidelined until the computer was fixed.

Thinking back about ten years ago, when I was in the early days of my law enforcement experience, I remember that actual in-car computers were quite a novelty. It was usually only the large departments that had mobile data terminals - and they were NOT computers. Cops could run vehicles and people through the state system and NCIC, but that was about it. There was no data entry, e.g. reports, etc. being done there.

Wireless data service came at a very high price because the agency had to install its own data radio system - usually costing a few million dollars to setup and it was very, very slow.

Only about 30% of the police cars in the U.S. had these terminals. Everybody else relied only on the radio.

I was talking with a cop buddy last night. He has about 6 years on. He told me candidly that when he must work without an in-car computer it results in a dramatic drop in his ability to do his job. His effectiveness and his productivity drop like a rock.

"I've become dependant on the electronic map showing where I need to go when responding to a call for service. Running people and immediately seeing their picture, knowing if they are local and if they have a criminal history has become a tool that I use constantly. It is important to me when I'm deciding whether or not to approach a subject. I can even know if our department has prior contact info on the guy before I ever get out of my car."

THE NEW NORMAL

The in-car computer has become the MOST USED TOOL in the tool set of today's cops.

OK, if you want to include the vehicle he is driving, then the computer comes in second.

The computer is no longer a luxury. It is not an after-thought. It is not an option to a cop who has become dependant on having it. Dispatch will no longer tolerate the volume of radio traffic that would be needed to run, rerun, rerun again and then finally get the real name of a subject. The computer is a necessity that directly affects the cop's ability to do the job and in reality, will have an impact on his ability to survive the shift by avoiding negative surprises.

The advent of nation-wide wireless data from AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and others has put mobile computing within reach of every police department and yes - every citizen, as well. You can see people with an air card sticking out of the side of their laptop at most anyplace where folks gather (like airports and coffee shops).

The widespread proliferation of wireless data has changed our society and has certainly changed many of the fundamentals of policing.

As cops have become more independent, the staff in dispatch in departments been pared back because they are no longer handling system inquiries for the cops on the road.

Sergeants are becoming accustomed to receiving incident reports directly from patrol cars as soon as the cop finishes them. The sergeant often reviews it from his own car, ultimately submitting, correcting or rejecting it, as appropriate.

We have the benefit of sending encrypted instant messages between officers without having to worry about someone hearing it on a scanner.

Dispatch sends vital information about calls for service via the CAD system directly to the responding units. Cops on a crew can quickly check the status and location of all the other team members.

Dirt bags playing the "name game" in an attempt to conceal their real identity find the game is short-lived when they see the cop pull their picture up on the mobile computer. Game over.

WHAT DID WE LOSE IN THE PROCESS?

As, I mentioned earlier, many agencies have reduced staffing levels in dispatch because cops can now run their own vehicles and people from the street.

When I started in uniform, I created my own three ring binder. It had the city map cut up to fit the book and then laminated with the border of each district area clearly marked. The book had diagrams of the layout of all of the apartment complexes and mobile home parks in our city. It contained a page with all of the important phone numbers (like the tow service). While I've talked to plenty of other veteran officers (who worked "the job" before MDTs) and had similar books, you would be hard pressed to find a book like that in an agency that has computers. It is all on line now.

Agencies are moving reference manuals to the computer, as well. It is a great place for dynamic documents like the Motor Vehicle Code or the General Orders and Policies. Some years ago, Omaha PD stopped distributing departmental memoranda on paper. It is done by email. The system tracks when each officer opens the email and is then judged to have received it "officially."

In some areas, prosecutors have been known to question the viability of a charge without an accompanying video recording of the incident.

In most agencies that have adopted computer-based reporting, traffic tickets and the like, the paper forms are no longer in the cars. In some instances, the department no longer has a supply.

WE CANNOT STOP BEING THE POLICE

A major outage in the national cellular network would render most of the in-car police computers useless. They would be mobile paper weights.

"I'm sorry Ms. Brown. I cannot do anything about your husband beating you. My computer is down right now."

That is not going to fly.

In most cases, agencies and their officers are not prepared for reverting back to manual processes if an emergency situation forces the issue. I want to share a real-life scenario.

Most Southeast Michigan agencies use a large shared system called CLEMIS. In addition to the usual NCIC checks, they also use the system in the cars and in the station to write their incident reports. About a year ago, CLEMIS encountered a problem and was completely down for almost seven days.

