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Redesigning the future of police operations

New approaches and technologies can improve both safety and services

Police Drone read the licence plates' prefixes

Drone fly in the read the licence plates’ prefixes

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This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.

The article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it — creating, constraining and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.

By Jason Boust

It is the not-so-distant future. A small Central Valley police agency of 55 employees keeps a community of 40,000 safe. The agency has 30 police officers, eight unarmed community service officers (CSOs), seven community care technicians, five records and evidence techs, and five police administrators. Interestingly, the city issues vouchers of $600 a month to each of its 110 employees to assist with daycare.

During an average day, the armed police officers handle a variety of calls relating to active crimes against persons or property. The CSOs conduct follow-ups, respond to cold crimes, handle crime scene investigations and conduct community education, including violence-intervention programs. The agency’s seven community care technicians are trained to handle mental health crises, provide counseling and act as navigators for resources. They offer counseling after traumatic incidents for both officers and the community and direct community members to further assistance for programs outside the city.

All these services are coordinated by well-trained dispatchers that can accurately diagnose and dispatch calls to the right resources with a high level of accuracy. The employees are happy, and they feel supported and valued.

How different is this from present-day law enforcement? In some cases not much, but employing CSOs for duties traditionally performed by police officers and deploying clinicians as first responders is still a vision of the future for most police agencies. How, then, can the industry adapt to be more efficient and more effective?

The landscape of public safety is evolving rapidly, driven by technological advances, changing societal pressures and the need for increased efficiency and cost-effectiveness. In recent years the debate surrounding police reform has gained momentum, with many advocating for a reevaluation of traditional policing methods. The idea of sending armed police officers to every situation, regardless of its nature, is being questioned. Beyond mere agreement by the police that change may need to happen, law enforcement should explore how nontraditional employees and technology can reshape the future of policing.

From defund to refund

From the start, the “defund the police” movement was doomed. From many perspectives those in favor became too extreme after the George Floyd incident. The police and those who supported them were aghast. Cities burned, the police were blamed, tragedy and despair loomed large. Now, what if that “defund” was a “Hey, let’s move some funds instead!”

When the dust settled it turned out both sides were sort of on the same side. Yes, the police are not trained to deal with those in mental crisis; yes, they have better things to do; yes, they don’t enjoy being the Swiss army knife of public safety, tasked to solve every societal issue that emerges. Communities may have assumed the police could handle mental health crises before so much attention came to the issue, but how confident are they now that law enforcement is best equipped to respond? By reimaging who public safety agencies employ and what they do within that agency, the police can both reform into new services and use emerging technologies to their benefit.

What’s out there?

Advancing technology offers law enforcement new possibilities. As one example, AI-driven traffic cameras in use in Detroit and Ohio now adjust lights to match traffic flow, respond to hazards and detect approaching emergency vehicles. [1] Consider the future of traffic enforcement with smart pylons replacing motor cops through laser speed measuring, photo enforcement and plate reader technology. Radio frequency identification device (RFID) sensors are being used to track equipment and log personnel and property movement within an agency. Imagine a large festival with an RFID tag affixed to every child’s wrist — if that child becomes separated from a parent, they could be found quickly (this is already in use in India). RFID is also used in race bibs to track distance runners and access control in police facilities. [2]

Automated license plate reader (ALPR) technology can locate stolen vehicles as they move throughout the jurisdiction and notify police automatically. Using technology in place of people frees funds. In addition, the introduction of AI into dispatch centers can significantly improve response times and efficiency.

Analysis by the reformist Vera Institute [3] indicates that at least half of all calls dispatched to police officers suffer from vague incident types such as “check the welfare,” “disturbance” and similar terms, meaning officers may not be prepared for what they’ll actually face when they arrive. For example, when the 911 call centers in Camden, New Jersey and Tucson, Arizona were assessed, it was determined that human dispatchers misclassified call and priority types differently. They matched on priority levels just 67% of the time, and on incident types just 56%. [3] These calls often require officers to respond and evaluate their true nature (and dangers). When you consider there are approximately 240 million 911 calls each year, that makes a difference.

What if AI could better distinguish exact call types? Currently one in every five German transport and logistic companies uses AI applications, and 37% of German companies plan to use AI in logistics or transport in the future. [4] Let’s be honest: Humans have limits to their cognitive abilities. Most AI applications in law enforcement today are for facial recognition, biometrics and predictive policing. [5] But public trust with AI is a mixed bag, and only time and advancements in technology will determine the industry’s path with regard to public safety.

