Beyond the paper chase

     Alternative methods for responding to low priority calls have ranged from taking walk-in reports, mail-in reports and staffing call centers. While these methods have addressed the need of freeing up patrol officers from paperwork, they still require a significant amount of time and resources.

     Online citizen police reporting is becoming increasingly popular across the country. So far, numbers indicate the system has been well received. The Fremont Police Department in California takes 25 to 30 percent of its reports online and spends only minutes reviewing them before exporting approved reports directly into the records management system (RMS) — without the need to transcribe.

     Likewise, the San Francisco Police Department reported having received 10 percent of its overall report intake via this method in the first month of offering the service on their Web site. Since then, they have continued to receive a steady flow of reports online, as well as praise from citizens who have filed reports on the system.

     Results are the same at large and small agencies, including those in Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin, as well as in the Canadian Provinces of Alberta and Ontario. In each place, online citizen reporting was touted as increasing the effectiveness of patrol officers and reducing resources spent on collecting citizen reports.

Will it work?

     With so many citizens already filing tens of thousands of reports online, it is clear that the system is graduating from a "new" technology to "proven." The decision to implement it relies on the benefits of the system outweighing the costs.

     There are several major benefits to implementing an online citizen police reporting system. Chief is the reduction in time and resources spent on responding to and writing reports for minor incidents that rarely have a suspect, and are primarily filed for insurance purposes.

     For example, lost property reports can be submitted online, eliminating the need for an officer to respond to the call. If the system interfaces with the agency's RMS, personnel simply have to spend a few minutes reviewing and approving the report. The information is then automatically imported into the RMS and treated the same as an officer's written report.

     Agencies also will be able to reach parts of the community that had previously posed communication barriers, since most online reporting systems are equipped with the capability to receive reports in multiple languages.

     And the systems can do more than just minor crime reporting. Some agencies collect crime tips that are routed to specific units, such as house watch request forms, property registration and explorer applications with online reporting. Agencies are even allowing individuals with special permissions to file reports not accessible to the general public, such as a security guard filing shoplifting reports online.

     The early adopters of this reporting method expected a citizen backlash upon implementation. To their surprise, law enforcement administrators began receiving praise from citizens for "catching up to the times" and providing a convenient way to report crimes.

     Since citizens do not plan on being the victim of a crime, the ability to quickly and immediately file a crime report with the Internet is a tremendous service enhancement. Furthermore, most online citizen police reporting systems come with the ability to send the citizen a copy of their police report once approved by agency personnel, saving the citizen the hassle of picking up a police report to file with their insurance company.

Making the right choice

     Online citizen reporting systems are different than nearly every other product purchased, as they are one of the few products that law enforcement agencies purchase for citizen use. Luckily, many agencies have already ventured into the world of online citizen police reporting and have gained experience and knowledge of what works and what does not. With that in mind, there are some basic factors to consider before searching for an online citizen police reporting system:

     Will it benefit your agency and staff?

     Aside from the obvious savings in time and resources, there are some other benefits that are likely to be noticed after launching. Alternative service units will have a reduced backlog of reports and call-backs. Patrol units will be able to address crime trends proactively instead of writing reports for crimes that have no suspects or evidence. Front desk officers and personnel will be able to focus on major reports if a kiosk is used to handle minor reports.

     Will it benefit your citizens?

     Citizens have come to expect immediate services available online, and service provided by law enforcement is no exception. While the convenience offered to citizens should not be undervalued, some online citizen police reporting systems meet ADA requirements and come with multi-lingual support, ensuring that your agency can reach out to parts of the community that have historically been less likely to report crime.

     How will it affect your budget?

     Although online citizen police reporting has become a service enhancement, it was designed to combat the effects of shrinking budgets and staffing shortages. As such, companies providing the service had to ensure that the systems were cost-effective and generated an apparent return on investment. A reputable company is not only likely to offer several purchasing or leasing options, but will have the ability to demonstrate how other agencies have experienced a return on investment.

