As the law enforcement community continues to explore new technologies — from predictive analytics to social media — to assist in crime prevention and public safety efforts, a new report revealed a need to improve the law enforcement community’s knowledge of new technologies and practices for leveraging those technologies.
The new study, High-Priority Information Technology Needs for Law Enforcement, conducted by the RAND Corporation Information and Geospatial Technologies Center, which is part of the National Institute of Justice’s (NIJ) National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center system, said the center received “strong and repeated calls” to improve the dissemination of knowledge about technology in general.
The NIJ, which was tasked by the Homeland Security Act of 2002 to serve as the national focal point for work on criminal justice technology, conducts programs that “improve the safety and effectiveness of law enforcement technology and improve access to such technology by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.”
The NIJ’s mission is complicated, however, by having a very small budget to serve the large US law enforcement community, which is estimated to contain close to 18,000 agencies, including approximately 12,500 local departments, 3,000 sheriffs’ offices, 50 state agencies, 1,700 special jurisdiction agencies and 600 “other.”
“This situation requires strategic planning information, both to help NIJ make the best investments to leverage its limited funds and to help the range of technology developers supporting law enforcement better understand the law enforcement community’s needs and priorities,” the report stated.
The researchers identified three broad areas that need work: law enforcement community’s knowledge of technology and practices, a need to improve the sharing and use of law enforcement-related information and a need to conduct research and development (R&D) on a range of topics.
Law Enforcement’s knowledge of IT and its dissemination can be improved
Although the report indicated there have been a wide range of efforts to disseminate technology information to law enforcement practitioners—including CrimeSolutions.gov, JUSTNET.org (NLECTC’s portal), NIJ’s web site (NIJ.gov), and the National Criminal Justice Reference Service portal (NCJRS.gov)—these efforts “reflect needs that have been unmet.”
Consequently, to improve dissemination efforts, what is needed is strategic coordination rather than entirely new efforts.
The researchers recommended designating a federal coordinator for technology-related outreach to facilitate the creation and monitoring of a dissemination strategy to assist law enforcement in learning about and using key technologies.
Moreover, the strategy needs to be a living document. The report stated the “strategy is meant to be a living schedule showing what dissemination activities are going on, not a one-time paper document that is unlikely to have a real-world impact.”
A crucial component of the dissemination strategy will be partnering with associations, including practitioner, researcher and developer associations. Law enforcement agency representatives indicate that they receive the bulk of their information on technologies from these associations.
“Partnering with researcher and developer associations appears to be the most promising pathway to gets needs and operational considerations captured from practitioners out to researchers and developers and to provide pointers to key development resources,” the report stated.
Sharing, displaying and using information effectively is a major challenge
Enabling the sharing of information across law enforcement systems is a significant challenge from a technical, organizational and commercial standpoint. Information-sharing efforts to date have had limited coverage and have been inconsistent with each other due to the difficulty of coordinating multiple organizations and efforts.
Moreover, it is often difficult for agencies to learn about all the tools and technologies available to them. An unpublished study by the center found dozens of key research and development elements are still needed to facilitate information-sharing.
In addition to sharing information within law enforcement, there also is a need to improve mechanisms for communicating with the public. The use of social media, for example, is a vital tool for improving information sharing with the public.
The researchers recommended a federally sponsored coordination role to maintain a master list of outstanding needs and corresponding tasks to be done to supportlaw enforcement information-sharing, as well as to monitor the information-sharing tasks.
In addition, the federally sponsored coordinator is needed to “capture which information-sharing projects are addressing the required tasks, work with the sponsoring organizations to deconflict efforts if necessary, and advocate for addressing key needs and tasks that are not being addressed.”
Related to the issue of sharing law enforcement information is the challenge of displaying and using it once received. Law enforcement professionals have called for tools to display situational awareness information, such as dashboards, which display information to users at all levels.
The researchers recommended undertaking work to provide common operational picture/dashboard displays to law enforcement officers.
