Law Enforcement Technology Must Play Nicely With Others.

Posted on 18 May 2011 by


This series of articles on law enforcement technology was written by Dave Henderson and Nick Selby and first published in CSO Online, the web version of CSO Magazine. We’re reprinting the four-part series here, starting with its introduction. For more on this subject see my presentation from Day 1 of the SMILE Conference; our PLI Podcast on Law Enforcement Technology, and The Biggest Mistakes Made By Law Enforcement Technology Vendors Part I and Part II.

Last time, Dave and I wrote about the high-level concepts behind making your information technology product appealing to cops and police agencies: integration, simplicity and utility. Today, we’ll look at the first of those, with a couple of examples.

When we say “Integrated”, we mean that it shares information and resources with other products that the agency has. Since we’re speaking about information technology, the “information” part is key.

As we said last time, these things would seem obvious, but if you take a look at the stuff that law enforcement agencies are stuck with, you’ll scratch your head in wonder.

Information dying on the vine
A court records system that doesn’t speak to the computer-aided dispatch system? Which doesn’t speak to the state or regional information system? Which don’t speak with the DMV’s server? We’re just now starting to get a photo when we pull a driver license file on the in-car laptops. There was a memo. In the memo they told us that this feature had not been fully tested, but they think it will probably work out just fine, over time.

You might wonder how this is possible in the 21st century, but if you’ve spent time in law enforcement you’ll know that it’s not just possible, it’s par for the course.

When we can’t share information, it doesn’t get shared, and its value is wasted.

One reason for this is that, because the market is so fragmented — as we mentioned last week, there are more than 17,000 agencies in the US, and more than half have fewer than 10 officers — and sales are so competitive, that vendors tend to spend a lot of time making sure no one can chip away at what market they’ve captured.

This means, on a practical level, creating walled gardens as opposed to open frameworks. Dave and I believe that, to become irreplaceable to a customer, one must throw open the doors, not build higher fences. When an agency uses something and comes to rely upon it, that product becomes more integrated into the department’s workflow — what vendor doesn’t want to become more richly integrated in his customer’s environment?

No matter what your product is, no matter how tactical you think is its function, information about what it is doing can be used by analysts to help them form a strategically useful view of the world. There are some famous examples of inferences and intelligence from things as unlikely as pizza (the Domino’s Effect) and burgers (the Big Mac Index) so you’d better believe that if you have a technology product that is used by a law enforcement agency, its telemetry is important to products other than your own.

Making your product a feed
So what does your product do tactically, and how can telemetry about how it does that be useful strategically? On our podcast recently, we interviewed Pat Ryder, the head of asset forfeiture and intelligence for the Nassau County (NY) Police Department. As Pat spoke about how he stood up a world-class intelligence facility on a shoestring budget, some themes emerged that we think work well from the supply side (the technology) as well as the demand (the agency). It became clear that any device, any program that could give him telemetry about something would be used.

He discussed using nothing more than Google Earth, spreadsheets of where crimes had been committed and others of where parolees and probationers were living. Overlaid, these data painted an interesting intelligence picture. Imagine what he could do with the output of whatever the hell it is that you’re selling.

Get out on a ride-out
The first order of business in determining the usefulness of integration, we think, is to get your butt out of that chair and into a cop car. Go on a ride-out at a few of your customer agencies; sit in dispatch or analysis or the detective bureau and see your product in use. While you’re there, see how the cops are interacting with the other boxes there, and most important, when they seem to be doing a lot of ALT-TABbing or cursing, ask what’s up. Most likely, you’ve observed one of those moments when one thing isn’t properly integrated with another.

The astounding thing to me, coming from the world of IT, is just how stupid many of these choke points are — many are just so trivially solved. This is a world in which Twitter search is a real eye-opener to many agencies. Another shocker is just how few people who sell technology to cops actually do what I suggested in the last paragraph, and go hang with the ultimate customer — everyone wants to hang with the chief. Few people seem to want to sit at the point of use — but it is precisely there that the real value of integration is the most obvious.

Start small, start simple
First, start small, with simple and well-articulated goals: sharing openly the information your product produces. If you don’t have an API, make one. Think about ways to export data regularly, and the format it’s in. Find out the format that the greatest number of your customers can handle and make your data available for it. Help them understand the kind of data you create, and ask how it might fit into their analysis — ask them if they want more but keep offering. Every time a customer tells you a way your data could help them, turn around and get that back to the trusted few customers you’re on really great terms with — your beta testing, power-using fanboys — ask them if and how they, too could benefit from this new feed.

I like to think that people in the technology business went into it to solve a problem, to make a difference — not just to make a buck. Selling technology to law enforcement is a great opportunity to do well by doing good. To have the best chance to do that, think about the use-case for your product.

The more you speak, the more you think about the ways your customers might be able to utilize the data you create in the process of them doing their jobs, the more you’ll learn about how you can help them.

Next, we’ll talk about simplicity.