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5 things to avoid as a police IT project manager

When there are communication failures between the project manager, the vendors, the team and executive leadership things get ugly

While working with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly of police IT project management.

The good projects have a core internal team of end-users that come prepared to discuss the project at every meeting with detailed questions or concerns. Their preparedness is the result of a project manager keeping them informed and motivated.

The bad is when someone forgets to involve legal counsel in reviewing how existing or pending legislation may impact use of the data or the system. This occurs when the project manager fails to include legal review as part of the project plan.

The ugly is when there are communication failures between the project manager, the vendors, the project team and executive leadership. Because I’ve witnessed the good, the bad and the ugly in many projects I have successfully muscled my way through all of them.

Police IT projects have a high risk for failure. Here are five habits I have seen others do that contributed to a police IT project falling apart. New and experienced IT managers should review these lessons to ensure the success of their next project.

1. Holding project meetings without an agenda
Make sure to create an agenda for every meeting you hold to keep the discussion guided and include the date, time and location of the meeting. Use your project schedule and plan as tools to inform your meeting agendas. Be sure to discuss timelines, deliverables, risks and mitigation strategies and other key project issues. The agenda should be distributed in advance of your meeting to allow team members the opportunity to pull together any information they need to present at the meeting and it should also be handed out at the meeting. Post a copy of every meeting agenda for later reference in a shared project management folder.

2. Creating infrequent, irregular project status reports
As a police IT project manager, you should create weekly or monthly project status reports and distribute them to your core team members and possibly other stakeholders. If your project is grant funded, this is likely a requirement.

The project status reports are an opportunity for the project manager to take a step back and document progress, financial status, issues and upcoming milestones. Once the status report is developed, it should be shared and then reviewed with the team during a meeting. Status reports are a necessary part of successful project management.

3. Forgetting to ask for help
When a police IT project begins and the timeline exceeds six months, departments must consider assigning a deputy project manager to fill in when the project manager takes leave or is in training. With long-term IT projects, it will benefit your department to have two officers overseeing the effort versus one.

For multiyear projects, like for a new CAD or RMS procurement, it is unlikely that the officer initially assigned to oversee the project will be the same officer managing system testing and implementation because, over that period of time, the officer will likely be on a different assignment whether it’s due to a promotion or a lateral move to another unit. A deputy manager also acquires experience and knowledge to manage the next IT project for your department.

4. Allowing your vendor or in-house IT support to fall behind schedule
Since project schedules are built on assumptions, delays in tasks or milestones will occur. There is, however, a point in which a delay becomes unreasonable and has the potential to spiral the project out of control. As the police department’s IT project manager, you are responsible for ensuring your project is done on time and within the department’s budget. This means constantly staying on top of issues, discussing risks during meetings and developing risk mitigation plans to keep the project moving forward. Do not let your vendor or your in-house IT personnel let things get so far behind that you can’t move forward. It’s your responsibility to push through and overcome the challenges.

5. Forgetting to involve legal or review legislation
A project may be delayed due to legislation or in-house legal review of a contract or policy. Make sure to include legal reviews in your project schedule and legislative analysis in your project plan. Failure to involve legal or to review legislation can put your project on hold, impact your budget and possibly delay the go-live date. Since laws are dynamic, make legal review and review of existing or pending legislation a standing agenda item throughout the duration of the project.

Projects often fail due to unrealistic expectations and poor project management. All police IT projects encounter challenges, but the key to overcoming them is to adopt a patrol officer’s when/then mentality to project management.

The project manager has to keep the team members engaged, encourage their input, manage the vendor, be aware of legal concerns or legislative impacts, stay organized and on top of the project schedule and communicate about the project often across multiple stakeholders from the engineers to the chief.

Police IT is not easy. It takes time, patience, organization, good communication skills and the ability to see a project through over a period of time (sometimes years).

Heather R. Cotter has been working with public safety professionals for 20 years and understands the resource challenges and constraints agencies face. Heather is a Captain in the United States Army Reserve and holds two master’s degrees from Arizona State University and a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University. Contact her at