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Beyond expectations: A surprising approach to modernizing patrol operations

May 29, 2024  By Ryan Prox


Photo: Vancouver Police Department

In 2023, Vancouver Police Department (VPD) embarked on a mission to modernize its patrol operations, aiming for a more intelligence-led approach. While similar projects often focus on management oversight initiatives and high-tech Operations Command Centers (OCC), VPD recognized an essential yet often overlooked aspect: empowering front-line patrol officers. These officers serve as the initial point of contact with the community, handling emerging situations with limited resources and time. To address this reality, VPD set out to equip patrol officers with the technological tools necessary to enhance their core capabilities. The challenge lay in implementing a system that could bridge information gaps and provide real-time intelligence without overwhelming the officers.

By bringing mission-critical resources directly to the ‘office’ of police vehicles, VPD aimed to empower its officers, ensuring they could proactively address community issues while efficiently managing their responsibilities.

Patrol officer feedback provided valuable information and perspective that suggested a traditional top-down approach would add to existing bureaucracy. Key themes surfaced indicating some of the driving forces behind competing stimuli for the officer’s attention. Essential tools such as smart radios, cell phones, records management systems and computer-aided dispatch systems require substantial training and often dominate an officer’s time dealing with the required record keeping—a by-product of modern policing. The addition of yet another system must be designed to provide information that is easily digestible, but also relevant to the circumstances and limited to mission critical details concerning the officer’s current location.

The objective

The same solution had to meet the needs of management and address the requirements necessary to support an OCC. From a management perspective, the goal was to improve the coordination of police resources at a city-wide level and to create an infrastructure able to respond to evolving situations in real time. Management’s range of uses and requirements somehow had to fit within the framework of a system designed for patrol officers.

A new system would need to address a wide range of scenarios with minimal officer training and ultimately contribute to improving public safety. It became apparent to the VDP project team that a system containing a wide range of information and narrowly focused enough to be relevant would be extremely difficult to build. Any solution needed to be scannable within seconds to develop a plan of action and support officer-initiated problem-solving. The days of generic patrol bulletins were long gone.

Paradoxes

An OCC’s specific purpose and function is to provide centralized operational control and to improve the efficiency and function of limited patrol resources. Systems used by administrators responsible for fiscal accountability and transparency and officer performance metrics and oversight do not always coincide with the technology needed to support front-line officers. The dichotomy between the complexities of managing patrol and the need to provide timely intelligence to frontline officers became primary considerations.

Examining other police service’s OCC and literature in academic and law enforcement publications, there appeared to be two streams which influenced the technology implemented to support each model. One approach relied on GIS technology to provide real-time situational awareness and, in turn, assisted the command staff’s ability to reallocate resources for serious incidents and provide tactical assistance to patrol units. The second focused on metrics and efficiency. Both examined response times to priority calls, call load comparison, distribution of incidents by policing boundaries and resource allocation. Neither offered technology and resources accessible by front-line patrol officers. The focus was on the frontlines, but not for the frontlines.

Leveraging technology

Based on this information, the project team incorporated features required by both stakeholder groups to improve officer situational awareness and organizational resource efficiency, which typically operate in siloed systems. An integrated approach with interoperability hardcoded into system architecture served to empower front line officers’ decision-making and engagement and addressed command staff objectives. The project team explored ways to leverage the existing infrastructure within the organization, and the GeoDASH system seemed to be a perfect fit. It was a familiar and proven platform, and utilizing its user interface would not only cut overall project costs but also facilitate technology adoption by minimizing training efforts and enhancing user acceptance.

The existing GeoDASH system offered a visual representation of crime incidents, along with analytical tools that were once exclusive to analysts trained in advanced geographic information systems (GIS). This capability has been extended to front-line officers through a user-friendly interface. Adapting this existing technology and infrastructure would help close capacity gaps in patrol, providing a mechanism to introduce real-time situational awareness. Many features could be retooled, bridging the gap between patrol officers’ operational requirements and avoiding information overload, while also balancing command staff focus on tracking performance metrics and improving efficiency.

VPD prioritized patrol officers as the primary client, requiring the use of mobile technology in vehicles as a project prerequisite.

The same system served a multipurpose, where officers can access crime forecasts (predictive mode) on their MDTs (mobile data terminal) and display residential and commercial break-and-enters, as well as theft from autos and theft of autos at two-hour intervals throughout the day.

