Category Archives: 2.0 Technology

High tech roundup: February 2012

iPhone 4 cameraIf you came to this blog by way of Twitter or Facebook, you know that for several months I’ve been using the Scoop.It bookmarking service to aggregate news items about how police are using high tech. One reason I like it: its magazine-style format is nicely laid out, easy to read and easy to digest. Monthly I pull out articles that seem to revolve around a few particular themes. This month: digital investigative techniques, and transparency through video and other content.

Digital investigative techniques

Should police receive training in low-level online crimes? The UK-based Commons Science and Technology committee thinks so. This kind of strategy, like “Broken Windows” for the online world, would encourage police to care about the small problems in order to help citizens feel cared about and willing to partner to stop bigger crimes.

Also consider whether you, even if you don’t consider yourself a “high tech” investigator, need to geolocate images from mobile phones. A good step-by-step procedure comes from digital forensic examiner Girl, Unallocated. Take the time to try it out for yourself, and think about robbery, stalking, and other cases you might need geolocation data for.

Data visualizations — graphs, maps, and so on — can be important in court; would you create them if you knew how? Pete Warden documents his methodology, a process he says came via trial and error. It includes choosing a question, sketching the presentation, crunching the data—and finding the surprises. (Don’t be afraid of surprises during an investigation. They mean you’re doing good work.)

Making police work more transparent

Dashboard and body-worn cameras are up for debate in Nevada after Henderson police were filmed striking a motorist in diabetic shock; unions want more say in their installation and use. But as the Las Vegas Sun noted, “The city of Seattle and its police department, facing accusations of excessive force, have been sued seeking release of video footage. The department has lost tens of thousands of videos, the station, KOMO-TV, reported.”

I’ve written before about the importance of content that can show the public a police department’s need for better training. But if police are unwilling to make themselves more transparent, they are likely still to face the issue from other quarters. A op-ed noted:

Technology doesn’t just provide citizens with a way to tell their own version of events, it gives police departments all over the country a reason to implement much-needed reforms that can improve transparency and public trust. This will make cops safer and their jobs easier.”

Indeed, Baltimore police created new rules for public recordings of police. Follow suit, and keep up with your training, which — despite its traditional place on the chopping block in hard times — may just be more important now than ever.

Transparency in digital investigations

Of concern to citizens: how German police used Facebook to identify citizens, and how Denver police record witness descriptions. In both places, the human memory under duress is at issue. Going deeper, however, is the question: how do we use technology? In our drive to understand and adapt it, do we overrely on it?

You can’t, obviously, be transparent about everything in police work… but online engagement is a start toward the kind of transparency that puts citizens at ease enough to listen to you. My January column for discussed police departments as media platforms, and a related article from the Content Marketing Institute, “Creating Content that Serves Its Civic Duty,” provides several examples of government websites doing content right—encouraging public engagement.

As Luke Fretwell wrote just recently, “Creating sustainable, meaningful civic contributions to government” is hard to encourage much less measure. Yet government agencies can do it, as Cumbria (UK) police showed when they held a live webchat about Internet safety.

How are you communicating your agency’s use of high tech to the public?

Creative Commons License photo credit: jesus_leon

Don’t just tweet—curate

curating content for successAt this week, I wrote a back-to-basics column on using Twitter. The article ran long, so I didn’t get a chance to include a segment about a trend I’ve been noticing (and taking part in): the increasing importance of content curation.

Last month, the news that Twitter had acquired curation service Summify generated quite a bit of news. “Like some other services such as, Summify filtered a user’s activity streams, then used an algorithm to produce a daily e-mail with links to the most-shared content in their social networks,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek explained.

In other words, Summify helped Twitter users determine what was important without their having to filter tweets manually. And with Twitter building this capability into its service, think about what curation might mean to a law enforcement Twitter account.

Remember: people share what they think their followers will benefit from. At this point, relevance is in the eye of the beholder—not the content originator. How can you help them?

First, put high quality content out there for sharing. Well-written blogs and web pages, well-edited video, carefully chosen images will get your followers’ attention. What about your agency’s police work do you want people to focus on? Communicate it clearly, and you’ll improve your chances that they’ll notice it and share it among themselves.

Second, curate content that supports what you’re doing. Sgt. John Jackson of the Houston Police Department presented me with an idea: use a curation service like (or, my pick for Cops 2.0-related content) to package their various social streams for their audiences.

