Tag Archives: Community Policing

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 Officer.com 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

Occupy policing: Shaping community dialogue through leadership

occupy wall street policingA Washington Post headline this week caught my eye: “Police want to stay out of Occupy story.” As quoted in the article:

“What keeps police chiefs up at night is that somehow the purpose of the movement will become about actions that the police have taken,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a D.C.-based law enforcement think tank.

That’s exactly what is happening. Because of police actions, some OWS supporters view law enforcement as part of the bought-and-paid-for corporate machine; and some Tea Partiers, though they may support actions taken against OWS, have perceived police as part of Big Government.

At this point, the more “outside” police try to be, the more they will fan the flames of misperception on both sides. This is perhaps exemplified in a recent Alternet post (emphasis mine):

PERF organizes conference calls among police officials to discuss areas of common concern. Last year, it held a conference call among police chiefs who were worried that Arizona’s harsh immigration law, SB 1070, would drive a wedge between law enforcement agencies and the immigrant communities they are supposed to protect and serve. Fox “News” ran a story at the time alleging that PERF was some sort of far-left police organization and therefore illegitimate. Now we’re getting a similar story from progressives, which is discouraging.

Shaping the story you’re part of

For three years Cops 2.0 and resources like it have existed to help police learn how to use social media (and other forms of technology) to build relationships with the public. Yet we see little evidence of any such relationships — online or off — in any of the cities where violence, or even nonviolence, has taken place.

What if police used social tools to shape the story they’re already a part of? Not their side — a cop’s-eye perspective on arrests taking place — but the story itself. Consider this largely positive version of PERF and OWS policing from the Las Vegas Sun (emphasis mine):

From Atlanta to Washington, D.C., officials talked about how authorities could make camps safe for protesters and the community. Officials also learned about the kinds of problems they could expect from cities with larger and more established protest encampments….

and:

Interim [Oakland, Calif.] Police Chief Howard Jordan said… a theme was how the atmosphere at the camps had shifted from a haven for peaceful protest to one for criminal behavior.

“Some chiefs had been tolerant of the progressive movement, but that all changed when the criminal element showed up,” Jordan said. “As police, you can’t allow anything that foster criminal activities in any city.”

Jordan said that he and other police brass and city officials began planning last week for officers to remove the camp outside City Hall for a second time after collecting enough evidence that gang activity and an open-air drug market had emerged at the park.

and most telling of all:

Portland (Ore.) Mayor Sam Adams said the primary issue among the mayors was how to get a message to a movement that didn’t have any clear leadership. “A lot of time was spent on how do you effectively communicate with a group that doesn’t have a leader?” Adams said.

Monitoring, influence, and “joining the conversation”

I am quite sure that police are monitoring online conversations for insight and, yes, intelligence about what’s going on in the encampments. But Adams’ question indicates fundamental misunderstanding about the power of social media monitoring in helping an organization learn how — and with whom — to communicate.

Setting up a Facebook page and a Twitter account (or a blog, YouTube channel or podcast) only prepares the agency to keep broadcasting using new channels. In other words, engaging with fans and followers about the content you push is merely a discussion about business as usual.

If police really wanted to use social media to “join the conversation,” they’d join the conversation — the one that matters to the citizens. Not to be political, but to involve protesters in finding the best balance between free speech and the laws that make for civil society.

And, secondarily, to use all that online intelligence to educate themselves about the group. In fact, many movements online are lateral and leaderless — yet nevertheless benefit from informal leaders, or “influencers,” whose opinions and thoughts resonate with many.

So in much the same way that physically blending into the OWS crowds would allow police officers to see informal leaders and group dynamics, learning who’s blogging, tweeting and shooting video (and what they’re writing or shooting about) would help police determine critical online influencers.

And what would they do with that information? For starters, they might solicit those individuals’ help, both online and off. The “criminal element” dilutes OWS’ message too, and while protesters wouldn’t want to be treated as “informers,” they should at least be given the opportunity — as any Neighborhood Watch — to have a hand in protecting one another.

This is the story police should be telling about their role. Chiefs coming together is a start, but making communities safe needs to involve the communities themselves.

