Selling to Cops: Utility Is Everything

Posted on 20 May 2011 by

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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.


“Utility” is the ability of a product to change the way we work, make us more effective, keep us safer.

For the past month, we’ve been writing about the kind of technologies that cops want, and the way to sell them. We’ve written (in Part I of this series) that there are three qualities law enforcement agencies want when they buy technology: it must be integrated, it must be simple and it must have utility. In Part II, we talked about integration. In Part III, we talked about keeping it simple – and the rule of thumb for vendors that, if your dad can’t use the product, it’s not simple enough.

In this part, we’ll look to wrap it all up with our discussion of utility. First, we think it’s important to note that none of our main criteria refer specifically to cost. Cost is, in fact, unrelated to this discussion: there are many products out there that cost a bomb – or cost nothing – and hit the perfect sweet-spot, or strike out with an embarrassing whiff.

Regardless of what the raw numbers are for cost pf purchase and cost of operation, ultimately any agency’s cost:benefit analysis must take into account a product’s integration, its simplicity and the focus of this article, its utility.

Utility refers to the fact that the stuff we buy as a police agency has to do what we need it to do. It can do a little more – that’s not required – but it certainly can do no less.

The utility of the product is directly related to its integration and its simplicity, but it transcends those characteristics. So simply put, “Utility” is the ability of a product to change the way we work, make us more effective, keep us safer.

That is a tall order. It means that the product should be considered by people who understand not just inherently and intellectually but viscerally the mission and the use case of law enforcement technology.

One problem with that is that many technology vendors don’t have street cops on staff in positions of influence for product features and design. Many vendors do hire retired federal law enforcement experts to serve on their board of directors or even in positions of sales. With no disrespect to them or their service, and certainly with no disrespect to the vendors who take the initiative to engage with this community, it’s important for innovators to understand the differences between local and federal law enforcement missions, tactics and use cases.

We recommend that anyone selling technology to law enforcement get out with the fuzz and take not just a ride-out, but a series of ride-outs and observational meetings to see how workflow is affected by the true paces of cops doing their jobs. Cops interact differently with technology based on their assignment, their stress level and their time pressure.

Innovators need to see these gradations of interaction and account for them in their products – in their underlying design, in their user interfaces, in their interactivity and integration with other products. In fact, they don’t just need to see it, they need to experience the stress of a nighttime traffic stop; the time pressure of information flow during a pursuit or a barricaded person. They need to hear the stress in the voice of an officer trying to determine the as-yet undetermined.

Feeling that will help innovators provide to police the technology that delivers true utility.

As we saw recently, re-purposing technologies from other industries can have disastrous consequences. Building technology for cops is not the same as building technology for school buses, banks, manufacturing firms or, in fact, anyone who is not the cops.

This is a two-way street. Because throughout this series, we’ve spoken about the things that vendors must do for cops, but not the things that cops must do for vendors. Cops may not be among the earliest of technology adopters (this is a charitable characterization), but they have a responsibility to articulate their needs and work with innovators.

Vendors can provide police with the features that they need, to quote Max Bialystock, “only if we ask them.” So to our police agency readers, we would say that vendors need to know that this is important to you. Looked at another way, if you don’t tell them, they won’t know. We must start to speak the same language, and look for commonalities to facilitate better communication about what is required on both sides.

This benefits everyone. An innovator working with an agency or agencies (more on that below) to solve a specific problem has the extra assurance that, if he can built it right, the customers will buy it. Starting the discussion early means that the agencies have time to get creative with their finances, can plan for the purchase and secure money to make the purchase, which makes the vendors and their investors happy.

Which brings us to the last point. We mentioned early on that there were nearly 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, and the vast majority of them have fewer than 25 officers.

Agencies must work together on purchasing criteria and technical requirements, to build buying cooperatives that could create economies of scale sufficient to better incentivize vendors.

When we complain that the vendors all want to sell the million dollar box? Many times it’s because they can’t figure out how to profitably make the ten-thousand dollar box.