By Steve Kelman

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Police technology improves

police car

The investigation of the Boston Marathon bombings showed how police work is being changed by technology. What's interesting about that is that police hardly fit the stereotype of the tech-literate, and also that police organizations are often seen as being difficult to change.

By amazing coincidence, in the week before the bombings, The New York Times and The Boston Globe each ran articles on how police were using IT to help deal with potential crimes and fight crime.

The article in the Times was about police using smartphones to find information about residents of a given address. The databases linked together on the smartphone screen provide the officer with "access to the names of every resident with an open warrant, arrest record or previous police summons; each apartment with a prior domestic incident report; all residents with orders of protection against them; registered gun owners; and the arrest photographs of every parolee in the building." If the police are called for a domestic dispute, they can immediately see whether the person involved has previous arrests or convictions for domestic violence.

The Globe story, run a few days earlier on the front page, was about high-speed license plate-reading technology mounted on police vehicles that can scan 1,800 license plates per minute on passing cars, and share with police information related to the plates in real time. A simple use of this technology is to locate uninsured, unregistered, or stolen cars. The scans also record the location of the vehicle when the scan was taken, often allowing more information about where a car was that can be used in a legal case or, sometimes, to track down a suspect. In one instance, the license plate number of a man suspected of exposing himself was known, the number entered into the system, and the police alerted when the car drove past a scanner.

These are interesting examples of technology-driven change that help explain why it appears the police may be getting better at solving crimes. From an IT change management perspective, they provide a clear, if intuitive, lesson: people, even arguably change-resistant cultures such as the police, don't just "resist change" because they're ornery. If people believe a new technology will help them do their jobs better, they may well embrace it.

Both articles discuss worries of privacy and civil liberties groups about intrusions from government use of these data. I thought both articles dealt with these questions in a balanced way, and both articles, I thought (see if you agree), made the crime-fighting advantages of these new technologies clear.

Actually, even the head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, quoted in the Times article, did not have a knee-jerk reaction, stating that the technology had "enormous promise to improve policing and public safety," even though she was worried about "whether it will become a vehicle to round up the usual suspects, to harass people" based on information in the databases.

Both articles exhibited balanced reporting that gave those readers willing to see a picture of improvements in public management that perhaps should make the police successes after the Boston bombings less surprising. (See my previous blog entry for a discussion of willingness to see.)

PS: I am participating in the Walk for Hunger in Boston on Sunday May 5 – the city's first big street event since the bombings -- and am looking for sponsors. Any blog reader who would like to sponsor me should send a tax-deductible check payable to Walk for Hunger to me at: Harvard University, JFK School of Government, 79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138. I will mention the names of sponsors in a subsequent blog. Thank you in advance.

Posted on Apr 26, 2013 at 12:09 PM


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