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Chiefs’ Panel Points to Top Issues and Related Innovation Needs Facing Law Enforcement

Local law enforcement agencies may be absorbed in their own particular challenges, but connecting themes emerge when chiefs from all corners of the country convene to identify critical challenges confronting law enforcement collectively.
Date Published
February 12, 2020

A “chiefs’ panel” assembled by the National Institute of Justice did just that, emerging with a list of leading law enforcement issues as well as priorities for innovation to address some of the big questions and challenges facing law enforcement, such as:

  • How can law enforcement address the multiple, growing threats to officers’ health and wellness?  
  • What can local law enforcement agencies do better to get their arms around the vast volume of digital data — such as video from body-worn and vehicle-mounted cameras? Is it time to revisit the rate of growth of video evidence?
  • How can law enforcement agencies be better prepared both to fight cybercrime in their jurisdictions and to protect their own sensitive systems from cyberattack?
  • Can law enforcement agencies come to a consensus on how to address the pressing need for noninvasive field tests to measure impairment from drugs besides alcohol?
  • Can law enforcement agency leaders take control of critical technology acquisition choices from tech vendors?
  • Has the time come to establish a national commission to reassess and revamp criminal justice in the United States?   

These are among the most challenging questions facing American law enforcement today, as identified by an expert panel of law enforcement agency chiefs and other leaders (the “chiefs’ panel”) convened as part of the Priority Criminal Justice Needs Initiative. This initiative is a partnership of RAND Corporation (RAND), the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), the University of Denver, and RTI International.

The purpose of the chiefs’ panel, convened for a two-day workshop in August 2018, was to identify priority issues facing law enforcement — both challenges and opportunities — as well as needs for innovations to address them. The issue-spotting and priority-setting exercise was designed to inform leaders of law enforcement agencies and federal criminal justice agencies, as well as technology providers and criminal justice policymakers.

RAND produced the report on the panel’s work titled “Fostering Innovation to Respond to Top Challenges in Law Enforcement: Proceedings of the National Institute of Justice’s Chiefs’ Panel on Priority Law Enforcement Issues and Needs.”

The panel was given six general topics to frame the dialogue for identifying top issues in the field. The six topics were:

  1. Responding to technological changes.
  2. Protecting officers’ safety and health.
  3. Strengthening police-community relations.
  4. Training, development, and management.
  5. Information sharing and use.
  6. Navigating public-private boundaries.

These topics were informed by previous Priority Criminal Justice Needs Initiative engagements with law enforcement at all levels.

Once issues were identified, associated needs were articulated by the panel and ranked in priority order, using a formula that took into account both the importance of the need and the feasibility of addressing each need through short-term measures. The highest-priority needs identified by the chiefs’ panel are in Table 1 below.

Table 1. Priorities Set by the Chiefs’ Panel




Law enforcement is challenged by growing volumes of video and other digital evidence.

Time in station is going up because officers are spending more time writing reports and reviewing video evidence.

Develop systems to automate and accelerate the review of video evidence and generation of reports.

Today’s policing environment is endangering officers’ health, wellness, and performance.

Officer burnout and suicide are significant problems.

Identify and assess existing and proposed best practices for physical, mental, and emotional support opportunities for officers. Develop early health identification and intervention systems to support officers.




The environment for policing has continued to become more complex and dynamic with respect to current and emerging threats (e.g., technology, information, social media, misinformation, mental health, levels of scrutiny, mass shootings, and ambushes).

Conduct research on the sources of stress and their impact.

Better strategies, tactics, and tools are needed to improve community relations and public trust.

There is insufficient and unclear evidence supporting efforts to improve trust between the police and the community (e.g., body-worn cameras).

Conduct research on how public sentiment research tools can best be used to improve police-community relations.


Public and agency responses to officer-involved shootings continue to erode levels of trust between law enforcement and communities.

Conduct realistic street-level research into interaction skills, as part of the effort to reduce bias and use of force. 


There is insufficient information on the types of skills that a modern police officer should have, such as physical or hard skills; soft skills, e.g., empathy and communication; life experience; and technology skills.

Conduct research to identify the skills, abilities, and experience that are most useful in today’s policing environment.

Officers need help to address an ever-increasing flood of information.

Officers and agencies are often unaware of the tools, systems, and processes available to them.

Develop a continually updated inventory of law enforcement information analysis tools. This process also should highlight gaps in the available toolbox.


