Innovation: Selling Tech To Cops

Posted on 17 May 2011 by

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This series of articles on law enforcement technology was written by Dave Henderson and Nick Selby and first published in CSO Online, the web version of CSO Magazine. We’re reprinting the four-part series here, starting with its introduction. For more on this subject see my presentation from Day 1 of the SMILE Conference; our PLI Podcast on Law Enforcement Technology, and The Biggest Mistakes Made By Law Enforcement Technology Vendors Part I and Part II.


In practical terms, making a professional transition from the world of information security and information technology to law enforcement is a lot easier than it might seem at first blush.

On the one hand, I’m constantly astounded by how badly technology is leveraged by the cops. Cops are pretty slow to adopt technologies unless they absolutely have to, and even slower to adapt to them culturally.

On the other hand, I never — in all the time I was in IT, in more than 1,000 interviews with vendors, no matter how much they wanted to — I never had a technology executive hit me with a TASER.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with cops this past year — in fact, I became sworn in as a cop myself. I work part-time. And I am constantly amazed at the similarities between the two worlds. When I’m on patrol, I see cops suiting up to take on a range of stuff from run-of-the-mill traffic stops to honest-to-goodness bad guys. When I was working with banks and businesses, I’d see infosec people firing up their keyboards to take on a range of threats that ranged from pedestrian annoyances to break-the-bank intellectual property thefts.

The similarities in personality are striking, too. And what’s more, the similarities in attitude towards technology are breathtaking. Come to think of it, the manufacturing firms and banks and utilities weren’t in all that great a hurry to adopt new technologies either, unless they absolutely had to.

But because they’re slow to adapt, many people think that cops hate technology.

That is a red-herring.

Cops do not hate technology. Cops hate technology that makes their job harder. And cops hate technology that looks to solve problems we didn’t know we had, as opposed to processes which drive us crazy.

And so do IT people.

The national local law enforcement market
There are more than 17,000 local and county and state law enforcement agencies in the US, more than half of which have 10 or fewer officers. They, and our communities, desperately need vendors to offer innovative solutions to life-and-death problems. And despite the bitching and moaning — which they do because they’re by necessity frugal with taxpayer money — when they need it, when it’s compelling, they can get the money. It might take a while. But they can get it. If you learn their needs, and can be creative with how you sell it, you can do very well.

So I submit to you that despite appearances and fragmentation, this is a great market. To make your product as good as it can be, and have the best chance of being bought and used at the local, county and state level, IT vendors simply must understand how cops think about this stuff.

Stuff? We got stuff
When people say cops don’t like technology, I think they have in mind the average cop’s reaction to a specific piece of gear — like an in-car computer: who could not want that? So now when administrators say, ‘Oh, they have computers in the car! Let’s have our cops run license-plate and driver license checks and regional warrant searches themselves,’ this assumes that the technology (a laptop) changes everything else about the job.

Which, of course, it does not. The cop views the laptop not as a great time saver, but as one additional thing he now has to do. New things get added, but nothing ever goes away.

When dash-cam video entered our windshields, nothing was taken away — and with the dash cam and LIDAR and RADAR and license plate reader and laptop and GPS and iPhone charger and radio and portable radio and shotgun and patrol rifle and extra cuffs (not to mention flashlights, handheld digital camera, tint meter, the basic crime scene kit and the automatic electronic defibrillator), our police vehicles look like heavily-armed Google StreetView minivans.

And for each of these things, there are at least a four-hour training session required before you can use it. And if he uses it wrong, or screws it up, he gets to get in trouble. And everyone knows that police agencies have rules about how to make rules, so there’s a policy for everything. So now: who wants to sell me more crap to interact with?

When do things become easier, when can you do more with less?

According to my business partner Dave — a 15-year police sergeant and investigator — and me, the keys to getting cops to want more technology and newer technology comprise the Three Golden Rules for law-enforcement technology products:

  • Integration
  • Simplification
  • Utility

This may seem obvious, yet we aver that it obviously is not. If it were obvious, technology vendors would have provided this to us already. So here’s what we mean by integration, simplicity and utility:

Integration means simply that System A can talk to systems B and C and D wherever possible and needed.

Simplification means that the technology is purpose-built and easy-to-use.

Utility is the combined condition arising from compliance with steps one and two — that is, when something is easy to use and purpose-built, and integrates with other technology products already in use by law enforcement, it is useful.

Over the next three articles, Dave and I will be talking about these concepts, and we’ll explore each of the Three Golden Rules. We’ll look at how integration supports community and intelligence-led policing. How simplicity saves lives and lowers taxes. And how utility makes sure that shelfware stays out of the patrol car.

We hope it is of interest to cops, command staff and, perhaps most important, vendors looking to sell to cops.