In 2014, I was in a training class, learning how to use my police department’s records management system (RMS) when the instructor opened by saying, “Do not use the mouse with this system. It will break it. The tab key is your friend.” And this is an incredible example of what technology is like for police officers at the ground level.
When I talk about dated technology, I don’t mean computers running Windows XP or even Lotus Notes. This is the product of a lumbering IT infrastructure of a state, county or local government. Implementations of operating systems take years to get everyone on the same page and are best not rushed. We are surrounded by innovations daily that seem to pass by the folks wearing Kevlar sitting in their cars. One of the biggest reasons for this, in my experience, is that these products aren’t chosen by the people who will be using them day-to-day. They’re more often designed for ease of oversight and administration than they are for data entry or searches. In far too many RMS deployments, looking up my name will produce “aliases” of Grahm Campbell, Graham Campbll and Gram Campbell. These are not aliases. I am not running a criminal enterprise by dropping a letter from my first name and keeping all my other information. These are fat-fingered entries by the officer at the keyboard. All systems should allow us to correct records with the accurate name, or updated address or phone number without creating a whole new record.
Here’s a fun game. Go to the website of your local newspaper. Go on, I’ll wait. I am going to assume when it opens, it will show you headlines, the day’s weather and maybe even the scores from the game. All on one page! Now, run a license plate on the computer in your patrol car. What happens? When I do it, I get NCIC, registration for the car and driver’s license info on the registered owner, all on separate returns. This is because the system is pinging multiple databases to get this information, but so is the homepage for the newspaper. Why can’t I see all the information on one screen? This is clearly possible. We’re landing rockets on barges in the middle of the ocean. Don’t tell me it’s not possible. And why is the font so small? Who designed this? The answer is no one who has ever used it to run tags.
When I first became a cop in 2000, NYPD had the Motorola MDT-9100 in our cars. It was small and monochrome and was good for two things. First was running license plates. The other was the broadcast feature that was used by cops to let all the cars citywide know that the Yankees won. We also had an incredibly skilled officer who made stickman drawings. And then we got the Toughbook, and this was great! We could run plates on a larger screen, and that was about it. In fairness, this was 2003, so technology wasn’t as advanced as it is now. The remarkable thing is that 20 years later, I’m now using a tablet and am texting with victims on my work phone, but the plate returns still look the same.
Officers are joining police departments now who used iPhones in middle school. They were born with technology, and the skills and knowledge of young officers will only grow. One of the officers I work with now created a dashboard that links to all the relevant applications and websites we use on patrol, including a worksheet for missing people with all the relevant numbers for area hospitals. It’s great, and he did it on his own time. Thankfully, the department took notice in a good way and detailed him to IT for a few months to see about expanding it. This kind of innovation should be celebrated and not punished.
We’re living in an incredible time of technology for policing. We have body cameras and cell phone cameras that instantly upload to case files. There are gunshot detection and camera systems, and license plate readers. Yet, when it comes to our mobile office, the humble police car, we are far behind the times.
We’re living in an incredible time of technology for policing. We have body cameras and cell phone cameras that instantly upload to case files. There are gunshot detection and camera systems, and license plate readers. Yet, when it comes to our mobile office, the humble police car, we are far behind the times. Police departments need to do a better job of asking their folks what could be better and really listening when they get that feedback. That feedback, in turn, needs to go to these technology companies that are desperate for it. We need to stop thinking about how to change the current system to be better and envision what a great system would look like. The good news is that the data is all still there, but we just want to design a user interface that makes it easy to see and change and add to.
A few weeks after we got the Toughbooks, the word got out that there were games installed in the machine that hadn’t been removed. That summer of pinball was glorious, and you could see who was in the know by looking at their screens. The oversight was corrected, and pinball was replaced by the perpetual scrolling on cell phones. Officers deserve entering a report or running a plate be as easy as pinball. Let’s make that happen.
Graham Campbell was a NYPD police officer and is now a Washington, D.C., reserve officer. He works in the law enforcement technology industry.