How law enforcement technology is helping increase safety for citizens

By linking demographic information and critical health data to 911 dispatch, first responders can deliver a more fair, effective and efficient response

Sponsored by Tyler Technologies

By Laura Neitzel for Police1 BrandFocus

At some point in their careers, most first responders will have an encounter with a person with an invisible disability. Mental illnesses, autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disabilities and even medical conditions like diabetes can lead a vulnerable person to behave in ways that make them seem aggressive, uncooperative or under the influence.

Specialized training and technology can help make traffic stops and other police/citizen interactions safer for both parties.
Specialized training and technology can help make traffic stops and other police/citizen interactions safer for both parties. (image/iStock)

Specialized training can help officers better understand these conditions, but officers need more tools to help them fill in some of the gaps in information that can help them achieve a successful encounter.

With increased awareness of issues like racial bias, mental illness and disability rights, public safety agencies, lawmakers, technology companies and private citizens are working together to build tools, gather data and share information that increases safety for police and citizens alike.

Rooting out racial profiling

In a rare show of bipartisanship, the Texas Legislature in 2017 passed and Gov. Abbott signed into law the Sandra Bland Act. Among other reforms, the Act seeks to prevent another tragedy like the one that befell the law’s namesake and that was widely considered to have been the unfortunate result of racial profiling.

To uncover bias and keep traffic stops from escalating into unnecessary arrests, the Act now requires Texas law enforcement officers to document every traffic stop, whether it results in an arrest, citation or warning. The collective data gathered over a year is filed with the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE), whose mission is to ensure that highly trained and ethical law enforcement and corrections officers are serving the people of Texas.

Any officer making a traffic stop is required to gather demographic information about the driver stopped, including gender and race or ethnicity, and state whether he or she knew the driver’s race or ethnicity prior to detaining that individual. Other data collected includes:

  • Reason for the stop.
  • Whether a search was conducted.
  • Whether the search was consented to.
  • Whether the search was the result of visible contraband, probable cause or reasonable suspicion.
  • Whether the stop resulted in an arrest and, if so, on what basis.

In the past, an officer could just give a verbal warning to the driver without needing to capture a lot of data or handing a piece of paper to the driver, says Stephanie Robinson, records programs administrator for the Hays County, Texas, Sheriff’s Office.

“Now we have several specific pieces of information that we have to obtain on what used to just be a routine traffic stop, regardless of how that traffic stop ended,” she said.

Gather traffic stop data without issuing a citation

Hays County uses Brazos electronic citation software to issue traffic citations. But, because the data that the agency is mandated to capture from traffic stops is different than that the data an officer typically gathers when issuing a citation, Robinson and her team approached Brazos to help with this new challenge. Unlike information gathered for a citation, which would be stored as an official record in the agency’s records management system, the demographic information just needs to be captured, not stored permanently.

“The Brazos team went to work and created a stop data card that allows us to answer those mandatory questions per the update within the Sandra Bland policy,” said Robinson. “We can capture that data and then filter it into the form that we file with TCOLE.”

In addition to submitting the report to TCOLE, looking at traffic stop data allows law enforcement agencies to identify any trends in stopping individuals of one race or ethnicity more than others (based on population), and any changes to department policies or procedures needed or problems that need to be addressed with specific officers.

“Because you have to answer all these questions, I think it holds officers and deputies accountable for fairness across the board,” said Robinson.

In addition to law enforcement gathering data about citizens they interact with at traffic stops, they can also use safety information voluntarily provided by citizens to give officers insight into a vulnerable person’s condition or disability.

Partnering for public safety

With the evolution of advancements in emergency response technologies like Next Generation 911, citizens are gaining new platforms to create documents and streams of information that can get to first responders. These are starting to be integrated with public safety answering points (PSAPs) and public safety agencies.

“There was a mandate several years ago that wireless companies AT&T and Verizon had to enable exact positioning on a phone,” said Rich McQuade, computer-aided dispatch product owner at Tyler Technologies. “I can go to a maps app on my phone and it tells me right where I'm at, but currently there's no standard methodology for that information to be shared on the 911 call.”

As this capability slowly makes its way into common adoption by 911 call centers and PSAPs, the major smartphone manufacturers have designed the latest generation of phones to provide emergency location services via the phone’s GPS using third-party apps that relay emergency contact and health information from an individual’s smartphone to 911.

Building a smart 911 system for more appropriate responses

One of these partnerships is Smart 911, a web-based app that gives citizens the ability to build a profile based on address. A citizen can associate an emergency phone number and email address with that residence, as well as information like medical conditions, disabilities, lethal allergies, car make and model or even number of pets.

Knowing this type of information can help first responders better understand the background of a residence and its occupants so they can respond more quickly with the right resources or approach a situation differently. For example, upon getting a missing person’s report from a residence, the first responder could already know that a resident has dementia and has driven away in a gray sedan with license plate XYZ123.

Potential tragedies can be avoided if officers responding to a residence where a person is wielding a kitchen knife know that person has a mental illness and may be experiencing paranoia or hallucinations. Or that a person who appears to be intoxicated is actually a diabetic experiencing ketoacidosis, a potentially deadly condition, or may have Parkinson’s disease and can’t control his movements or speak clearly.

“No one wants to be that police officer arresting a diabetic patient for a DUI or TASERing a Parkinson’s patient instead of getting that person the emergency medical care he or she needs,” said McQuade. “It still goes back to making sure that officer has the complete picture.”

Linking critical data to first responders

Another public-private partnership has led to RapidSOS, an app that links a person’s location along with medical alerts, health profile, emergency contacts and even biometric and other data directly from a person’s connected device directly to 911 and first responders. Armed with life-saving information gathered from a connected device – whether a smartphone, security system or wearable health monitor – first responders can provide a faster and more effective response.

Tyler Technologies’ New World Enterprise computer-aided dispatch software  gathers historical data from law enforcement records and displays that as soon as a call comes in. By then supplementing that with information from RapidSOS or Smart 911, dispatchers and first responders can get a good picture of what's really going on at a location, says McQuade.

“These technologies are going to make an incredible difference because they help ensure that we're sending the right help to the right location with actionable information,” he said.

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