“Even better,” he wrote, “they could use it to bring some of their partners on board too. Crimestoppers, groups working with the mentally ill, homeless, veterans, etc.” Nonprofits, victim services advocates, community centers and others would be natural additions to a newsletter or curated stream. So would news articles highlighting a local-turned-broader issue across the nation.

This has been exactly the experience in the Hampshire (UK) Constabulary, Portsmouth City Centre Unit. Its, The Daily Ninah — named for the unit’s police transit van, which (in a nice example of less formal engagement) got its name from the CCU’s Twitter followers — has been running for about two weeks. Unit leader Sgt. Robert Sutton says:

I chose due to the format being easy to use, it self populates, you can add content and it looks like a newspaper! It is also easy for the reader to digest and navigate through.

“Naturally I draw from local Hampshire Constabulary Twitter accounts but also from others across the county that I find are interesting and who promote useful crime prevention information/advice by thinking outside of the box.

“I also like to draw from partner agencies who we can promote (for example @actionfrauduk @Directgov @ASBACTIONLINE @HantsCrimestopp) and encourage followers/readers to explore these websites for further useful information.”

It is, along with the unit’s Twitter account, a tactic that supports a strategy: as Sutton describes, “to communicate crime prevention advice and encourage engagement with the public…. What we want is to break down the stereotypical barriers about what people think of the police, open up and explain what we do and show that we aren’t just a uniform; there is someone there for you if you need us.” Curation is just one of the ways the Portsmouth CCU is translating those words into action.

Are you curating content for your agency? What services do you use, and what kinds of articles do you include?

Creative Commons License photo credit: Manchester Library

The future of policing: Public trust

Before I go into this week’s post, I want to draw your attention to a new project being undertaken by a college professor acquaintance who, like me, has worked extensively with law enforcement. In his Jan. 1 blog, he writes:

Seeking LE organization willing to work virtually with supervised university students.

The goal is to give students more exposure to real officers and police administrators and fewer TV cops.

Are you willing to partner with a handful of students with retired-LE professor oversight on a small project tailored to your department/team needs? All project ideas considered, prefer those reated to mobile technology, with no anticipated cost to your organization.

I got excited about this even before Carter referred his readers to Cops 2.0, so please head on over, read the rest of his post and let us know if you’re interested. Thanks!

Policing for a future generation

Carefully balanced, technology can lead the wayI find Carter’s work — bringing younger citizens into active law enforcement research — especially important because, as 2012 begins, I think we need to take stock of where policing currently sits. In recent months I’ve seen a couple of opinions that indicate community policing, as we knew it in the 1990s, is dead; meanwhile, technology provides police with ever-increasing amounts of data about private citizens. Law enforcement, along with the societies it polices, is clearly in transition as technology and privacy collide at unprecedented rates.

This is not just true of the kinds and amount of data an investigator can glean from social media, surveillance video, license plate readers, and so on. It will also increase as law enforcement becomes comfortable with technology such as:

How police use these technologies, the extent to which they use them, and what they do with the data will face intense public and legal scrutiny, as they should. Now’s the time to get comfortable with transparency; if you’re worried about the bad guys finding out how you use technology, then you need to get creative about understanding 1) what the public needs to know and 2) how to communicate it to reduce privacy fears without giving away too many details.

Transparency sits between accountability and exposure

This may be more important than you think. As Scott Dickson wrote the other day, some agencies remain steeped in politics, manipulating their crime statistics by asking officers not to take reports. This, as Scott writes, is a double public relations whammy: not only does it look bad to citizens, who are unlikely to support budget increases for such an unprofessional agency; it also hurts the agency’s ability to see (and thus respond to) emerging problem patterns.

That’s especially worrisome given the balancing act our culture finds itself in as we begin a new decade. This infographic from the Institute for the Future has an interesting item, a “critical balance” of exposure and accountability that notes:

In the face of growing demand for accountability, public exposure will emerge as as a multifaceted strategy for disrupting existing power structures, both hidden and obvious, both criminal and socially beneficial.

There is both danger and opportunity in that balance: danger to certain law enforcement power structures, like the kind that manipulate crime stats. But also opportunity, for innovative investigators to understand and exploit how criminal power structures are being disrupted.

Indeed, Tim Burrows made relevant predictions in his recent post for the IACP Social Media Beat:

  • The ‘love-in’ experienced, “just because” the public’s local police are using social media is over and the public will demand (and deserve) greater accountability.
  • There will be less tolerance for mistakes, faux pas, and ignorance.
  • Working partnerships with individuals of influence, community groups, professional partnerships, and other police agencies will be standard.

