Technology as a “force multiplier” to give law enforcement a leg-up on fighting crime

With city budget shortfalls opening up across the country, police departments are  now facing a new reality of cutbacks, layoffs and even outright mergers and consolidations of entire police departments with others. With federal subsidies disappearing (federal support for criminal justice assistance grant programs shrank by 43 percent between 2011 and 2013), police had few options.

With diminishing dollars law enforcement agencies must find ways to operate more affordably. One obvious way is to use technology in more efficient ways.

One example can be found in Camden, N.J., a poverty-ridden, high-crime city of 77,000, located on the banks of the Delaware River, across from Philadelphia. Desperate cut costs, the city disbanded its entire police force. The Camden County Police Department rehired most of the laid-off officers, and hired another 100 at much lower salaries and benefits, to create a consolidated regional police force. The move is considered highly controversial. While police departments in other jurisdictions have merged or consolidated to cut costs, none have gone down the path that Camden has taken.

The Camden concept is to use technology as a “force multiplier” to give law enforcement a leg-up on fighting crime. The Camden Police Department has set up a real-time tactical operational intelligence center that pulls together data from an array of cameras, gunshot location devices and automated license plate readers. Real-time data is fed back to the cops on the beat, giving them useful information when they respond to incidents. Even patrol car locations are tracked so officers can be deployed where they are most needed.

The situation in Camden certainly is unique and it’s too early to tell whether the force multiplier approach is making a dent in the crime rate (in the first 12 months of the new department, the city recorded 57 murders, down from 67 in 2012), but in some ways it crystallizes what’s happening to police departments across the country.

As city budgets start returning to normal, police departments have increased their investments in technology. In May, the major law enforcement agencies sent a letter to the House and Senate Homeland Security Committee asking that the National Preparedness Grant Program reconsider a series of proposed changes that would reduce funding for terrorism prevention. A 2013 survey by the Institute of Justice found that 78 percent of law enforcement agencies had their grant funding cut since 2010 and 43 percent reported cuts of between 11 and 25 percent.

With new technologies emerging all the time and a new normal when it comes to funding, how should the police proceed? New technologies must be benchmarked, with metrics that forecast just what their impact will be on operations before they are fully implemented. Second, police departments need to set policies, especially around tools that gather data about individuals, such as video, to ensure that the civil liberties and privacy of law-abiding citizens is not compromised.