The cities of Portland, Oregon; Oakland and San Francisco in California; and Boston, Massachusetts have passed local ordinances preventing government agencies from using facial recognition. States such as California (AB 1215) and New Hampshire (HB 499) have already passed legislation to limit or ban AI associated with facial recognition technology, strongly indicating the public’s concern for privacy remains high. While that technology is in the works, in the meantime, agencies should begin to use the Tucson PD data and Vera guidelines to train dispatchers to ensure calls are entered correctly and the right resources are sent the first time. Tucson PD improved its call processes by training dispatchers to triage calls appropriately upon receipt, thus ensuring accurate recording by call takers and dispatchers and allowing alternatives to police response. Tucson now has embedded crisis line workers and a warm line to accept 911 call transfers, mobile crisis teams and a 24/7 crisis response center.

Beyond technology, whom we hire, and for what purposes, is perhaps the biggest change on the horizon for law enforcement.

Police1’s VISION platform empowers police departments to navigate the complexities of the digital age

Nontraditional employees relieve the load

Now that our cops are freed from responding to most mental health calls, follow-ups, cold crimes and requests for resources, what do we do? Enter programs like CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets) in Eugene, Oregon and STAR (Support Team Assisted Response) in Denver, Colorado. These are response teams that have demonstrated how nontraditional employees, such as mental health professionals, paramedics and counselors, can effectively handle calls related to mental health crises and other social services. They have not only saved millions of dollars from police budgets but have also provided more appropriate and compassionate responses to individuals in need. And in case you are on the “wait till social workers’ bodies start stacking up” side, here are some facts:

  • The STAR program in Denver responded to 1,323 calls in 11 months, nobody was arrested or injured, and police assistance was never required. [6]
  • Of the estimated 17,700 calls the CAHOOTS team in Oregon responded to in 2019, they requested police back up 311 times (1.7%). [6]

In one year, 97 people were killed in the U.S. by police responding to reports of someone behaving erratically or suffering a mental health episode. Denver’s police chief has said of his program that it “saves lives” and “prevents tragedies.” Polls have shown that the majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents agree that police reform is a high priority and that police too often address issues they simply shouldn’t. [6]

And, it turns out, if these programs are implemented correctly (trained response teams sent by highly trained dispatchers to ensure the proper resource is dispatched), they work. Furthermore, data collected from cities in the Vera study suggested that between 33% and 68% of calls could be handled by an unarmed officer, and 13%–33% could be handled administratively. [5] Replacing a portion of traditional armed officers with trained community responders or clinicians makes sense operationally, is cost-effective and improves service.

Another example of using nontraditional folks to solve problems is community violence intervention programs, which aim to prevent violence and intervene in potentially violent situations. The Los Angeles Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development was created in 2007. As of 2020 it covered 23 service areas in Los Angeles and used 25 service providers to focus on community engagement, gang prevention, gang intervention and violence interruption activities. [7] A study of effectiveness showed that from 2011–2016, after a client was in their program for six months, they were 22% less likely to engage in nonviolent criminal behavior and 17% less likely to engage in violent criminal behavior. [7] From 2014–2017, retaliatory violence in the service areas decreased by 41%, and retaliatory violence was reduced by 18% immediately around initial violent events (within a single block). Retaliatory violence more than one block away from the initial violent event was reduced by 22%. [7]

Can or will these folks work for the police departments? They should. Nonsworn staff costs up to 67% less than sworn. [8] These people exist, and they work for nonprofits, community groups or the cities themselves. Agencies seeking to implement these programs should make room in their budgets, attend career fairs, speak at college campuses and find people who seek to make difference in their communities.

Rethinking roles has a definite impact on cost and efficiency. The CAHOOTS and STAR programs are great examples of how programs can be both cost-effective and efficient. With an annual budget of $2 million, CAHOOTS has saved the city of Eugene $8.5 million annually. [9]

Denver and Eugene/Springfield (the adjoining community also served by CAHOOTS) are good-size jurisdictions, but how can small agencies capitalize, you ask? Two social workers can share a civilian vehicle, as opposed to a $70,000 police unit. They require laptops and polo shirts, as opposed to $10,000 in weapons, gear and uniforms. And, most important, they can handle a wide range of calls that include welfare checks, follow-ups on child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence and other quality-of-life issues. [10] This program was implemented by Alexandria, Kentucky Police Chief Mike Ward in 2016. The current chief, Lucas Cooper, was against it at the time; in fact, in his own words, he was the “most vocal opponent.” Now he’s a staunch advocate for the program. He sees it as “indispensable” and adds it “frees up officers from repeat calls for noncriminal issues and gets residents the help they needed but couldn’t get.” [11]