“The center is seeing progress in this area,” the report said. “We have seen the emergence of dashboards from vendors and individual departments that display information; center researchers have also talked with several providers of commercial dashboards (that monitor the status of commercial processes, such as order flows and supply chains) interested in entering the area.”
Additional areas need research and development
The report identified a number of technology areas requiring additional research, development, testing and evaluation.
These areas include improving security, privacy and civil rights policies for using IT; making law enforcement IT systems affordable for their entire life cycle; improving systems for monitoring and protecting the health of officers; and improving the use of a range of deployable sensors, such as body-worn cameras, field biometrics, electronic evidence collection systems and video surveillance systems.
The report also noted the overarching need to identify promising practices that can leverage IT effectively to reduce crime. In particular, two promising areas that law enforcement have been leveraging to assist in crime prevention are predictive analytics and social media.
Predictive policing is the use of analytical techniques to identify promising targets for police intervention to help prevent crime, solve past crime, and identify potential offenders and victims.
For example, Homeland Security Today reported last year that although the majority of US law enforcement agencies believe crime-fighting and crime analytics technology will become an industry norm in the near future, budget limitations are impacting their ability to implement the software.
The Wynyard Group, a market leader in advanced crime fighting software, recently conducted a survey of 300 police chiefs, federal investigators, analysts and other high-ranking law enforcement officials and found only 35 percent of respondents use crime-fighting software.
While 90 percent of respondents see crime-fighting software as a future industry standard, nearly half of the respondents cited budget limitations as a significant barrier to implementation of the software. Despite budget concerns, however, slightly more than half of all respondents are already making plans to incorporate such technology into their local police departments.
"Our findings suggest that, while the law enforcement community recognizes the power and the value of crime-fighting software and analyticsin making our communities safer, we have a ways to go before use is widespread,” said Wynyard Group Senior Vice President Americas Jeff C. Frazier.
Moreover, an August 2014 blog post by the Wynyard Group indicated predictive policing—the use of predictive and analytical techniques in law enforcement to identify potential offenders—is increasingly replacing traditional policing methods and can help departments address crime problems more effectively and efficiently.
“Police can know where particular crimes are most likely to be occur. An analytical formula of identifying repeat criminals, victims and locations — the crime triangle — means police are sending staff to the right place at the right time. This could mean analyzing the crime data to work with industries at repeat risk such as petrol stations, supermarkets and retailers to help prevent crime,” the blog post stated.
“Police are problem-solving; they’re not just reacting to crime, they’re trying to solve the problem of crime, and advanced crime analytics is an easy way to do it," the blog post added.
Improving communications with the public via social media also is crucial to meeting the call for improved information sharing.
Homeland Security Today reported last year that law enforcement professionals throughout the US are increasingly leveraging social media to assist in crime prevention and investigative activities. The LexisNexis 2014 Social Media Use in Law Enforcement report found that eight out of 10 law enforcement professionals are actively using social media for investigations, with 25 percent using social media on a daily basis.
“The benefits of social media from an information-gathering and community outreach perspective became very evident during the subsequent investigations of the Boston Marathon bombings and the Washington Navy Yard tragedy,” said Rick Graham, law enforcement specialist at LexisNexis Risk Solutions and former chief of detectives for the Jacksonville (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office.
“It is imperative that agencies invest in formal social media investigative tools, provide formal training, develop or amend current policies to ensure investigators and analysts are fully armed to more effectively take advantage of the power social media provides," Graham said.
Moving forward, it will be imperative to actively disseminate the information contained in the study to ensure that law enforcement agencies have the information they need, as well the ability to disseminate it, on new technologies and best practices.
“The central takeaway is to treat the set of law enforcement needs (and in the future, criminal justice needs) as a living data set that evolves over time, rather than as a one-time document,” the RAND report stated. “It will also be important to actively disseminate the needs information throughout the law enforcement community of practice and engage interested parties about it.”