As arms of the government, it’s incumbent on police to provide fair leadership to their communities. The law enforcement commander who doesn’t believe he has to justify his agency’s technology use — who believes crime-fighting is justification unto itself — necessarily invites public scrutiny. So does the commander who takes advantage of grant money without a long-term strategy to go with it; both COPS and homeland security programs have seen this happen.

True transparency shows strength, not weakness

This month’s column describes using content to serve an agency’s goals, whether related specifically to social media, or more broadly to relationship-building. Besides that column, nearly two years ago (!) I wrote about one example of this kind of activity. There’s a lot of promise for communication. But also a lot of agencies that are so focused on the status quo that they can’t get out of their own way.

Digital content shared through social media can show how police are relevant and important to civil society, as well as weaknesses that need to be shored up. This is the exact opposite of stat manipulation because it’s not trying to cover over weakness; it’s leadership in asking for help to solve the problem.

Yes, the public needs to know a strong police force can competently and adequately enforce laws; but that’s during personal or community crisis. If an agency can’t provide services, in or out of crisis, because it lacks the funds to buy the technology that would enable that provision, then the public deserves to know up front, and deserves to become part of the solution. That was the promise of community policing.

What balances are you striking in your police work?

Creative Commons License photo credit: Calm Vistas

High tech roundup: December 2011

I was blinded by scienceIf you came to this blog by way of Twitter or Facebook, you know that for several months I’ve been using the Scoop.It bookmarking service to aggregate news items about how police are using high tech. One reason I like it: its magazine-style format is nicely laid out, easy to read and easy to digest.

Some highlights from this past month:

Newark police headquarters goes high tech

A “mission control” center for disaster response, a high-tech-investigations room that gives city detectives real-time access to federal crime databases — and a meeting room where community groups can meet with police leaders.

The way this story was packaged caught my eye because even with all the ostensibly “Big Brother” style high tech, some emphasis remained for low-tech face to face relationship-building. I’m pretty naive, but I’d like to think this means NPD will use that room to give adequate attention to those who are worried about the way they’re policing. It’s something for other departments to keep in mind as they move further into the realm of high tech.

Three stories on social network analytics

SAS turns social media analytics into intel weapon focuses on sentiment analysis in 28 languages, while Social network analytics saves lives in Iraq is about artificial intelligence. The SAS article is PR-heavy and the InfoWeek article is somewhat oblique (only so much can be discussed without compromising OPSEC), but both are interesting in that they look at technology police may be using in the not too distant future.

Along similar lines was an article about predictive analytics, which prompted me to post on Facebook: “Used the right way, this may be a hybrid between reactive and proactive/community policing. However, data can never replace human relationships, and police shouldn’t overrely on predictive policing.” It’s an argument I made earlier this year in writing about the value of HUMINT and community policing compared to high tech use.

A two-fer on the use of Predator drones

KXAN in Texas covered a convention of UAV enthusiasts, many of whom do help law enforcement on search and rescue missions. Just a day later, though, the LA Times featured law enforcement use of federal agencies’ drones, questioning whether the routine practice is wise. Although courts have ruled that warrantless aerial surveillance is legal — what’s done out in the open cannot be assumed to be legal — drones make surveillance more accessible to police. Once again, it’s officer safety vs. government transparency.

Predictions for law enforcement technology, community service

Finally, I didn’t bookmark this in Scoop.It but it caught my eye nonetheless, because of the predictions it made for the coming year. Most relevant:

  • A store will be where the customer says it is.
  • Augmented reality and plain old reality will merge.
  • Social traction will correlate to brand affinity.

In a law enforcement context:

If stores are going mobile, be prepared for customers to want to interact with police departments this way, too. I’m not talking just getting your text-message Nixle alerts; I mean e-government services like mobile citation payments, real-time crime mapping, crime reporting, etc. Is your website mobile-friendly? Do you have apps for citizens to use?

AR could be huge for law enforcement. The ability to layer information over buildings and faces, for instance, has enormous tactical implications. The only problem is budgetary. But if you’re fortunate enough to live near a university doing research in this area, that can be one good way to jump on the leading edge.

Finally, “social traction and brand affinity” simply mean that more people will pay attention to you online if you’re giving them information they can trust. Not what you think they should trust — but what they can rely on because it educates and is relevant to them. What they need to know, not what you want them to know.

How are you communicating your agency’s use of high tech to the public?

Creative Commons License photo credit: jumpinjimmyjava

How free Web tools save one small-town agency from new Nixle fees

CashMere months after Cops 2.0 began, a promising new service opened for business. Nixle, a one-way messaging service, meant that police who were still social media-shy could use Twitter, text messaging and other tools to send many different kinds of messages to their citizens — all for free.