The VDP project team examined ways to adapt the existing GeoDASH system to ingest real-time computer-aided dispatch (CAD) data. The consideration of front-line patrol officers as the primary ‘client’ involved a system design that mitigates information overload, distilling mission-critical information into manageable segments relevant to the moment, and displaying it on laptops mounted in police vehicles. The OCC, being the secondary client, needed the same information, but had the additional need for unit availability, tactical resources and specialty units or negotiators to manage serious incidents in a coordinated approach.

The concept of an ‘operations awareness mode’, utilizing the GPS/mobile network to determine the officer’s current location and displaying only the most pertinent information associated with the immediate vicinity of the patrol vehicle, was explored. When an officer activates Ops Awareness, the map automatically centers on the officer’s vehicle and displays the number of recent crime incidents within a 300-metre proximity. These incidents are highlighted with a bright label identifying the type of incident, and a yellow header at the top of the screen summarizes the occurrences as the vehicle travels into active areas.

By simply tapping the displayed icons, officers can read CAD incident summaries and occurrence synopsis text without having to switch to another system. Nearby patrol units and active calls are displayed in real time. Cover units—police units in the immediate vicinity that can provide support in high-risk or volatile situations—are visible. This provides frontline officers with an overview of 911 calls and the level of activity impacting calls for service.

During the officer engagement and interview process, patrol officers reiterated the need for detailed information on a range of subjects. The system was enhanced with instant access to floor plans for bars, restaurants, shopping centers, transit stations, sports arenas, schools and other public places where there existed a potential for a critical incident. Officer safety was improved with the inclusion of real-time gang activity and enforcement actions, such as bail and compliance checks, to better inform patrol officers about areas of concern requiring additional attention. The VPD Bar and Restaurant Watch program was also incorporated into the system, supporting enforcement actions against gang members who pose a risk to public safety. The system is constantly updated with new information, driven exclusively by requests from patrol officers.

Priority Patrol Zones (PPZ)

A Priority Patrol Zones (PPZ) feature was designed with the OCC in mind and was a unique solution for district commanders to designate specific areas for high-intensity patrols in response to emerging issues. For example, clusters of distraction thefts in a specific area could be designated as a PPZ with requirements for the area to be intensely patrolled at predetermined intervals. If the patrol threshold was not met, the zone would turn yellow on the map and if left unattended, would then flash red. This new method of designating and monitoring PPZ provides a real-time assessment tool, whereby the OCC can ensure that ‘at risk’ areas of the community are receiving sufficient police attention.

OpsDASH

In tandem with the development of the enhanced GeoDASH system, an Operations Dashboard (OpsDASH) was created exclusively to support the OCC by providing real-time metrics on call load, response times and resource availability.

OpsDASH is a fully interactive system where OCC staff can select a patrol district and priority level to determine current resource implications, forecasted call load for the day and current response times compared to expected norms. OCC staff can monitor the number of priority calls, queued calls, and availability of specialty resources such as emergency response teams, dog squads and crisis negotiator teams. Instant access to this information is critically important when managing a serious incident when lives are at risk. To facilitate critical incident management, OpsDASH was designed with interoperability with GeoDASH to enable the overlay of operational details in combination with location features.

A shift in thinking

The successful development of cutting-edge technology employed a unique process that combined both a bottom-up and top-down approach. This approach effectively addressed the needs of front line officers, while meeting the core requirements of the OCC and VPD management. Departing from the typical approach, VPD prioritized patrol officers as the primary client, requiring the use of mobile technology in vehicles as a project prerequisite.

The shift in thinking and deeper understanding of patrol officers’ operational needs played a crucial role in shaping and operationalizing these concepts into an actionable plan. By adopting a more inclusive and holistic approach, VPD not only enhanced the effectiveness of patrol officers but also contributed to a safer community and a more responsive, evidence-based policing model.


Dr. Ryan Prox, O.O.M. is the Officer in Charge of the Crime Analytics Advisory & Development Unit (CAADU) at Vancouver Police Department and Adjunct Professor, Visiting Faculty Member at the School of Criminology, Simon Fraser University. Prox was invested as an Officer of Order of Merit of the Police Forces (OOM) by the Governor General of Canada in 2022, and in Aug. 2022, he was awarded the Police Exemplary Service Medal.


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