So, what’s to glean from this data? Police agencies of all sizes can better serve their communities and gain support from activists seeking to reform them. They can do this by learning how Tucson PD ramped up its dispatcher training to better identify problems and send the right resources, which may or may not be armed police officers. They can point to successes of programs like CAHOOTS and STAR. In Quebec, Cananda for example, a 2020 study showed the use of similar crisis intervention response teams reduced use-of-force rates from 12.1% when officers responded to 4.2% when they didn’t and were aided by the response team. [8] Cities like Los Angeles and Chicago have used community violence intervention programs to reduce homicides and shootings through established partnerships between government stakeholders and those they serve. Agencies can begin to invest in technology such as analytic-enabled community video policing systems, license plate readers and AI-enabled traffic cameras.

Technology typically trickles down, usually from the military to well-funded private industry and then ultimately to local governments. Police agencies should stay abreast of the trends so they are not left behind. All of this can be done by rethinking how agencies do the work, whom they employ, how they train them and whom they send to answer those calls.

Conclusion

Now consider this scenario: It is the year 2070. All vehicular traffic is autonomous. Smart roads that both charge vehicles as they move and monitor traffic flows and speeds have made traffic enforcement obsolete — there is simply nothing to enforce. AI dispatch centers aren’t staffed by people. The proper unit is designated based on the information gathered from the person who calls. The types of calls the police respond to have been cut by three-quarters. All records and police reports are digitized and completed in a matter of minutes as the calls unfold. Real time crime centers, drone observation and shot-spotter technology, combined with RFID tracking of community members and advanced AI-driven predictive policing, have made unsolved crime a thing of the past. Agencies are more automated, with the bulk of the work done by programmers and IT personnel.

The reality is there will be many challenges and opportunities as we inch forward. Those who innovate and have the courage to move toward their desired future will be successful. Police matrons, mobile data terminals, school resource officers and social media were once nontraditional — look how far we’ve come. Let’s keep going!

Questions to consider

1. In what ways might the deployment of community service officers (CSOs) and community care technicians in place of traditional police officers impact the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve?

2. Considering the use of AI and technology in law enforcement as described, what are the possible implications for privacy and civil liberties, and how might law enforcement agencies address these concerns?

3. How effective could nontraditional roles like CSOs and community care technicians be in real-world scenarios based on the experiences shared from programs like CAHOOTS and STAR? What metrics or evaluations should be used to measure their success?

4. What steps can law enforcement agencies take to ensure that their adaptation to emerging trends and technologies remains in alignment with the legal and ethical expectations of society? How can they maintain public trust while innovating?

References

1. Toh CK, Sanguesa JA, Cano JC, Martinez FJ. Advances in Smart Roads for Future Smart Cities. Proceedings of the Royal Society. January 2020.

2. Murali KJ. Applications of RFID Technology in Law-Enforcement. Personal blog. November 18, 2019.

3. Neusteter SR, O’Toole M, Khogali M, et al. Understanding Police Enforcement: A Multicity 911 Analysis. Vera Institute of Justice. September 2020.

4. Gringer J. Will Artificial Intelligence Replace the Dispatcher? Motionist. June 2019.

5. Irwin A, Pearl B. The Community Responder Model. Law Enforcement Action Partnership. October 2020.

6. Dholakia N, Gilbert D. What Happens When We Send Mental Health Providers Instead of Police. Vera Institute of Justice. May 2021.

7. Thomas T, Eisenberg R. Centering Youth in Community Violence Interventions as Part of a Comprehensive Approach to Countering Gun Violence. Center for American Progress. October 2022.

8. Brock G. Answering the Call with a Non-Traditional Response. Police1. May 2022.

9. Smith AV. There’s Already an Alternative to Calling the Police. High Country News. June 2020.

10. Ward M. Everyone Benefits When Police Departments Hire Social Workers. Medium. July 2019.

11. Wood J. The US Police Department That Decided to Use Social Workers. The Guardian. September 2020.

About the author
Jason Boust is a commander supervising operations for the Sanger Police Department outside of Fresno, California. He is active in developing, implementing and conducting department training. Over his 23-year career, in addition to patrol, he has worked on a graffiti task force and as a SERT team leader. He has investigated all levels of crime, conducted media briefings, prepared staff reports and managed all types of projects. As a supervisor, he has overseen incidents ranging from homicide to hazmat scenes. He has worked with community members to address and solve problems both as an officer and a supervisor.

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