In recent years, the Philadelphia Police Department has shown effort in innovating its communications and citizen engagement platforms. The department boasts 100 arrests via tips through its social media efforts, several new channels for submitting police tips including a mobile app, a mobile version of its website and even social media business cards. In January of 2011, one detective said Philly police had the “best website platform of any police department in the country.”
But what’s it like behind the scenes? What kinds of technology tools do officers use to do their jobs? Here’s the first story in a Technically Philly series exploring innovations in police IT in the next couple weeks. Find the rest of the stories in the series here.
For Philly cops, the discovery process used to be a mess.
‘Discovery’ is a term that refers to all the relevant documents for a criminal investigation, and it’s the police department’s responsibility to get all that information over to the District Attorney’s Office for prosecution. Just a few years ago, the process was time-consuming and there was always the possibility that discovery papers would get lost somewhere in the process.
That changed in 2009, when the Police Department implemented electronic discovery, as part of a larger push to upgrade police IT. And those close to the effort say it’s a far deeper move toward efficiency than any social media account.
The effort began in 2002, with a $4.7 million contract (plus two $1.1 million renewals) for IBM to create a system that would digitize the department’s reports, according to a Technically Philly review of the contract. Though the Police Department still has serious and longstanding IT infrastructure troubles [check back next week for a follow-up story], there were two main successes to the IBM contract: electronic discovery and computerized investigation reports.
“The crown jewel is [electronic] discovery,” says former detective Lt. Fred McQuiggan, who has been working on the IT upgrade project since it started. “It’s a grand slam.”
The old discovery process went something like this, according McQuiggan:
- A detectives made two copies of everything in the “discovery package.” A final package could be 50 pages thick or more.
- After a supervisor approves it, the detective had to hand-deliver it to the District Attorney’s Office in Center City.
- The detective then crossed his fingers and hoped none of the paperwork got lost in any of the transition, like between various prosecutors, says Capt. Tom Olson, the police project manager of the IBM contract who’s been with the department for 35 years..
Now, detectives can create a whole discovery package on a computer.
- They complete investigation reports, which are part of the discovery package, on a digital system.
- They scan photos and hard copies of reports.
- They can even include digital video clips to the package, which is a recent development, McQuiggan says. (Previously, if a detective wanted to include a video surveillance clip in a discovery package, he had to hand-deliver it.)
Once the discovery package is done and approved by a supervisor electronically, prosecutors in the District Attorney’s Office can simply log on to the same system and access those documents.
The new, streamlined system means:
- No more misplaced papers, no more driving all around town to deliver important documents.
- The new system also cuts down on personnel costs, McQuiggan says. There used to be Police Department employees who manually kept track of discovery and investigation reports. Now, it’s all automated by the department’s technology.
- Launched in 2004, a computerized system to write digital investigation reports was also a huge victory, says Olson, because of the sheer volume of these reports. Last year, officers filed almost 250,000 investigation reports, according to data provided by the Police Department. Previously, officers were writing these reports on typewriters. They were bogged down by redundant data entry, Olson says. The new system eliminates that.
Olson champions the technology, saying it saves the Police Department time and money and is used by more people in the department than any other system. He says the Police Commissioner Charles Ramsay always says he wants police technology to be as userfriendly as TurboTax, and this is the closest thing police have to that.
Today, asking police to work without this system would be like them “trying to eat dinner without utensils,” Olson says.