Making Technology Pay Off

Training law enforcement officers on new technology is a double-edged challenge. On the one hand, the latest technology now offered in tools and software can enable officers to respond to police calls more effectively, or dramatically improve the way certain duties are performed. Conversely, it takes time to learn any new technology, and with shrinking manpower and budgets, time is precious.

Is there just too little time to reap the benefits from training for technology in which your police department has invested? Not according to Ed Nowicki, executive director of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA). Nowicki is quick to acknowledge that "time and money are tight (for training)," and even notes that, by his estimates, "devoting only 15 minutes for training per day, five days a week, is more than a classroom hour, so technology can maximize this time!"

Considering that a police officer's job today is packed with responsibility, and that his "office" is in the field, technology must be designed to work well in the patrol car as well as on the officer's utility belt. And it must be quick and easy to understand and apply. For this reason, Nowicki feels that not only must police departments buy the right kinds of tech tools, but their value and usefulness should be immediately apparent. He further argues that getting all officers trained on new technology as soon as it's available within a police department is crucial.

"Things [that are technology based] change so often," Nowicki observes. In the meantime, it can take months to get trained on a new weapon or piece of equipment given the lengthy procurement process that is standard for most police departments. "By the time you learn a new form of technology, it's upgraded," Nowicki says. "Sometimes these are easy conversions, sometimes not."

Technology changes attitudes
For any training to be truly effective, some hard questions need to be asked:

  • Do I need this new technology?
  • Will it make my work easier, and render me more productive?
  • Is the technology's functionality intuitive, and can I learn it quickly?
  • Will I use the technology often enough so that it becomes part of my officer's toolbox?

The answers to these questions, of course, depend on how proactive a police department is about providing training and, in particular, the quality of training.

For Sgt. Steve Pascarella, training officer for the Monroeville (Pennsylvania) Police Department, training is a high priority. "We're constantly trying to keep up," he says. Meanwhile, Pascarella confesses there are some challenges. "The biggest thing is (officer) attitude," he says. "Some officers accept the fact that there's more technology to learn with the job, while others fight it tooth and nail." Yet, if a technology makes sense, and its features and operation are straightforward, officers often tend to embrace it once they have mastered a new tool or system.

Pascarella cites as an example the nationwide trend among police departments of installing Mobile Data Terminals (MDTs) in police cars, which offer wireless networking technology. The Monroeville PD has placed an MDT in each of its patrol cars. The benefits of both the training and technology have been clear, effective and widely accepted. Adoption of the MDTs means officers can more easily access data resources (i.e., suspect backgrounds, fingerprints, photo identification, etc.) and communicate better with coworkers and the dispatch center. These benefits, in turn, mean the community gets better police coverage. Officers appreciate the MDTs because they spend less time on administrative matters, so there's more time to respond to calls in the field. "This [the MDTs] is one of the systems that has helped change the attitude ofsome of the officers here," Pascarella notes.

Reduces officer/suspect injuries
TASER Electronic Control Devices (ECDs), involving high-voltage/low-current Neuro-Muscular Incapacitation capability when deployed, continue to be controversial as a means for controlling suspects, although studies have shown it to be relatively safe. Meanwhile, police departments are buying TASER ECDs in record numbers.

Proper TASER ECD training is crucial, and it's usually high-energy, fast-paced and intense. At Scottsdale, Arizona-based TASER International Inc., such training has become an art form. The company has an impressive train-the-trainer program at its gleaming, high-tech adorned, 100,000 square-foot academy. And the actual training? Well, it's hardly passive. Officers sent to the academy are taken through a grueling 2-day session of TASER principles and steps, jammed into a 277-slide PowerPoint presentation. The training is provided by what TASER International calls its "master instructors," each of whom is an active law enforcement professional, and who must be re-certified every two years. Following the classroom instruction, the real action begins. "When officers deploy our TASERs, they don't just shoot at a static target," explains Steve Tuttle, TASER International's vice president of communications, who was the company's original trainer. "We have them running up and down, being screamed at. They have to fire under stress during the actual practice of TASER deployment. Using dynamic training is the key to successful training," he adds.

Officers who complete their training at TASER International's academy typically hunger for more, notes Tuttle, who is not surprised. "The better trained you are, the better the results," he points out. "We're seeing reduction of both officer and suspect injuries, even in cases of officer-involved shootings."

Software eases workload, can be self-taught
Software has greatly advanced the work of law enforcement professionals, but how clear the basics are to learn and how fast officers can master them depends on the software, the training materials and the support provided. This is particularly important for software since software programs replace huge tasks having many functions that once were performed manually. A good example is the array of crash and crime scene diagramming programs now available. While many drawing software programs are billed as being "off-the-shelf" and easy to learn, they instead deliver limitations - cryptic Web site training tips on how to draw a floor plan, insufficient symbols libraries or a restricted amount of telephone support - and a lot of frustration for users.