In the specific agency I am citing here, there were no procedures in place for such an event. This isn't criticism, just citing an example of how our technology dependence can negatively affect our performance.

When the system initially went down, no one knew if it would be down for minutes, hours, or as was ultimately the case: a week. As the first shift wound down without the computers, the cops were told to hold their reports and write them on their next work day.

When it became clear that the computer problem would outlast their ability to wait, someone decided that they would go to the store room and retrieve the old paper forms to write their reports. Formal reports required 7 individual sheets of paper to complete. Unfortunately, they were missing 3 of the required 7 sheets. So, another day of delay while a fresh supply was printed.

At the point when all of the sheets were available, someone realized that nearly 10 cops had been hired since the advent of CLEMIS and therefore these 10 had no training on how to complete a report on paper.

Can you imagine the frustration of the mayor's office answering to angry citizen victims about why no one is investigating or working on their problem? It was not a pretty picture.

Yet, in other agencies, I think the administration is intent on shooting themselves in the foot. As officers were being trained and prepared to use electronic ticketing, the department director wanted to delay the roll-out until all of the existing paper ticket stock had been depleted. What is this guy thinking?

As sure as wives get mad at husbands, computers are going to break. A cop who cannot work when the system goes down is just not acceptable. Whether it is a delayed report to the DB or a traffic violator who is let off because the cop cannot write a ticket - it just does not make sense.

HOW ARE THE ROOKIES BEING TRAINED?

I attempted to contact one of the nationally known "coaches" of newly-minted field training officers to find out about the inclusion of technology training in the FTO outline. He did not want to discuss the issue.

Further investigation, with some current Field Training Officers found that few (if any) agencies address formal training on mobile computers - whether it be the hardware or the software. A clear training void exists as it relates to the most used tool the new cop will have at his disposal.

Equally bad, we are not addressing the tactical implications of concentrating on a computer screen when out in a public setting. Situational awareness can go right down the drain when a cop is trying to figure out a new piece of software. Cops have been injured and killed because of it.

The typical DOR is devoid of any assessment of the rookie's proficiency with the technology.

Police administrations across the country seem to be turning a blind eye, allowing each cop to find his/her own way through the maze of the new gadgetry in the car.

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

Every situation and department is different. There is not a one size fits all answer. However, there are common objectives that can be applied universally.

  • Management must recognize that mobile computing has changed many of the fundamentals of police work as they knew it.
  • It must be recognized that a cop will use the mobile computer more than anything else at his disposal. Training must be commensurate with that level of usage.
  • New hires need formal training with objectives and measures of success as it relates to the technology.
  • New cops need to be taught where the safe havens are located for sitting and typing. The department's community policing line of "do it in a parking lot, in the open", is just deadly.
  • Annual in-service training should provide formal training on new software, new features, and enhancement of existing (i.e. keyboard) skills.

Simultaneously, it is vital that the tools and training necessary to operate manually are maintained at the ready.

Patrol vehicles should probably be outfitted with an 'emergency pack' of tickets, reports, and forms that can be broken out when the computer goes down.

New hires need to be trained on manual systems and automated systems, alike.

I received this idea from one FTO that I know: one day each week, the rookie must work the entire shift without the computer. "We don't even turn it on," he said.

That led me to consider that maybe the shift sergeant or lieutenant should pick one day periodically (monthly, quarterly, etc.) when the entire shift will operate manually. He could put an extra person in dispatch to handle the added work load and then simply tell everyone that there is going to be training maintenance on the manual processes of the department.

IS IT CRAZY?

I remember August, 2003 - I think it was the 14th. There was a power outage that stretched from New York City all the way through the Midwest. The outage lasted approximately 24 hours. I was stationed on foot to guard the local Army Reserve Center.

The landline phones were iffy, at best.

We could not get through on our cell phones.

The mobile computer network was down.

The station had emergency power. I had a portable radio and a battery with maybe an 8 hour operating life.

Gas stations, food stores, restaurants, and bank ATMs were all closed or down. Mid-shift, I was brought a burger that had been grilled on a large BBQ at the fire station. The meat and buns were donated by a local food store. Thank God.

The advent of technology has been good, except that we have unwittingly burned the bridge of manual operations behind us. We can't stop being the police because, "the computer is down."



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