Baltimore Police patch
Patch image provided by Dale Stockton Baltimore Police patch
FEATURED IN LEADERSHIP
As the country careened dangerously close to depression, the federal government began providing stimulus funding designed to get things back on track. Some of those funds were provided to public safety, allowing agencies to purchase equipment or fund programs. In many cases, agencies have chosen to purchase big-ticket items with their stimulus funds—special units vehicles, up-graded headquarters, etc.
Not so in Baltimore.
In an exclusive interview with Law Officer Magazine, the Baltimore Police Department’s (BPD) Commissioner Frederick Bealefeld described to me why he decided to spend stimulus dollars on a technology project that will allow officers to engage more effectively on the street and in the communities they serve.
The Streets of Baltimore
Like many agencies around the country, the BPD has been challenged by a tight budget and shrinking staff. The calls for service, though, keep coming.
“We handle 1.2 million calls a year,” says Bealefeld. “When you’re dealing with a reduced patrol force, not everyone has the opportunity to have a patrol officer outside their home. We are encouraging our officers to get out of the car and walk around the neighborhoods and the beat area.”
So Bealefeld sought to find a way to increase the effectiveness and reach of his already limited staff resources. He wanted, specifically, to improve his officers’ engagement with the communities they serve.
“The primary motive is coming back to the core concept of community engagement,” says Bealefeld. “When you work on community engagement, you start thinking about how to put cops in contact with the people they serve. The secondary motive is targeted enforcement.”
Bealefeld knew that he would need to do more than simply tell his officers to engage; he had to provide them with tools to make it possible. When the stimulus funds became available, the commissioner recognized the opportunity to use technology to let the officers fully connect to the neighborhoods they served.
That technology came in the form of a Verizon Blackberry loaded with a product called PocketCop. The combination of the off-the-shelf cellular device and mission-specific software permits officers to have the primary functions of a mobile data computer in their hand.
Like many jurisdictions, the BPD’s cars have mobile-data computers that permit officers to run checks on persons and vehicles, as well as handle CAD transmissions. With Pocket-Cop and the Verizon Blackberry, the basic functions of the MCT are available anywhere and don’t depend on the presence of a patrol car. Not only does this allow patrol officers to operate effectively away from their vehicle, it means that officers in assignments without a mobile computer can benefit from the same information that was previously available only in a patrol car or by making a request through an over-burdened dispatch center.
Recognizing that other agencies were using stimulus funding to buy larger, more single-item types of equipment, Bealefeld says his intent was to use the funding to benefit the front line. “God bless the people buying helicopters and armored vehicles but we’re investing in our cops,” he says.
A project like this isn’t without its challenges. The sheer enormity of it would be enough to dissuade many administrators, but Bealefeld is committed to the effort. “We’ll start with all the cops in patrol,” Bealefeld says. “My endgame is that all sworn members will have this device with them.”
Part of Bealefeld’s motivation for the project comes from his recognition that public perception of crime is lagging behind the reality of the decline of crime.
“The stats have gone down but the perception is still that there is a lot of crime,” says Bealefeld. “The quickest way to work through this is to work with the community in a very visible way; for them to see the officer in their community on a regular basis and dealing with day-to-day challenges.”
He points out that the new phones help provide an easy way for officers to confront frequent problems. “Not surprisingly, citizens most often complain about trash and graffiti,” he says. “The camera on the device really helps. [Officers] can take photos of what’s bothering the local residents and send it back electronically to a neighborhood coordinator that can get the right city department involved.”
Because Blackberries are, at their core, cellular phones, the officers have a means of communicating effectively with necessary resources. “They can make phone calls when they need to,” explains Bealefeld. “Cops are reluctant to give out their phone numbers; with these, if they want to give out the numbers, they can.”
The more I talked with Commissioner Bealefeld, the more it became apparent that he has a realistic perspective and a pragmatic approach to this large scale technology effort. Due to the nature of the project and the requisite tech support, the phones will be rolled out over a period of approximately a year.