For police agencies, a major technology acquisition can be a change agent that elevates operations while building trust within communities. But when police technology choices are not sufficiently integrated with a department’s overall policing strategy, inefficiency and disappointed expectations can follow, according to a new study supported by the National Institute of Justice. Researchers found that a complex and varied set of factors typically drives police technology acquisition decisions—but often the department’s policing philosophy or strategy is not one of them.
Police agencies, over the past few decades, have adopted sophisticated technologies to enhance operational effectiveness in fighting crime, deterring external threats, and positively engaging the community. Police dash cams and body-worn cameras, license plate readers, enhanced cellphone tracking, and geographic information systems (computer-based crime mapping) are but a few of the powerful new tech tools now in wide use by law enforcement.
However, the adoption and deployment of the latest, smartest technology has come with challenges for many law enforcement agencies. A new U.S. study of police technology decisions and their impact has found that, generally, technology choices are driven by a variety of complex factors that often do not include the agency’s overall policing strategy or philosophy.
A disconnect between an agency’s mission and equipment often leads to unrealized potential as evidenced by limited integration of a technology within an agency, a failure to recognize primary and secondary benefits of a technology, or even departmental disillusionment and a lack of continuing funding for the adopted technology, a research team from RTI International and the Police Executive Research Forum reported.
The study grew out of the National Institute of Justice’s (NIJ) interest in better comprehension of the types of technology law enforcement was acquiring in the new century and the extent to which those technology decisions were tied to strategy development and broader organizational change.
The study was designed in three parts: (1) a U.S.-wide survey using questions designed by an expert panel; (2) site-level examination of a sampling of high-technology and mixed-technology agencies; and (3) use of findings to develop a framework to guide police agencies on technology selection, implementation, and use.
Overall, the research team concluded that technology was having a positive impact on U.S. law enforcement agencies in terms of
- increasing efficiency;
- providing communication;
- enhancing information sharing practices; and
- improving informational and analytical capacities.
It further found that technology can improve police practice in ways that establish trust and legitimacy within communities. At the same time, the researchers suggested that uncoordinated police technology decisions come at a high cost to agencies and communities:
Given that technology can have a dramatic impact on how policing is done, on community relations, and the extent to which police safety is protected, it is imperative that police executives and civilian policymakers have sound empirical evidence about the presence, role, and impact of technology in contemporary policing.
Notwithstanding that imperative, the research team reported,
[T]he findings also demonstrate that, as a whole, technology has not had a game-changing impact on policing in terms of dramatically altering the philosophies and strategies used for preventing crime, responding to crime, or improving public safety.
The study’s survey, administered to more than 1,200 state and local law enforcement agencies, yielded a finding that U.S. agencies overall were heavily engaged with technology, as 96 percent had adopted at least one of 18 core technologies of interest (see Exhibit 2 in full report for list of technologies, linked below). Data collected by September 2014 showed that 70 percent of surveyed agencies had implemented car cameras, and 68 percent had adopted both information-sharing platforms and social media. In that period, large agencies reported much greater use than their smaller counterparts of geographic information systems (81 to 31 percent) and in their use of license plate readers (70 to 20 percent).
For police agencies with 250 or more sworn officers, the researchers observed a stronger connection between technology choices and overall philosophy than existed in many smaller departments. That fact qualifies the study team’s finding that in general, U.S. police agencies are not making technology decisions based on department philosophies or priorities. Rather, those technology decisions often are ad hoc and made in response to multiple factors such as executive staff decisions, perceived needs, community demands, and available funding.
The researchers also found that department priorities could be predictors of the degree to which a department commits to technology:
Greater emphasis on community, hot-spot, and intelligence-led policing among large agencies was associated with more technology…. Greater emphasis on professional policing, problem-oriented policing, or zero-tolerance policing, by contrast, was associated with less use of technology.
Technologies with the greatest impact across all surveyed agencies were automated records management and computer-aided dispatch. These technologies are central to carrying out fundamental policing activities such as responding to service calls and information management.
The research team made recommendations for developing a better police technology model, including:
- Incorporate evidence-based research to link the technology to the agency’s goals, organizational culture, and policing strategies.
- Include technology considerations in strategic planning.
- Encourage collaboration between agency decision makers and technology experts on technology decisions.
- Agencies should consider their historical performance in adopting and implementing police technologies to learn from past mistakes to increase the likelihood of successful outcomes in the future.
An essential takeaway from the study is that law enforcement agencies should have a robust internal technology evaluation process.
The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award 2012-MU-CX-0043, awarded to RTI International and the Police Executive Research Forum. This article is based on the report "Research on the impact of Technology on Policing Strategy in the 21st Century, Final Report", by Kevin Strom.