That’s changed. Last week, Nixle announced that it would start charging its member agencies for use. The decision caught many departments off guard. Some are canceling their service. Others are paying in the short term, but looking for options.

At least one has found a solution, and it, too, is free. That this agency was one of Nixle’s first users is no small thing. Long-time readers of this blog may remember Tyrone, GA Police Chief Brandon Perkins from his glowing Nixle review (which continues to be one of the highest-traffic posts on this site). Now, Chief Perkins is here to tell us how free software is helping him stay in touch with his citizens.

My agency, a 16 officer department just south of Atlanta, was the first in the State of Georgia and the 16th in the United States to join Nixle back in April 2009.

The move brought immediate positive press coverage to the agency and an influx of highly positive comments from our citizens. We wrote policy and trained our field supervisors in its use so that emergency messages could be sent 24/7 – a move that got us even more recognition. Agencies from across the country were calling me to find out how the service worked, how we were training our officers, and requesting copies of my policy.

It was an amazing concept and, as a budget conscious administrator, I was extremely thankful that it was offered at no cost to first responder agencies. I have to admit that I was skeptical because no self respecting business man would offer anything for free to the government, but we and thousands of other agencies were assured that we would not be charged for this service – Nixle was funded by a sister company that charged for their services in the private sector.

The honeymoon lasted just shy of two years.

From free to fee

All of Nixle’s member agencies received an email last week explaining that they would begin charging for most of their services effective April 29, 2011. The cost would be $1495 for the first year – a “loyalty discount” – and then a minimum fee of $3000 per year after that depending on population.

I was on the phone with their corporate offices within five minutes of reading the email and, apparently, I wasn’t alone. The representative that I talked to advised me that they had received calls from several unhappy agencies.

As a consolation, they were going to continue to provide all members with the ability to send emergency text alerts for free. Thanks, but no thanks. I can see the writing on the wall and I’m simply not going to wait for the other shoe to drop.

So what is an agency with a limited budget and a loyal following on a very stable and popular communication system to do when the provider they relied on and helped to build (yes, I went there) goes to a fee based business model? Three words: Open. Source. Software.

WordPress to the rescue

Simply put, my agency already had a website that was built on the free WordPress platform. All I had to do was install two new plugins (they were free, too) and we had our own nearly automatic mass communications system. The cost? About $10 a year for the domain name and about $90 per year for a hosting account (in our case, we share a hosting plan with the city).

I got the message from Nixle last Thursday, installed and tested the plugins on Friday, and communicated Nixle’s intention to begin charging us and our lack of funding or desire to pay for this service to my citizens (using Nixle’s system, of course) on Saturday.

The plugins that I used were SMS Text Message and Subscribe2. (You can also find these by doing a search in the ‘Install Plugin’ area in the Admin section of Word Press.)

How the plugins work for communication

As of Wednesday, we had over 200 members on our new system and growing. I’ve received several emails from my citizens thanking me for being fiscally responsible and for continuing in our commitment to providing them with real-time information via our new locally managed system – I’m a bigger winner than Charlie Sheen!

Unlike Nixle, my solution will not allow us to simultaneously send an email and text alert to a subscriber’s cell phone. Instead, an email is automatically sent to all subscribers when we post to our blog and we have to go to the SMS module within the Admin area of our site to send text messages.

Admittedly, this is not the “cleanest” process, but we will only be sending texts for major emergencies which are rare in my community and the text message interface is extremely user-friendly. All other messages – equivalent to Nixle’s “Community” level messages – will be submitted as a blog post and our citizens will get an email alert containing the text of the post and a link to it on our blog.

We have used Nixle to consistently send an average of 4 to 5 (mostly non-emergency related) messages per month to our subscriber base of nearly 700 members over the past two years and I am confident that our new system, although it hasn’t been around long enough to prove itself, will do a fine job for us and our loyal subscribers.

For those who may be interested in pursuing this route, Word Press is a very stable and user-friendly platform, so the learning curve for your staff should be minimal. I am currently the only member of my agency who has any responsibility with our website and I spend less than an hour per week maintaining it. A cron job performs an automatic backup of my database and sends it to my email each afternoon and adding a post or page to the site is as easy as sending an email. In fact, Word Press can be setup so that you can actually post via email!