Incidentally, these are ideas reflected by former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper in an interview with Democracy Now (emphasis mine):

“…if the police and the community in a democratic society are really working hard—and it is hard work—to forge authentic partnerships rather than this unilateral, paramilitary response to these demonstrations, that the relationship itself serves as a shock absorber. ”

Expanding further in his own article for The Nation, Stamper advocates:

Assuming the necessity of radical structural reform, how do we proceed? By building a progressive police organization, created by rank-and-file officers, “civilian” employees and community representatives. Such an effort would include plans to flatten hierarchies; create a true citizen review board with investigative and subpoena powers; and ensure community participation in all operations, including policy-making, program development, priority-setting and crisis management. In short, cops and citizens would forge an authentic partnership in policing the city. And because partners do not act unilaterally, they would be compelled to keep each other informed, and to build trust and mutual respect—qualities sorely missing from the current equation.

In the business world, marketing strategists talk about the need for “social business,” an organization into which social media are integrated at every possible level — channels that facilitate communication, which in turn promotes the kind of structure Stamper envisions. (It’s worth noting that these are dynamics already appearing among the civilian protesters at OWS.)

A police force whose actions reinforce the worst perceptions is an ineffectual police force, at a time when our society needs leadership more than ever. Leadership isn’t telling people to go shop, or go home, or go get a bath and a job. It’s understanding why people are using demonstration to show they care about their society, and from there, understanding — and talking about — how to work together to keep the peace.

How can you shape the kind of story that develops into dialogue about how you police your community?

Creative Commons License photo credit: jorenerene

Creating partners in public safety

109 Precinct Community Council Meeting, September 7, 2010A couple of articles caught my eye last week. First, there was Good Old Bill’s wistful story of a spontaneous decision to engage in some community policing:

People see that little of us these days, other than in a quick fleeting visit or by passing them whilst preoccupied whilst on foot – or more likely – by car. When they do see us we are generally busy thinking about what we have to do and that we have X amount of outstanding jobs that are “backing up” and need dealing with and that we have a pot of crimes that need investigating between all the calls for service….

All of this has resulted in people forming opinions of us. We are arrogant, unapproachable and uninterested [being some of the most popular ones]. In turn, we have formed opinions that the public don’t like us and that we are unappreciated and not understood. It’s a vicious circle.

We cannot control what opinions people form, but we can try to influence the reasons why they think them.

If only we had more opportunities like those I had this week. I think all of us would benefit from it. But I didn’t get a “tick” for doing it, and it’s not measurable by some kind of statistic.

Then, police leaders’ point of view on where policing is headed, from a summit in Seattle:

“The fact is, we’re in the process of constructing the next iteration of police work,” [Chief Garry McCarthy of the Newark Police Department] said. “Initially, police were very reactive,” responding to crimes after they’d been committed, he said.

“Then proactive policing came in, and we talked about preventing crime. The next step is preventing crime in concert and with the blessings of the community,” McCarthy said. “It’s where we’re going as a profession.”

[King County Sheriff Sue Rahr] said police agencies are good at teaching officers physical skills, but now they need to focus on officers’ interpersonal skills.

Instead of focusing on building trust through community forums and other macro-level efforts, Rahr said the focus is shifting to the micro level by building trust through individual contacts.

“We need to build community trust one interaction at a time,” she said.

What austerity means to community

Both in the United Kingdom and in the United States, what is called “austerity measures” in the UK and “budget cuts” in the US has impacted policing severely. Just this past week, the Sacramento Police department was the latest to announce deep cuts, layoffs too. Many specialized units are being eliminated, and officers will respond primarily to emergencies.

Yet both Good Old Bill and Sheriff Rahr are calling for more one-to-one interactions as a way to stave off the psychological impact of these measures. What’s up with that?

I’ve worried about what cuts would mean to high tech crime investigation and digital forensics. The more entrenched technology becomes, the more need to examine it for evidence of crime. Yet as police departments pull staff from these tasks and reassign them to the street (or lay them off altogether), the return to a more physical form of policing means less opportunity for officers to practice their digital — along with their interpersonal — skills.

