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.
“Through the pilot, we learned that there is a lot of tech support that needs to go into this,” says Bealefeld. “I have 2,000 cops that we’re going to be issuing them to but we don’t have the resources to provide tech support to all nine districts simultaneously. It will take about 10 or 11 months to get them operational.”
There already have been some valuable lessons learned in the project that will be beneficial to other agencies considering similar efforts. The BPD Blackberries are also equipped with GPS capability which provides a means of determining officer location. Of course, this function caused some concern among the officers.
“Not all the officers are a fan of GPS, but the emergency-locate is extremely valuable,” he says. “From a supervisory perspective, I don’t want to know where the cars are. I want to know where the officers are. Fortunately, the Verizon people have been helping develop an application that provides the information that we need.
“The biggest challenge—and I’ve been here 30 years—you can’t just change cop culture. Some of the officers are concerned about the technology and wondering if it’s a tool that’s designed to discipline. You have to break down the suspicion and demonstrate the real win,” says Bealefeld. “The best advocates will be those who start benefitting from the technology. Officers have already realized the advantage of having the device to confront a person providing false information. The bad guy can memorize someone’s name and DOB but there’s no getting around the photo.”
The GPS functionality yielded another lesson for departments considering this approach: GPS requires a regular transmission of data, making battery life a challenge. By reducing the location refresh rate, the battery life was extended significantly.
Putting handheld query capability into the hands of officers is something that has tremendous promise, especially since many assignments operate without the benefit of a vehicle and many agencies really don’t have the ability to fund an elaborate in-vehicle computer query system. Combining that capability with a device that’s also a functional phone makes it an even more interesting endeavor.
On the other side of the country, there has been a somewhat similar effort underway in the San Diego region. The Automated Regional Justice Information System (ARJIS) has provided handheld devices to hundreds of officers in a variety of assignments. Also based on off-the-shelf cellular phones, the ARJIS project has been designed to provide in-hand query capability for officers in agencies ranging from local to federal. For more information on this effort, check out the article in the September 2009 issue of Law Officer or go to www.lawofficer.com and keyword search “ARJIS.”
I’ve had the opportunity throughout the last few years to be involved in some technology projects that push the envelope a little bit, and I’ve always been a big believer that technology should support our troops in a positive and constructive way. However, just because a technology exists doesn’t mean that it has an appropriate role in law enforcement.
Unfortunately, there have been more than a few situations where well-meaning but ill-informed police administrators have used grant money to embrace a “solution in search of a need” instead of meeting a true need of their organization. The Baltimore and ARJIS handheld projects show no signs of this misstep. When fully actualized, both of these projects will significantly enhance officer effectiveness and safety. These efforts to leverage technology and allow officers to get back to some of the basics of policing are commendable.
I was particularly intrigued by Bealefeld’s comment about “investing in our cops,” because this is something that some administrators have forgotten. When an agency receives grant or stimulus money, the first priority should be to support the core tenets of policing and serving the public. These dollars come from the pockets of every working American and should be viewed with the idea that we are all paying for the projects.
I strongly encourage every decision maker to think twice before committing this funding to another piece of equipment that will sit idle in the parking lot “waiting for the big one.” The best approach
is to conduct a true gap analysis of your agency’s capabilities and then target an area that will close the gap. Remember:
Consider equipment or programs that have proven to provide a force-multiplier benefit by helping officers to be more effective and capable. (One example is license plate reader technology.) We’re all being
forced to do more with less and the best approach to effective public safety is by investing in our people and providing tools that will make them more capable and successful.
—Dale Stockton, Editor in chief