The bottom line is this: Nixle provides an amazing set of services that any agency would be proud to offer its citizens, but there are other ways to get the job done without raising your millage rate. The internet is full of open source software and applications that can be combined to accomplish nearly any task you can think of. In some cases, it might even be financially feasible to pay a software developer to write a system to fit your needs – the upfront cost might be high, but once you own it it’s yours!

I am available to discuss our system and to provide guidance to any emergency response agency who may be interested. I can be reached at or you can get all of my contact information and see our system in action at

Creative Commons License photo credit: JMRosenfeld

Workers vs. widgets: policing in the age of high tech

police HUMINT surveillance camerasLast month, Federal News Radio reported that budget cuts to the Defense Department meant choosing between high-tech firepower, and the troops who would become “irrelevant” during a war that implemented it.

Could high tech make police irrelevant?

The Memphis Daily News’ article about information and intelligence sharing among Tennessee law enforcement officers shows the ways in which high tech makes traditional policing more efficient — ultimately, needing fewer officers to do the same amount of work.

This can be especially profound in communities like Rialto (Calif.), where the police department has lost about 10 officers in one year. Web-based crime reporting and crime mapping, together with traditional community policing, has led to decreases in most crimes. Likewise as points out, cameras are cheaper than hiring police officers, especially in small towns.

The hidden costs of high tech policing

On the other hand, in Columbus (Ohio), these force multipliers carry hidden costs. Training, upgrades and support staff — the Columbus Police Department’s technical unit has grown from 1 to 20 people — can be pricey.

Last month, The Crime Report provided a good rundown of other high tech issues facing law enforcement. Covering topics as diverse as video evidence, biometrics, social media, predictive policing, and GPS, the article brought up three important points:

  1. There are no substitutes for good traditional police work, which frequently figured into even the most high tech of investigations.
  2. Law enforcement must address the potential for abuse of technology if they are to be effective.
  3. Technology is often seen as a “panacea” rather than critically compared alongside more traditional approaches.

Bodies vs. tech

These issues appear to be coming to bear most strongly in Chicago, where a manpower shortage together with violent crime is colliding with a push toward more high tech use. On the tech side, now-resigned Police Superintendent Jody Weis argues that the technology itself, including consolidating intelligence services under his office,  social network analysis in combating gangs, and the use of high tech surveillance cameras, (along with training) is responsible for reductions in crime.

However, in an opinion about the surveillance cameras, blogger Second City Cop speaks for many officers when he argues, “You know what protects the senior citizen? Cops on the streets.” Chicago media have reported that the 200 expected new hires this year won’t make up for the estimated 300 officers leaving the force, and there are 950 total vacancies. Meanwhile, Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel pledged during his campaign to put 1,000 more officers on the streets, not just through hiring but also through administrative changes.

Human vs. electronic intelligence

Former blogger Joe the Cop put this in perspective for me by recalling news articles about intelligence immediately following 9/11. “I remember reading more than a few articles that discussed the lack of HUMINT — human intelligence — as opposed to the availability of electronic data gathered through high-tech methods,” he told me.

“Just as a special ops soldier is needed to run counterinsurgency on the ground, and a rifleman is needed to occupy ground long enough for stability to return, a beat cop is needed to project safety on a given street corner.  Cameras and computer analysis don’t do that–they are largely reactive tools that allow for more effective investigation of crimes after they occur.  It’s a cop in uniform on the street who deters crimes.”

Technology cannot multiply a force, in other words, without the force deploying it. In Columbus, the tech unit’s commander was quoted as saying: “Our challenge… isn’t the technology or the funding; it’s having enough staff to manage all the different projects right now.”

Indeed, it is not about playing technology and staff off against each other, as the Defense Department implies. Instead, it’s about figuring out how the cops on the street work in conjunction with those in the predictive analysis unit.

Joe’s point about HUMINT plays this up. Cops on the street deter crimes, and while they are doing that, they are also noticing things. Fundamentally, this is community policing: knowing enough about the neighborhood and the people in it to know when something is amiss.

That’s why taking cops out of cruisers and putting them back on foot was so important: with driving occupying so much of their attention, they couldn’t see the same things they could while standing on the corner, couldn’t hear the same things they could while listening to passersby.

HUMINT provides context to the intel coming in to predictive analysis centers from technology. This is even more true when the officers can use technology — think images and video uploaded from the street to the center, or even augmented reality — to enhance their observations in real time, rather than at roll call or in meetings.

What kinds of technical skills will police need for these roles — and more importantly, how might we turn those assumptions on their head? That’ll be the topic in my next post.

Where do you see the balance between technology and personnel? Leave a comment!

Creative Commons License photo credit: BinaryApe