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by Nick Selby and Dave Henderson

Selling technology to cops, part 3: Get dad involved, keep it simple

Apr 26, 20116 mins
CareersIdentity Management SolutionsIT Leadership

Nick Selby and Dave Henderson on the power of simplicity when it's time to sell cops new technology.

In our agency (in the Dallas-Fort Worth area), all rookies have to do a stint in dispatch. Henderson served as a dispatcher for years and knew exactly what I was in for.

He saw my reaction when I filled in my first DWI report. I made a late-life conversion into the cop thing — I spent the last several years writing reports on security technology at an industry analyst firm, and before that I was consulting, and before that writing about technology.

I’ve seen bleeding edge stuff for years. I taught myself to be a Linux system administrator, and feel pretty comfortable around technology.

So you can imagine how I felt when it took me four and a half hours to fill in a DWI report using a piece of software so horrible, so un-intuitive — nay, so counter-intuitive — that it would have made a Soviet apparatchik proud, as just having it in the office creates busy work for at least two people.

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve written (in Part I of this series) that there are three qualities law enforcement agencies want when they buy technology: it must be integrated, it must be simple and it must have utility. Last time (in Part II) we talked about integration.

Now we’ve arrived at “simplicity.”

Henderson has watched me as I fill in arrest reports. Ten days ago I arrested someone on a totally routine thing — she had several outstanding warrants from another agency. I filled out my narrative, went through the seven screens required, hit save and hit the streets. Three hours later I came back to tidy up and get it filed.

It was gone.

A colleague said, “Oh yeah. That happens all the time.”

And I’m turning a mottled beet red.

So now comes my time in dispatch. Here’s the setup: I’m sitting at a Windows box and there’s a radio in front of me. A patrol car calls in a license plate, asking for a “28”, basically running the tag for information and whether there’s any warrants attached to its owner. I type in the license-plate number. I hit F5.

Why do I hit F5? How do you even make a Windows program in which [Enter] is [F5]? Why would you?

Five windows pop up. Five.

In the first one, there’s a long warning. You need to scroll down. It tells you that the information you are requesting is sensitive and for law enforcement only. Whew! Good thing I’m wearing a police uniform, sitting in a police dispatch office. You keep scrolling down and finally it tells you:

“No regional data information.”

At the bottom — the waaaaaaaaaaay bottom — no data information? This means that there are no regional warrants. Don’t you think that that is, kind of, you know, crucial information that the cop running the plate would want, sorta, right away? Maybe even more important than the warning, which could be accepted when the person logs in at the start of a shift?

The next window is similarly festooned with warnings and reports on warrants in a federal system. Similarly, yet not as obtusely, worded.

Finally I get to a screen which has, literally, 500 words. All capitalized.

These five windows, those thousands of words, all that scrolling, and what I read back on the radio?

“Comes back August, 2011 on a Ford pickup out of Arlington, insurance confirmed, negative warrants.”

The person sitting at the dispatch desk is not acting as a dispatcher. They’re acting in fact as an intelligence analyst — forced to locate and then synthesize disparate information from a range of sources, analyze the aggregated data (without the benefit of technology), and articulate the analysis.

My point is this: This is not simple. This is so unfathomably, unforgivably, stupidly, unreasonably difficult that it’s almost as if someone was trying not to get it to work. Oh! I forgot — we’re lucky — in many agencies (not even necessarily smaller ones), they don’t have this system. They send around an Excel spreadsheet daily, continaing the regional data we get at the touch of, well, 1000 buttons.

Much of this is integration — the computer aided dispatch system that I am discussing (to be fair, it’s a cheap one, and certainly not a leading one) is going out to hit several different systems with the query, then return the results.

But it is currently 2011. The thing was installed a couple of years ago. This is screaming for a highly simple mashup. Why on earth would anything need to be this complicated?

Integration, of course, leads to simplicity, but simple is more than “not stupidly complicated.” We wrote recently about the Nassau County Police Department and its Real Time Intelligence product. It’s a flat, touch-screen system that provides intelligence to cops and administrators. All the buttons are big and cop-friendly. There’s no way to confuse the button marked, “GANG INTEL” with the button marked “PAROLEE/PROBATIONER INTEL”. And the workflow follws a logical, easy-to-navigate path. In the two years or so it’s been in, it’s been solely responsible for more than 650 closed warrants and at least 300 DNA sample captures, and helped stop a shooting-gang war in the residential streets of a New York suburb.

Simple. It’s so important we don’t understand how anyone could think its not important. Don’t get us wrong: a lot of vendors do get this. But a lot more still don’t.

Here’s a rule of thumb: when you’re testing your police technology product, get your dad to come in and ask him to run it through its paces. If he can’t?

It’s not simple enough.

Nick Selby and Dave Henderson serve at an agency in Texas and run In 2005, Selby founded the enterprise security practice at industry analyst firm The 451 Group, where he served as VP of Research Operations. He was sworn as a police officer in 2010. Henderson is a police sergeant with 15 years of law enforcement experience, who has served as detective, warrant officer, motor officer and law enforcement instructor.