     Finding the solution

     After making the decision to move forward with online citizen police reporting, the next step is to find a system that is the best match for your agency. The system should have some basic requirements so users can fully benefit from it:

  •      Interfacing to your RMS

         An online citizen police reporting system that interfaces to your RMS will provide your agency with substantial time- and resource-saving benefits. Without an interface to the RMS, the system will benefit citizens and patrol officers, but agency resources will still be required to manually enter the reports into the RMS. It is important to inquire about a vendor's ability to interface to the RMS since some vendors have partnerships with existing RMS vendors or the ability to interface to the RMS, while other vendors do not or cannot build the interface to an RMS.

  •      Multi-lingual support

         Being able to receive reports in multiple languages is not very useful unless the online citizen reporting system is able to display the report in English for the personnel responsible for reviewing the reports. Be sure to ask the vendor how they handle reports filed in languages other than English.

  •      Taking supplements to reports

         There will always be reports that require an officer to respond to a call and take a report. However, for certain reports such as commercial burglaries, some online citizen reporting systems can take supplements to reports. Allowing the citizen to file their property list online not only frees the officer from spending time on data entry, but also allows the citizen to take an active part in their report, which often leads to a more thorough documentation of stolen property.

  •      Report control

         Some online citizen reporting systems offer little to no flexibility. Many homegrown systems tend to be difficult to edit, change or expand. Finding a system that allows for growth and the ability to create new incidents easily and quickly will ultimately benefit the agency in the long run. The ability to control the types of reports collected also allows the agency to use the system for crime tips, extra patrol requests, traffic complaints, property registration, etc.

     Purchasing a relatively new technology means that the companies are likely to be new names in the law enforcement community. In a young market, it is important to not only consider the product you are choosing carefully, but also the company providing the product and services. Before signing, ask your vendor the following questions:

     How long have you been in business?

     A vendor who has been around for about five years has been in the online citizen police reporting system since its birth. Also inquire about any law enforcement perspective the vendor may have. A vendor with law enforcement experience within its ranks will be more likely to understand your questions and be more receptive to your input for future product development.

     Can I see your list of clients? Do you have a list of contacts?

     Vendors are likely to inflate the number of customers they have, so be sure to ask for a list of clients. The true measure of a vendor is its customers' opinions. Ask the customers about working with the company, how the use of the system has changed, if they have experienced a reduction in customer service as well as the dependability and integrity of the vendor, etc.

     Can you interface to my RMS, are you partnered?

     Some vendors can be considered sole source if they are the only vendor who has the ability to interface with your RMS, making purchasing an easier experience than putting out a request for proposal. As discussed earlier, the interface is crucial to benefiting as much as possible from your reporting system.

     Is there a hosted solution? How do you ensure the security of the data?

     Online citizen police reporting systems will either be hosted or not. If the vendor does not host the application, be prepared to purchase new servers and dedicate IT staff to maintain another project. If the vendor does host, the cost will usually be cheaper since new servers won't be necessary and the vendor's staff will maintain the application — this is easier and ideal for both parties. However, it is important to know the security measures that the vendor employs to ensure the security and integrity of the data.

     What type of support is provided?

     As a law enforcement agency, you should insist on 24/7 customer support. Find out from existing customers how the vendor handles support inquiries. Other considerations are how updates and upgrades are handled, if you will need to purchase a new license two years from now, pay fees for new features, etc.

     Can I see a demonstration?

     Understand exactly what you are paying for. Pay attention to how the system operates, how user-friendly it is and how much work is involved with reviewing reports. Most importantly, determine if the system and company will help your agency and the citizens in your jurisdiction.

The decision

     Before purchasing a new system, it's important to shop smart. Look for pertinent features and ask the right questions, so you can find a system that your agency and your citizens can depend on.

     Andrew Cartwright, executive director at Coplogic Inc. and former Police Explorer, holds a degree in Administration of Justice from Ohlone College, along with a B.A. from UT Austin with Special Honors in Sociology.