The answer may just lie in those one-to-one interactions. Last year, a Denver Post article detailed how residents of Colorado Springs (Colo.) were taking a more active role in their own quality of life maintenance, the issues behind the “Broken Windows” theory of policing.

This reflects an article from San Diego, in which police noted that community policing was never meant to be permanent; it was meant to be transitory, enabling the community to be proactive and rely less on police. This transition may be underway already, even if we weren’t expecting it.

Legal and social complications

Still, questions remain on legal and social issues, especially with regard to high tech crime and evidence. Two other stories are troubling because of what they mean for privacy and how civilians relate to one another.

In Michigan, the ACLU has for a long time demanded to know how state troopers use cell phone forensic tools. Other law enforcement agencies are starting to put these tools in cruisers for officers to use, to save time and enable more evidence collection with less manpower.

However, and not just because of the ACLU, forensic professionals hesitate to cheer such decisions because good case law is predicated on proper forensic process. With great power comes great responsibility, after all; is it enough simply to train the officers on the use of the tool? A forensic unit is not a radar unit; it takes more than tuning forks to validate that the tool works properly.

In addition, The Independent noted that in the UK, victims of theft have engaged in some degree of vigilantism to find the high-tech equipment they’ve found stolen:

From Surrey to San Francisco, software is doing the job of the police as vigilantes use tracking programmes more commonly seen in CIA action thrillers to locate missing computers and phones. In April, the ex-England rugby captain Will Carling traced his stolen iPad to a block of flats in Woking. He knocked on all the doors – to no avail – then traced its movement through the town while detailing the chase on Twitter. The iPad was eventually handed in to local police.

Certainly this is convenient, but in some cases it may violate state laws. In California, for instance, no “safe harbor” law exists for crime victims to monitor stolen equipment in real time. That means residents who use these tools may be violating anti-wiretapping laws, and laws designed to protect private communications — yes, even on stolen equipment.

In other words, police can’t use that evidence in court, or at least can use only the data not collected in real time, and may be barred from using the information even with a search warrant.

More recently, vigilantism reared its head in Vancouver following the riots over the city’s Stanley Cup loss:

[B.C. Civil Liberties Association David] Eby said he understood the community’s anger, given the destruction and chaos, but said that bloggers run the risk of labelling bystanders as criminals.

“The concern that we have is when pictures are posted to private websites, the suggestion is made that people may have broken the law,” he said. “There were many people in the downtown area that were shocked, stunned, appalled that were not breaking any laws.”

It seems clear to me that in order to help citizens navigate these issues, police cannot simply return to the “bread and butter” of traditional policing. If they do, then that leaves only federal law enforcement — the Secret Service, the Internet Crimes Complaint Center, etc. — which is also unsustainable over the long term.

If we:

  • don’t want to return to traditional reactive policing because it will undo all the hard work we’ve put in over 20 years
  • don’t have time or resources to devote to proactive policing over the next 20 years
  • are truly taking the next step towards empowering citizens to keep themselves safe

Then we should consider treating them almost as rookie cops, finding field training officers and attorneys who can help them navigate legal and social issues as they become proper partners in public safety. It goes without saying that social media could help pave the way.

I know of detectives and officers who already do this, making the time with their agencies’ blessing. How might yours make room among their regular duties?

Image: lancmanoffice via Flickr

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 PoliceOne.com 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

What budget cuts mean to online public safety

budget cuts police social media

How are budget cuts affecting your social strategy?

In April, the Wall Street Journal highlighted law enforcement budget cuts and what they meant for public safety:

Since January, Tulsa has laid off 89 police officers, 11% of its force. That has pushed the city to the forefront of a national movement, spurred by hard times, to revamp long-held policing strategies.

In the crosshairs: community-policing initiatives created over the past two decades, such as having officers work in troubled schools, attend neighborhood-watch meetings and help small-business owners address nuisance crimes like graffiti.

Other cuts listed include investigation, the traffic unit, undercover work, and surveillance.

In the past, I’ve thought social media could be the kind of force-multiplying technology that could help with community outreach where officers on a beat could not. Except now, I’m not so sure. You see, Tulsa has a good social media presence – or did. Now, its efforts are catch as catch can.

