Monday, July 16, 2007

I'm old school on this one

Digging deeply into the efficiency study of the Omaha Police Department conducted by the Matrix Consulting Group, I encountered (beginning on page 99) a recommendation that OPD deploy “field reporting” in their patrol cars—utilizing their mobile data computers to complete police reports. I beg to differ.

Anyone who knows me at all can tell you that I’m as comfortable with technology as any police chief anywhere. I've got three PCs in my office. My reputation as a geek is firmly established. It may surprise you that I am not at all in favor of in-car reporting on mobile data computers. After all, mobile data was one of my goals when I became police chief. It was not an easy sell. There were plenty of skeptics among the ranks. A decade later though, the MDC is a vital—if not essential—tool. (Note: you can still do fine police work with a pencil and a pad of paper. If you have a ballpoint, you can skip the paper.)

So, why isn’t’ a guy who wears a 4Gb nerd stick in love with field reporting? Two simple words: officer safety. We’ve gone to great lengths to engineer the installation of mobile data computers in patrol cars safely, which is not an easy feat. You’ve got to avoid the air bag deployment zone, and correctly install an incredibly stout mounting system that costs a small fortune. This mostly protects you from collision impacts with your PC, something we’ve proven in some pretty dramatic collisions. The safety risks I’m talking about are something else, unique to field reporting.

The first risk is hand, wrist and arm injuries caused by the inherently poor ergonomics of mobile computers mounted in cars. I don’t care how you do it, it just isn’t good. You can buy two-piece units, detachable keyboards, steering wheel-mounted removable trays, or whatever—the patrol car is not and will never be an ergonomically acceptable workstation for anything other than very short key stroking sessions. Implement field reporting and stand back for the carpal tunnel syndrome cases, if the reporting is extensive and the narratives lengthy.

The second and more serious risk concerns the mental process of field reporting. Actually it’s not field reporting, rather, field reporting using a computer. Parking your patrol car in the parking lot at 27th St. and Pine Lake Rd. while cranking out an Accident Report on your clipboard is great. It saves fuel, it provides some good visibility, and it causes a few hundred motorists to glance at their speedometer and actually apply the brake rather than the accelerator when the signal turns yellow. But completing a report on a computer is something entirely different. A computer sucks you into a black hole. I do not like the idea one bit of police officers in patrol cars, heads down, concentration focused intently on a computer screen. There is a huge amount of computer technology in the cockpit of modern aircraft. You won't find pilots filling out an online log.

Field reporting is hot in policing these days. Everybody wants it. In my view this is a half-baked idea, given the current stage of technology. LPD is an incredibly able department when it comes to information technology. I have never found a department that puts as much information in front of its employees in such an easy to use interface. When it comes to field reporting, though, I am happy to leave the cutting edge to other departments for the time being. A few people are starting to talk about these downsides, but not very many are stopping to think about the real or potential unintended consequences of some police technologies (there are others, by the way.)

Technology is constantly changing, and the future may bring about new entry methods that resolve some of these concerns. For the moment, though, I think the consultants are wrong. In my opinion police officers using computers to complete reports much longer than a citation ought to have their feet planted on land at an appropriate workstation in a quasi-private environment like a small substation or the back office at a friendly merchant.


Anonymous said...

The accident forms have changed since your day in a cruiser those many years ago. Filling out an accident form does put your head down and takes a bit of time in a car.

As far as efficiency goes I do have this question. The fact that one can use a palm to access the lpd screen without a log on is a hazard. What happens if one loses their palm while in a fight downtown or falls out of their energy saving bike? Now some one will have access to the system. Does this not effect the accrediation process on security of information?

Tom Casady said...

Oh, believe me, I know how complex the Accident Report has become. You should see the online version the Dept. of Roads has created. Wow, talk about a cow. But with paper, you look up and around and glance about every now and then. You stop and start, get a drink, come back and finish up later. A computer application is different. You tend to get much more engrossed, it's much more difficult to stop and start, and it requires more intense focus. At least that's how I see it.

Don't worry about the handheld. You can get to the Internal Home page, and you can go from there to any public links. But the links into our RMS are protected with both logon passwords, IP restrictions and timeouts. If you're handheld was lost, the timeout would kill it's access.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the chief. As a former Cop and user of MDT's I felt uncomfortable to try to even read the screen about the call for service or to chat to other officers. Anything like this that requires the officer to have tunnel vision to focus on the screen causes great safety concerns. As for doing reports on the MDT, I never had an accident report shut down on me because I didn't complete it immediately, but imagine the problems of having to pull up or lose what you've already entered on that report. Too much sitting in the crusier can be a great cause for eventual back problems. Get out, stretch and get the report done comfortably.

Anonymous said...

Here is my problem w/ the whole issue. It comes as a recommendation from a consultant's review.

The problem is, is that these guys have a menu of suggestions and recommendations that they make which are somewhat sound, but made only to justify the expense of their study.

I guarantee you - somewhere there is a flowchart - you've seen them - with the YES and NO boxes - arrows pointing to the appropriate recommendation.

With that - and a few hundred hours of "interviews" to determine how things work now, the recommendations come pretty easy.

Four men on a fire truck? (check) - recommend 3. Reporting completed at a field office? (check) recommend in car reporting... etc.

One size, fits most right? wrong.

Anonymous said...

I agree, a cop's focus should not be on the things going on inside his cruiser, but on the the things happening out the car. Think we can get them off their cell phones while they are driving?

Tom Casady said...

Way too many things inside the modern police patrol car to contend with, and not nearly as much erogonomic engineering to accomodate the multi-tasking. There are, however, some interesting research studies underway aimed and developing, designing and piloting patrol cars as cockpits. Google "Project54" (no space) for an example from the University of New Hampshire. Keep in mind that nothing's ever quite as good as it appears in a demo.

Anonymous said...

Consultants! Don't get me started on that profession. The last thing you'll ever get from them is, "After all that time and money, we've concluded that you should just keep doing what yo're doing". No, they have to give you brilliant insights, even if they are basically garbage. Situational awareness would definitely be diminished when your gaze is fixated on any type of display. I've got PCs, notebooks, and carry a bluetooth PDA all the time, but in this instance I think the clipboard gets the nod.

Anonymous said...

Could they do a verbal report that is speech recognized or typed by an off-site stenographer?

Would it not be better to record the actual audio statement from an i-witness via i-pod or cell phone then have to take notes and re-type it?

Tom Casady said...

Yes, in fact that's what we do on our longer narrative reports, Supplementary Reports.

Field reporting is normally aimed at the basic police Incident Report, which in most departments is around 50-100 fields for names, addresses, incidents types, location codes, and so forth; along with a 250 word or so narrative. It doesn't lend itself well to dictation, and is usually a paper report. It's pretty easy to computerize, but it's still quite a bit of key-mashing.

Traffic accident reports are the other common target of field reporting projects, and they are much worse, because they have double or triple the data fields.