How can today’s tech work to better support police officers in the field and improve public safety? That question led Eric Wood, Technology Manager for the Chula Vista Police Department, to play a pivotal role in enabling the entire state of California’s police departments to take the leap to the cloud.
Three years ago, Eric was a Microsoft employee developing solutions for Fortune 100 businesses. He traveled across the U.S. to work with clients and served on a team that “incubated a lot of the validation for creating Windows 10,” Eric says. But after 15 years of being mostly on the road, he decided to make a career pivot so that he could be at home with his family every night. Wanting to make a positive contribution to his community, he found himself as Technology Manager (one of a full-time team of two) for a 400-personnel police department.
“My work has been focused on modernization — everything from the ground and network up,” Eric says. He emphasizes that his goal is not to implement technology for technology’s sake, but to better equip police officers with the modern tools to achieve their public safety missions and respond effectively to the myriad of situations they encounter in the field. Ultimately, the power of tech often boils down to getting the right information to police officers at the moment that they need it.
Eric explains that when responding to a call, police officers often have, by law in the United States, a narrow window to act. “Priority 1” calls, designated for situations that involve a life-threatening injury, give officers six minutes to respond. “Priority 2” calls are emergencies that involve an actively dangerous situation, such as domestic violence, and officers have 12 minutes to respond.
“In that short amount of time, how much relevant and accurate information you can get to that officer can have a big impact on how they engage with the subject once they are on the scene,” he says. “For example, has the subject had any history of violence? Are there any mental issues? Is he involved with another criminal case? This information can help the officer respond appropriately and also, protect the officer’s life.”
Eric’s quest to modernize his department led him all the way to the halls of the California Department of Justice, where the Chula Vista Police Department would pave the way for all other state police departments to start using Office 365 and Azure services in the Government Cloud.
“Coming from Microsoft, my first thought on the job was, ‘Why are we spending so much time installing things like the most current Office when we could go to Office 365?’” Eric says. “I mentioned it to a team of peers from other agencies. They basically laughed at me and said, ‘You don’t understand.’”
His colleagues explained that the California Department of Justice (CA DOJ) had not approved Office or cloud solutions for storing criminal justice data. And, there was simply no functioning process for getting the cloud approved. Even much larger agencies like the LAPD weren’t able to request it. But the barriers didn’t make sense to Eric. “I already knew about Microsoft’s great work with DoD and Cloud Solutions for government, so I knew that these solutions would suit their requirements and security needs,” he says.
Eric decided to reach out to his contacts at Microsoft about his mission. Together, they worked with the CA DOJ over a period of eight months to bring stakeholders up to speed on Azure Cloud architecture and how secure it was. Eric and his team patiently worked to explain why the state’s existing requirements — like antivirus clients installed on smartphones — were antiquated and “not even a valid scenario.” At the end of the process, they developed a modernized security matrix of requirements and responsibilities that reflected the capabilities of the latest technology.
“We satisfied the CA DOJ’s checklist, and they were able to approve us as the first agency in the State of California for storing criminal justice information in the cloud,” Eric says. “We were essentially the first one that paved the road and the steps of the process that all other law enforcement agencies in California can now follow.”
From smartphones to cloud-based information management, Eric believes that a big transformation in law enforcement technology is in the early stages. Change is coming slowly, because many, if not most, departments still don’t have the funding to hire dedicated IT personnel or equip their officers with modern technology.
“Processes in the industry are still very analog, by many respects,” Eric notes. “Let’s say an officer is talking with a subject in a field interview. The prevalent scenario is they’re scribbling in a little pocket notebook with pen and paper. Then they go back to their car and radio it in. Someone else puts in the query, and the officer waits for a response to determine if the subject has an arrest warrant or other important information.”
Eric believes that with better tools — perhaps a ruggedized smartphone or tablet that mirrors an officer’s computer at the station — officers can be more productive. “The faster you can get information to them, the more time they can spend talking to citizens and being available to the community, and not head down in the vehicle or back at the station,” he says.
The criminal justice environment is particularly challenging in that implementing technology isn’t as simple as downloading an app or buying devices, which are usually “two or three times more expensive than consumer-grade devices.” With a small team and lean resources, efficiency and practical effectiveness are key for Eric’s department. Eric notes that he is in constant dialogue with the officers, who give him feedback about what they need and what doesn’t work in the field.
“I have to focus on how they are actually going to use the tech,” Eric says. “If I’m putting a lot of pop-ups and widgets and the technology becomes noisy for them or attention-grabbing, I’m increasing the risk on their lives. They need to be looking at people and incidents rather than having technology that dictates their attention.”
In terms of technology and the public, Eric sees the potential for modern systems to help streamline the way community members can report issues that don’t require an immediate response. For example, what if vandalism or broken streetlights could be reported through an online system that was fully integrated with a record-keeping database? Eric points out that tech, like social media, could also help open up direct lines of communication between law enforcement and communities to build closer relationships of trust.
“Of course, this is my perspective as an IT person,” Eric adds. “Officers in the field may have different ideas about what works best.” Overall, he hopes that more tech vendors in the law enforcement industry begin focusing on “working well with Windows 10 and enabling a more agile environment.”
Ultimately, Eric sees his role as supporting his colleagues who are the everyday heroes in his life. “I am humbled by the people who do the job of police work,” he says. “They take a tremendous amount of personal risk on themselves and their families — for often insufficient pay and without the informational tools they need to be effective in the moment. I work with some amazing people.”
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