For Baltimore PD, Mobile Technology is the Best SidePartner of All
By Jessica Binns
In many ways, police officers are no strangers to technology. Laptops -- usually rugged -- have found their way into many patrol cars and have been a useful aid in providing critical real-time information. But what do you do when your officers need to be productive outside of the vehicle?
That's the problem that the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) faced. And when the police commissioner himself pushed for officers to be more visible in the community, the department's management information systems (MIS) group needed a solution that would enhance both the officers' ability to do their jobs and command staff's ability to manage and deploy personnel.
Gayle Guilford, director of MIS for the BPD, says the solution is what they've dubbed SidePartner: BlackBerry Curve devices equipped with Xora
workforce management solution, the Interact PocketCop application which enables access to the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and state Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) databases, and a token which provides two-factor authentication.
In searching for the right software, the top priorities for the department's mobile solution were that it be Web-based and feature sound dispatching capabilities. "We were interested in Xora because we were not interested in reinventing wheel," says Guilford. "We wanted a company experienced in dispatch more than law enforcement. It was more important to know the company had expertise in using the software as a management tool."
Her department evaluated another solution that was geared toward law enforcement but would have forced her staff to customize and install a client on each laptop that a commander might regularly access -- including his personal computer at home -- in order to leverage the management-level GPS mapping and tracking functionalities for deployment planning optimization. "From an MIS perspective, we don't want to have to go to homes and install clients and be responsible for upgrades," she explains. It was easier for all involved if the command staff could simply log onto a Web site and access the information they needed.
Xora's Field Force Manager solution was the best fit because it's Web-based, managed through the city's wireless carrier, Verizon, and simple to use. "We didn't have to do a lot of customization; the reports were already generated so we didn't have to create new forms," Guilford says, adding that speed of deployment was important to the department. "And they have 'bread crumbs,' so command staff can see what direction [their officers] are going in."
Customizing the solution
MIS did need to customize the solution to tailor it to the command staff's needs. For example, it's important for the BPD to be able to see which unit each officer is assigned to during his shift; cops often are assigned to different units each day. MIS divided up all of the units in the police department's districts so that each district commander sees only the district under his authority. The commissioner, however, has access to the complete view of all districts.
Since Xora stores data on the Web for a limited time, Guilford says her team also worked with the vendor to write an app that periodically downloads data from the Field Force Manager site.
One advantage of SidePartner is that it helps to provide an extra layer of security. If an officer runs an NCIC search and gets a hit on a violent offender, both the dispatcher and other cops in his area receive an alert with the officer's GPS coordinates in case backup assistance is needed.
Reaping the benefits
With the new solution, Guilford says officers now save about a half hour per shift -- time that was spent calling into dispatch for information that now can quickly be found on the SidePartner solution. In fact, MIS chose BlackBerry Curves to transition away from relying on using radios to call into dispatch -- freeing dispatchers to prioritize more urgent calls.
Prior to the deployment, if an officer stopped a vehicle and got the driver's license, he would have walk back to his car and get on his laptop or use the radio to ask the dispatcher to access the license in question. The dispatcher then would verbally describe what the MVA picture looked like. Now, officers have that information right on their belt -- next to their guns and Tasers. "From a SidePartner perspective, the best thing officers will tell you is that they now have a real picture of a person for when they're doing traffic stops, etc.," Guilford says.
From 80 to 1,600 to 2,000
After a successful pilot run of 80 deployed devices, MIS began rolling out 1,600 BlackBerrys -- with GPS only -- over the course of eight weeks leading up to Baltimore's Fourth of July celebration in the city's famous Inner Harbor. During large gatherings such as those at Independence Day, New Year's Eve, or the city's annual Preakness Stakes horse race, it's essential for command staff to be able to see -- via GPS coordinates -- the precise locations of their personnel.
What's more, command staff now can look up information on a past year's officer deployment for a particular event to review and revise the deployment as needed for future events. "Next year for Fourth of July, we'll pull up GPS maps to see how we deployed and if we should deploy that way again," Guilford says. Similarly, if there's a murder or violent incident, commanders are able to layer GPS information from Xora onto a map of the district showing the locations of the officers assigned to that sector and see where their officers were a half hour before and after the situation.
"You can see ' oh, there's a hole in our coverage right here.' The criminals like to hang out on this side, and then we push them to another corner. You can change the officers' deployment, can see how you can do things differently," Guilford explains.
Following the Fourth of July deployment, it took about another three to four months to roll out all 2,000 fully equipped devices. About 1,800 are in active use at any given time.
Listen up, officers
When it came to deploying the devices to patrol officers, Guilford was surprised at how officers reacted to the solution. It's a common assumption that the older crowd tends be technology-averse, but Guilford says it was more difficult to get the younger officers to listen to her team.
"We were shocked and amazed; we thought the older officers would have a problem with the solution, but the young ones -- they don't want to listen to anybody. They've got a Droid at home, they're quick with finger-typing. They're the ADD crowd," says Guilford.
"That was one of the biggest challenges in the training, getting people who were familiar with technology to slow down enough to understand that first, your average piece of technology doesn't have two-factor authentication like SidePartner does," she explains, referring to the token that provides secure logon information that changes each second. The token is a critical piece of the solution; the FBI and state of Maryland would not allow the BPD mobile access to their NCIC and MVA databases without it.
Reassuring the union
MIS also needed to assure the officers' union that implementing the SidePartner was in everyone's best interest. "We brought in the union and they could see the security it provided, and that the whole device provided the information the officer needed to do his job outside of the car," Guilford says. "We were looking at anything that officers might object to. The GPS tracking has that 'big brother' aspect."
Going forward, the BPD would like to add mobile fingerprint and retinal scanning capabilities for suspects over the next five years, but Guilford acknowledges that "the technology isn't there yet."
Saving time, putting key information at officers' fingertips, enabling historical review of personnel deployments -- any one of those benefits is enough on its own to justify the SidePartner implementation. As for the police commissioner's directive to increase officers' presence in the community? With the SidePartner solution, it's mission: accomplished.