Struggling to reach the online community

I talked to Tulsa PIO Jason Willingham about all these issues: why some of his agency’s social media efforts are thriving, and others not; how he and his partner, down from a 3-person staff to 2, are managing their time; and what their tradeoffs are.

“We used to blog a lot, but now it’s fallen by the wayside,” says Willingham. Likewise the podcast, which was once maintained by a civilian volunteer together with an officer. The officer was laid off, and the civilian moved away. “We didn’t have the expertise to podcast well, and the community that’s into podcasting is small,” Willingham explains.

Thus the agency has “evolved” to microblogging: primarily, via Nixle, which is fed to Twitter. (Willingham says the agency’s Facebook page was originally intended for recruiting, so while it is maintained, it’s not a focus.) In Nixle, he and his partner have found “one of the easiest and most effective tools” for community outreach.

That’s because of the diversity of media to which Nixle publishes, including email and SMS. Email especially makes for popular forwards, says Willingham.

That’s far less work for Willingham, who divides his time among his duties as PIO, Crime Stoppers coordinator, and bomb squad member; and his partner, who is a training sergeant. Even so, Willingham says, he can do 3-5 interviews with media per day, and often finds himself coming to work on furlough days and days off.

“It’s hard to manage,” he says. “I feel a lot of guilt over all the things I could be doing, that I’m not.” For instance, every other week he makes rounds at the TV stations in order to talk about the department’s most wanted. Couldn’t social media make this easier?

No. First, any self-produced videos would be lower resolution, not professional quality enough for news stations to use, or the department to feel comfortable with. Second, it’s not the video clips that take the time – it’s finding the right suspects to broadcast during those 45 seconds. However, says Willingham, “We get a lot of tips, and we do find people, so we think the time spent is worth it.”

Civilians, mentioned in the Wall Street Journal, might help, but Willingham thinks these hires are another few years off. As for more widespread officer use, he agrees that this might help – TPD’s open media relations policy allows any officer to talk to media at any time – but again, two issues are in play:

First, the officers are simply too busy. Although the chief wants to return from a “sector” patrol system to a more community-friendly “beat” system, officers may get to know residents and business owners better, but that doesn’t mean they’d have the time to talk with them online.

Social strategy begins on the street

Willingham admits officer morale is low, which affects their ability to be more proactive and not simply call-hop. The reinstitution of the beat system may help, but coming to know the same “problem” residents may not.

Even so, TPD has a chance to lay the groundwork for a future, stronger social presence. Over time, they won’t just come to know people; they’ll come to know problems, resources, geography; of the people, they’ll learn who the community influencers are, both vocal and not.

Of such knowledge are problem-solving relationships built. This will not be easy – call-hopping does not lend itself to relationship-building, and some community members already don’t believe their officers are doing their best. But it’s not impossible, especially given the agency’s openness to social tools.

Social media does require a time commitment, and police do need to be online, at least in some capacity. Tulsa police have the benefit of having already tested many of the tools. They have what is working for their needs and current resources, so that when they are ready to pick it back up, they should be able to do so easily enough.

Meanwhile, they might introduce official social communication slowly, perhaps with an internal social program; or in the community, start with one small problem (say, the drag racing mentioned in the article), and build out from there.

Until then, though, Willingham says he continues to monitor local blogs and other mentions of Tulsa PD, as well as website statistics. “While its hard to put a percentage on time spent, I can say we use the numbers to determine where and what people want to know,” he says.

This has already had one result: a website redesign planned to launch in mid-summer. “We hope that this will simplify the content that we put out and make things a little more user friendly,” he adds. Will that include a blog? Possibly – but:

“Again [we] are concerned with not being able to provide a quality product 100% of the time. We have gone down the road of half hearted projects and that sends the wrong message before the reader or viewer even looks at the content. Hopefully, we can zero in on what works for our staff as well as what our consumers want so we can provide a quality product that is feasible for our department.”

Is your agency hurting for personnel? How is this affecting your social efforts or interest?

Image: SqueakyMarmot via Flickr