The Crash Zone and Crime Zone diagramming programs offered by The CAD Zone Inc. of Beaverton, Oregon, are a few of the exceptions with respect to easy and accessible training. The CAD Zone offers: more than 50 training movies (including audio) within The Crash Zone to show how to create an entire drawing; an owner's manual that walks the user through the diagramming process using brief, simple language; online step-by-step tutorials that show how to draw crash scenes; and unlimited technical support over the phone by calling a toll-free number.

Self-taught training options like these are great for those officers who feel confident enough to teach themselves new technology or software. However, many officers prefer the comfort of a classroom where they can join their peers for structured, personal instruction.

David Shanes, who manages the traffic safety unit of the Whitemarsh (Pennsylvania) Police Department, sees benefits in both the self-taught and classroom training approaches. He has taught himself the Crash Zone program, which he largely attributes to the software's extensive HELP system, and also teaches the program to police departments throughout Pennsylvania's Montgomery County. Shanes feels the self-taught method works well when a software product has easy assistance functions built in.

Classroom training for software also can be extremely effective, shortening the time it takes for an officer to get up and running. The CAD Zone has a large network of qualified trainers spread across the United States and Canada. Classes also are commonplace at a number of community colleges and state academies. But with a program like The Crash Zone, wouldn't there be problems with a class having a mix of police officers alongside professional crash reconstructionists? Not at all, says Shanes. "The only difference is how you apply the features of the particular software program," he explains. "Any police officer can learn how to do a diagram and produce a great looking one." And, he adds, "Maybe a reconstructionist will use the (Crash Zone) program in a different way to get what he wants out of it, but the method of using the software is essentially the same."

Avoiding mistakes in real-life instances
One of the striking aspects about today's technology for law enforcement is how well it can replicate real-life situations that officers will actually encounter while on duty.

Training on such technology can be tricky, however. John Wills should know. Wills is an instructor for Seattle, Washington-based Advanced Interactive Systems, which manufactures the PRISim Video-Based Judgment Training Simulator. The simulator, which is Microsoft Windows-based, provides realistic use-of-force training that develops the skills required for police officers armed with both lethal and less-lethal weapons.

Wills explains officers who take PRISim training immediately realize how valuable it is when they next encounter real-life situations that demand split-second decisions. Says Wills: "The entire reason for having this kind of judgmental training is to see what kinds of decisions officers make under stress." And there are many stressful factors that the PRISim effectively forces trainees to face, including instant judgment calls, indecision, sudden fear, blindside surprises, all happening many times as the simulator fires a barrage of bullets. Trainees are only allowed a small amount of instruction - for good reason. "I have to caution officers who are being trained on this system against having too many sessions because it takes away from the stress and anxiety of a realistic scenario when overused," Wills says.

One of the biggest benefits of PRISim training is that if an officer has an unfavorable reaction to a situation on the screen, he has a point of reference with the system's training, and can speed up his reaction time should that incident or one like it confront him on the street. In short, Will says, "This training gives the officer a better chance of survival."

Research before buying
If a police department chooses what it thinks is a great new product, but the product proves hard to understand or use, then training officers on it could backfire. According to Pascarella, "Research is everything. You have to get demonstrations, and talk to a department that's using the product you're considering to purchase."

Sgt. Scott Oldham, who serves with the Bloomington (Indiana) Police Department, echoes Pascarella's warnings. It is why his department takes between five and seven months to study a product before purchasing it, after which it may take another month to six weeks before officers are trained on it. The trick is to find the right products that can withstand this lengthy procurement cycle, train officers on them quickly, and then hope the products will still be technologically viable for an extended period.

There is a constant trade-off between manpower issues and equipment issues, according to Oldham. "We can't devote so much time to equipment issues that we don't have enough time to answer police calls," he says. "The nature of patrol officers is that they're call driven."

Developers, police agencies must collaborate
How can a police department know that a technology it has purchased will be worth the gamble once officers have been trained and the product is in the field?

Commander Sid Heal of the Los Angeles (California) Sheriff's Department has a method that seems to prevent costly setbacks. "We have a saying that 'everything works in the lab,' " he says. For instance, Heal recalls one company that offered a camera for law enforcement use that weighed 16 pounds. Heal says his department wanted to know if the camera could survive falling from a 6-foot wall. The developer was puzzled by this question. "You can't climb a wall with a camera," Heal says, "so, the deputy will drop it on the other side. They [the camera manufacturer] needed to make it light enough and small enough to allow a deputy to wield a weapon, or rugged enough to survive dropping."

Heal further believes police departments must work with manufacturers to help them build products with utility for the law enforcement market. Without this kind of collaborative relationship, many firms could end up making products that don't meet an officer's needs and, therefore, never get purchased.

Technology training is no simple process, requiring many components that must compliment each other - a well-informed trainer, training that is compatible with officers' work schedules, and timely, logical technology solutions with a long shelf-life. And, not only must police agencies and makers of technology products and software work with each other to ensure the usefulness of their offerings, but these products also must be easy and quick to learn.

"We need to make technology that supports the user, not the user supporting the technology," says Oldham. He adds: "The technology has to be something that you pick up the training for initially and you retain it because it's that easy."