Practitioners Should Pick Their Own Technology

The top issue was the importance of having law enforcement practitioners, not technology vendors, make strategic technology choices for law enforcement. The issue grew out of the chiefs’ recognition that vendors have too much market power over law enforcement customers. Law enforcement must set their own standards for technology use in the field, yet vendors impose their own standards and dominate knowledge of available systems, the report said. The chiefs’ panel also called for development of new independent standards to certify that vendors’ systems both meet practitioner-derived operational needs and secure sensitive data.

Video Evidence Is Overloading the System

With respect to the daunting challenge of video evidence overload, in the report the chiefs’ panel offered a conclusion coupled with a proposal: “[T]he proliferation of video evidence from all sources is causing major policy and resource challenges and perhaps should be slowed down.” Some panelists said that their experience had them questioning the evidentiary value of those images, and some also voiced concern over the high costs of collecting and handling video evidence.

Agencies Not Prepared for Cyberthreats

Not only is law enforcement generally not equipped for cyberthreats, the chiefs’ panel concluded, it is also unaware of the approaching wave of vulnerabilities — and opportunities — from the explosive growth of “internet of things” devices (items capable of transferring data over a network without human interaction). The panel recommended research to discern vulnerabilities and opportunities in this area.

The challenge posed by cybercrime is twofold, the panel noted: developing the capabilities to fight cybercrime, and determining jurisdictional lines governing local agencies’ response to cybercrime, most of which is transnational in origin. A panelist said that it was difficult to figure out who is responsible for responding to cybercrime, and thus where to commit investigative resources. The panel urged development of an engagement framework and actions to counter cybercrime.

Although the panel concluded that cybercrime is a “broad, hard, global problem,” it was not deemed a high-priority issue, “possibly trading off the growing importance of the area with the uncertainties about state and local agencies’ roles to combat it,” the RAND report stated.

Measuring Impairment from Marijuana, Opioids, and Other Drugs

The chiefs’ panel called for both the development of noninvasive field tests for impairment and research on the levels of intoxication from substances other than alcohol that lead to impairment. Although both recommendations were rated “high-value needs with great importance for the field,” they were viewed as having relatively low priority because panelists were skeptical about whether those major challenges could be addressed in short-term research.

Addressing New Threats to Officers’ Safety, Physical Health, and Mental Health

The panel noted that a confluence of stressors are imperiling officers’ health and wellness, with law enforcement currently lacking adequate resources to address those stressors. Factors taking a toll on officers include information overload, having to adapt to new technologies, dealing with social media influences and misinformation, and being under a high level of scrutiny even when off duty.  

Several of the highest-priority needs identified by the chiefs are clustered in this officer health category. Those needs include identifying best practices for physical, mental, and emotional support of officers; developing an early identification and intervention system for officer burnout and suicide; and conducting research on sources of, and the impact of, officer stress.

Forging Trust Between Police and the Community

The chiefs’ panel saw a clear need for more research on improving community trust of police. The panel report found, “There is insufficient and unclear evidence supporting efforts at improving trust between the police and the community.” The panel called for research on “public sentiment measurement tools and services” to build community trust.

That recommendation arose from the panel’s perception, in the words of the report, that “the criminal justice enterprise needs a system-wide overhaul.” The panelists found there is a need “to revisit what justice looks like for all Americans, and what is needed to move the American criminal justice system toward it.”   

One of the panel’s more ambitious recommendations was the establishment of a National Commission on Criminal Justice. Its mission would be, according to the panel report, “to evaluate all activities of the criminal justice system … for their effectiveness, fairness, legitimacy, and consistency.” The effort would be akin to the groundbreaking work of the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice under President Lyndon B. Johnson. That commission’s report was issued in 1967. Although the concept of a national commission was deemed of high importance by the chiefs’ panel, in the end it was rated a three-star priority (high, but not among the two highest-priority categories) because of feasibility and effectiveness challenges.

The panel’s findings and recommendations are available in full in the RAND report.


Many of the law enforcement needs identified by the chiefs’ panel, though found to be of high importance, did not rate highest priority for action, as they were not deemed amenable to short-term fixes. All needs, however, are tractable in the panel’s view, given enough time and resources and a commitment by the collective criminal justice community to satisfy them.

About this Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award 2013-MU-CX-K003, awarded to the RAND Corporation. This article is based on the grantee report, “Fostering Innovation to Respond to Top Challenges in Law Enforcement: Proceedings of the National Institute of Justice’s Chiefs’ Panel on Priority Law Enforcement Issues and Needs” (2019), by John S. Hollywood, Sean E. Goodison, Dulani Woods, Michael J.D. Vermeer, and Brian A. Jackson.

Date Published: February 12, 2020