9 steps to deploying smartphones in your agency

With proper planning, a smartphone deployment can dramatically increase departmental effectiveness while improving situational awareness

Today, it’s rare to see a patrol car without a computer. Officers have understandably come to rely on them because information is a key component in decision-making. However, that information access disappears when an officer is away from the vehicle or in an assignment that doesn’t use a vehicle.

Smartphones, the same devices that have so dramatically impacted our daily lives, are causing a paradigm shift in law enforcement because they’re now capable of providing a level of benefit beyond that delivered by traditional in-car computers.  

Improved Officer Safety and Efficiency

Departments are becoming more aware of the return on investment that’s available when smartphones are issued to field officers.
Departments are becoming more aware of the return on investment that’s available when smartphones are issued to field officers. (Photo/PoliceOne)

Smartphones can serve as fully functional, computer-aided dispatch (CAD) devices, providing ready access to calls and information regardless of an officer’s assignment or proximity to a vehicle. And, when tied into the agency’s CAD system, a smartphone can provide geolocation information at a person level, dramatically improving operational efficiency and officer safety.

While some might balk at this type of capability, this should actually be something labor groups ask for, not resist. Every year, officers are injured and killed during foot pursuits. They’re dangerous and can be made all the more so when the involved officer can’t be located due to injury or garbled radio transmissions. A CAD-enabled smartphone can detect that an officer is running and provide real-time location to dispatch, helping to ensure a timely response from backup officers.

Consider this example: Two plainclothes detectives are interviewing a witness in a shopping complex unaware that the community bank three doors down is being robbed and that a teller has hit the silent alarm. Uniformed officers are responding and it’s likely that they are as oblivious to the detectives’ presence as the detectives are to the robbery. If the detectives had smartphones that are logged into the agency’s CAD system, their presence near an in-progress crime would be clearly visible to a dispatcher who could call or text the detectives, as well as alert responding officers to their presence. This type of improved situational awareness improves safety.

Field Deployment Provides Practical Benefits

While many agencies have some level of smartphone utilization, devices often go to administrators and are used for the basic functions of phone and email. That is changing as departments become aware of the return on investment that’s available when smartphones are issued to field officers.

In addition to extending an officer’s information resources beyond the patrol vehicle, the practical utility of the phone itself is enormous. An officer can conduct a follow-up call with a witness, contact parents of a detained juvenile or check space availability at a mental health facility, all without going through a dispatcher or returning to the station.

[Read: Understanding the functionality of smartphones in policing]

Steps for Implementing a Department-Wide Program

The case for department-wide smartphone deployment is compelling but it should be done as part of a managed project. Here are some priority considerations and best practices:

  1. Identify and prioritize your goals. What do you most want to accomplish and what capabilities do you want officers to have? A good approach can be to start with basic call and text functionality, then add other abilities once you get the foundation in place.
  2. Inventory your current systems. Some CAD and records-management systems, particularly legacy products, may not readily support a mobile effort. The good news is that most of the major CAD vendors are updating their products with this capability because they want to stay in business. Check your current system and if it doesn’t have a mobile client, ask the vendor if it’s on the product road map and when it will be available. If you’re currently going out to bid, make sure you make this a requirement for the vendor.
  3. Determine how you will issue devices. Some agencies provide a stipend for personal cellphones that are used for department business. While a bring your own device (BYOD) policy may be satisfactory for basic use cases, it is generally not the best approach for smartphones that will access or send criminal justice data because of the security requirements inherent in the Criminal Justice Information System policy. Note this excerpt from CJIS Policy Appendix G4: “ . . . the technical methods and compensating controls required for CJIS Security Policy compliance are likely to exceed any potential cost savings for implementing BYOD.”
  4. Choose a cellular carrier. If you already have department-owned phones, check with your existing carrier, but don’t assume the same setup will support full-featured, deployment. Familiarize yourself with the aspects of public safety broadband networks. Two major carriers, AT&T (FirstNet) and Verizon (Responder Private Core) offer priority and preemption for first responders. In general, prioritize your carrier choice in this order: coverage, customer support and cost. Without adequate coverage, a smartphone is useless. Customer service is key because you’ll need a trusted partner familiar with public safety to work through challenges. In terms of cost, data plans can vary significantly. However, competition for the public safety market will likely keep rates competitive.
  5. Assign a project manager and identify key stakeholders. Someone at a management level needs to be responsible for this effort because there are significant decisions to be made and corresponding impacts on the organization. Proactive engagement of key stakeholders will help ensure success. Choose participants who will provide constructive input. Proactively identify adoption hurdles and make necessary course corrections. If your agency has a labor bargaining unit, bring them into the planning process, especially if you will be leveraging the geo-location and sensor capabilities of the smartphone.
  6. Start small and build. Utilize a small group of end-users for a pilot that will let you address unexpected challenges and allow for changes without major expense. These users can help get other officers up to speed as you commence your rollout. Depending on the size of your agency, consider a phased deployment approach, such as one division or substation at a time.
  7. Utilize Mobile Device Management (MDM). For department smartphones that will be accessing CJIS information, the requirements are stringent, and failure to properly safeguard CJIS data can result in revoked access. A strong enterprise mobility management plan is the best way to ensure your agency policies will meet CJIS guidelines. MDM software will let you maintain a level of device security in the event of loss and help to manage overall utilization. An MDM is required for smartphones accessing CJIS data (CJIS Section 5.13.2).
  8. Establish a mobile device policy. Good policy will keep officers out of trouble by setting clear expectations. Guidelines should summarize the purpose of the mobile program and clearly state what is permitted and what is not – e.g. short personal calls or texts. The policy should also underscore security protocols, as well as any CJIS-related requirements.
  9. Don’t forget the importance of training. Although everyone “knows” how to use a smartphone, these will be departmental devices with access to agency resources and training will ensure devices are properly utilized. Use personnel from pilot efforts to demonstrate smartphone benefits in the field and share success stories. Training should include discussion of security and departmental expectations regarding device usage. Officer safety should be a key consideration and it’s prudent to strongly caution officers about the dangers of distraction while dealing with subjects in the field.

With proper planning, a smartphone deployment can increase departmental effectiveness while improving situational awareness, officer safety and community engagement.

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