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Police notebooks in a digital age: Making the switch for your agency

March 21, 2024  By John Buckley


Photo credit: aijohn784 / Getty

The British barrister Michael Mansfield, when discussing police actions, is often credited with stating, “If it is not written down, it didn’t happen.” To paraphrase – if the police do not have a written record of what they say they have done, their claims cannot be trusted. While we could spend considerable time debating the remark, it is difficult for any law enforcement professional to disagree with the importance of keeping accurate records of police actions. This leads us to the topic of the discussion here: how and where officers record their actions.

If we look back in history to 1829 when Sir Robert Peel first set up the police, the only equipment that they needed was a uniform, a wooden rattle to sound an alarm and a stick. There was little need for thought about individual officers making any written record simply because the ability to read and write was not a requirement. Most in society, at that time, were illiterate. The idea of a police notebook has been around for 100 years, and in that time little has changed. Simply, there was no alternative; officers used a notebook that could be kept easily in a pocket and in it, they made notes of everything from their duty hours, evidence of cases and information they collected during their patrols. For some, the rear pages may have been used to record details of suspects or suspect vehicles, and for others, the rear pages may have been reserved for food orders or to keep score of the last card game with colleagues. (The author has no personal experience with this!)

Now that we have moved into the second decade of the 21st century, there is an alternative to a pocket notebook, one which it can be argued is the only credible option for police record-keeping, and that is a digital police notebook.

I should begin by stating what is meant by a digital police notebook. In essence, it’s an application (app) that can be used on Android or iPhone cellular phones, tablets and desktops. If it can’t be deployed on all of these, you restrict its utility. Furthermore, the data that is entered should be stored securely on a cloud-based solution. The cloud allows for mobility and, as we will discuss later, ensuring the level of security afforded by the cloud solution is critical for data protection.

The benefits

There are many ways that digital notebooks can help an agency better integrate the information stored by individual officers. Let us begin with the reality: the present generation of officers is a digital generation. They expect to use technology, and they are frustrated when it’s not available.

From an agency perspective, the first benefit of a digital notebook is security. Officers’ notebooks contain sensitive details including the names and addresses of victims and witnesses. If a notebook is lost, these details are exposed to whoever happens to find the notebook leading to a loss of public confidence. Secondly, because data is entered digitally and stored centrally, all notebook entries are centrally searchable. With a paper notebook, what’s in the notebook stays in it, of use, all but exclusively, to the officer who owns it. When an agency chooses to provide its officers with a digital solution, the content of each notebook becomes a resource for the entire agency. Every entry can be searched to provide information to other officers, to create intelligence, and to highlight previously hidden problems. Moving on, a significant factor for any chief considering their options is the cost savings that digital notebooks afford. The cost of physically storing paper notebooks over a prolonged period can be extensive—few chiefs have any idea how much they are paying for storage. Retrieving notebooks from storage for court purposes adds to the cost. Even for the individual officer finding a specific entry in a paper notebook can be time-consuming. Finding material for a public inquiry into events occurring many years previously can be financially crippling and a logistical nightmare. Investment in digital notebooks may be cost-neutral when balanced against these costs.

As we drill down into what digitizing notebooks can do for each agency, we see that digital notebooks facilitate more than just notes. The officer can record audio, take statements and add photos to an entry, thus making the gathering of evidence significantly easier. Additional functionality is available in some notebooks; features such as voice-to-text and language translation can prove beneficial while the ability to automatically transcribe audio recordings will add to the cost savings.

Another benefit relates to evidence. Entries in a digital notebook will be automatically date and time stamped and geolocated, with a full audit trail ensuring that officers can prove the provenance of the content. With the right notebook, it will show when and by whom any entry was added or changed.

This brings us to a topic we often do not like to discuss, that of corruption. Unfortunately, there is always a risk of officers trying to amend entries to cover up omissions or wrongdoings. Alternatively, they ‘lose’ their notebook because they are concerned about the content. Digital notebooks mitigate corruption risks. Of as much importance, is that they can help officers refute allegations of wrongdoing.

A good digital notebook should allow for the compartmentalization of entries, with the ability to restrict who can see what. For example, entries relating to disclosure can be marked at the time of entry, similarly, with entries relating to sensitive information, these too can be marked and separated. Additionally, if an officer is having a bullying problem with a supervisor, entries can be sectioned off to exclude such an entry being read by the relevant supervisor, enabling the officer to keep a contemporaneous record of it without exposing themselves to further harassment.

Digital notebooks can also be deployed to assist in specialized operations of law enforcement, including undercover deployments and managing informants. While how we do this may be best left for a less open forum, anything that ensures maximizing the amount of information gained and increasing integrity in covert operations will be a welcome addition for any chief.

Technical considerations

Any digital notebook must connect seamlessly with the agency’s record management or case management system. Easy data transfer ensures that records from disparate sources are more easily kept together and saves time and money. Look to ensure that the digital notebook you choose has an open ‘Application Programming Interface’ (API) and that the providers of your other systems allow access.

Returning to the topic of cloud storage, it must be remembered that any police notebook contains a lot of sensitive information, thus aggregating the data increases the risk. Make sure that the cloud solution you are looking at provides security at an appropriate level. Comprise of the content is likely to create a risk to the life of individuals and significant embarrassment to the agency. Given how active hackers are, this threat must be taken seriously. Security within the app and where the data is to be stored is paramount.

There is a mindset among some, that with most officers wearing body-worn cameras the need for a police notebook no longer exists. This argument doesn’t stand up to any degree of scrutiny. Both are useful tools, just as a saw and a hammer are useful to a carpenter. However, the carpenter does not confuse the function of each tool, and neither should the police. What the officer will record in each will be different, even when it relates to the same incident. Furthermore, attempting to use a camera as some form of digital notebook creates problems in retrieving the information.

The temptation for some police departments may be to build their own app. While tempting as it may first appear, the difficulties are obvious. First is the cost involved. Developing the right app is costly and prohibitively expensive if born by a solitary agency, not forgetting the constant need to update the technology year-on-year. Second, is the concept of ‘mission creep’. Police agencies police; software companies build software. Third, adopting such an approach assumes that the agency’s staff have the technical knowledge to build the app to a sufficiently secure standard. Fourth, the agency may find they are paying as much for cloud hosting their app, as they would for an off-the-shelf product which includes storage.

Several software houses are providing off-the-shelf solutions for digital notebooks. They vary significantly. Selecting which one to choose takes time and consideration, particularly regarding security and functionality. This will be a choice for the chief. When it comes to the choice to move to a digital solution or not… well, that ship has sailed.


Dr. John Buckley served as a police officer for over 28 years. He is the author of seven books relating to policing and is an internationally recognized law enforcement trainer and consultant. He can be reached at johnbuckley@hsmtraining.com.


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