The Mobile Technology Revolution
June 20, 2013
By Dan Lett
1143 words – MR
The mobile technology revolution
by Dan Lett
Almost all the officers tasked with policing Canada’s largest city carry smart phones. The problem is, none have been authorized by the Toronto Police Service for use during work hours. The lure of a dynamic and powerful new tool has pushed the officers out in front of official police policy.
“We’re all going to go mobile whether we like it or not,” said Toronto Police Service Dep/Chief Peter Sloly. “Organizationally, we’re already there. It’s pretty obvious that every one of our 5,506 police officers has some sort of mobile device. It’s just that 5,000 of them happen to be (personal phones). They use them every day and most of them are also utilizing them in some form for work, even though it’s in non-compliance with procedure.”
The usage could be as simple as two officers communicating directly on smart phones instead of police radios, said Sloly. Some use their devices to photograph license plates or record witness statements so they can transcribe them later with greater accuracy than manual note taking.
No sensitive or confidential information is being kept or transmitted but “they’re using these devices outside of policy and procedure,” Sloly said. “However, they’re using them to augment the limitations of the official equipment we have given them.”
Mobile devices and applications represent a world of possibilities for front-line law enforcement, a job that by nature is the definition of a mobile profession. However, many agencies, especially larger ones, have been reluctant to embrace the new technology for a variety of reasons.
Sloly noted the upper echelons of many services are still dominated by an older generation that finds it difficult to embrace digital devices and applications. They still prefer manual, pen-on-paper note taking and tend to see smart phones and tablets more as toys than policing tools, he said. Also, as paramilitary organizations, many are reluctant to give front-line officers the connectivity and power of a mobile device, he added.
“Let’s face it, we’re not a change-rich environment,” Sloly said. “We tend to be change-resistant. We’re risk avoiders, not risk managers. Most of the people in law enforcement just don’t understand the technology.”
Things are changing, however. Many smaller and mid-size services have embraced mobile devices and applications because they help boost productivity and their cost is fairly easy to manage, said Paul Hamelin, executive director of the Ontario Police Technology and Information Co-operative.
Police agencies were among the first to adopt early iterations of mobile technology when they outfitted cruisers with ruggedized laptops to help front-line officers conduct database searches on individuals and vehicles. “However, as soon as the officer got out of the car, the technology was no longer mobile,” Hamelin noted. “It was really just a standard work station, bolted into a car.”
Smaller agencies that struggled to justify the cost of ruggedized laptops had little problem leapfrogging the older, more limited technology for less costly smart phones and tablets. “A lot of the smaller agencies that could not afford the laptops took a look at mobile devices and said, ‘Wow, that is for us,'” Hamelin said.
The promise of true mobile technology is to give officers a new array of tools – image capture, note taking, database access and critical information on laws, standards and procedures – that are always at their fingertips, Hamelin said. The Chatham-Kent Police Service in southwestern Ontario has outfitted officers with Blackberries and Playbook tablets for several years, resulting in improved productivity and accuracy of police work in the field, he noted.
“The electronic capture of information through these devices is becoming more and more prevalent in law enforcement,” Hamelin said. “If I can run an application that will allow me to record notes with voice recognition features, it saves time on data entry on the back end, improves accuracy and saves a lot of time. It’s seamless.”
Although many agencies are looking at mobile devices simply to assist basic police work, a whole raft of new applications are now being developed that could drastically change more complex tasks.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for example, has become one of the early adopters of MobileCSI, a mobile crime scene management application developed by Toronto-based Siamese Systems. Dr. Ed Espinoza, deputy director at the USFWS Office of Law Enforcement, National Forensic Lab, said agents use the software on both Blackberry Playbooks and Apple iPad mini tablets to document crime scenes and direct the collection and preservation of evidence.
Espinoza said one of the biggest problems for crime laboratories is ensuring proper preservation of evidence collected at the scene. Mistakes in protocol too often result in the spoiling or contamination of critical evidence.
Espinoza cited an example of his officers collecting birds that had died after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The birds were soaked in crude oil and difficult to work with. Proper protocol would be to first put the carcasses into a paper bag; the chemicals in plastic bags can react with the oil and contaminate the samples. In some instances, field officers forgot to use paper bags, rendering the evidence useless.
However, officers using the CSI software can access information on the proper collection and preservation methods of a particular type of evidence on their mobile devices when they open up a new file. “This application really cuts down on a problem like that,” Espinoza said.
“We’re seeing greater interest in mobile in all four corners of the earth,” said Siamese Systems CEO Alex Kottoor. “Law enforcement is definitely looking now for a secure way to move their work onto digital and mobile platforms.”
Specialized applications are currently finding greater audience in small or medium-sized agencies, he added and interest among bigger agencies is growing.
“The biggest law enforcement agencies in the world, including the FBI, DEA, ATF, are being tasked to find ways of establishing a secure collection of digital data,” Kottoor said.
There are still a number of practical and cultural hurdles to overcome before law enforcement can confidently jump on the mobile bandwagon. Sloly said too many senior law enforcement personnel see mobile devices more as toys than tools. There are also real questions about whether many larger police agencies have the IT support and human resource capacity to fully deploy mobile applications, Sloly added.
There will be greater acceptance when everyone understands that mobile devices and technology are not meant to replace the best of traditional policing, said Soly.
“Mobile technology does not mean no cops on the street,” he said. “You still need to reach out and press the flesh, go eyeball to eyeball with people. You can’t use social media to the exclusion of real world, traditional relationship building but we can really enhance all this if we employ a digital platform to help us in our work.”