In late 2003, the State of Utah joined a handful of other states in a pilot project aimed at helping law enforcement agencies fight crime. The project involved analyzing confidential databases in multiple states to obtain and share information on Americans who may be planning acts of terrorism or mass violence. It was a well-intentioned approach to using technology to make law enforcement efforts more efficient and productive. And it failed miserably with Utah citizens. The state pulled out of the project in early 2004.
The project failed because of how Utah went about getting involved in the initiative. There was no public knowledge or discussion of the program – the Utah governor just signed up the state’s residents for the program without ever informing them. After learning about the secret program through watchdog groups and media reports, many of the state’s residents, including lawmakers, were upset that the government could randomly comb through their personal information without their knowledge or permission. And it probably didn’t help that the program was referred to as MATRIX, an acronym describing the Multi-state Anti-Terrorism Information Exchange. But, at that time, Matrix was also the title of a famous movie franchise about technology running wild and eventually conquering and enslaving humanity. (An IJIS summary of lessons learned from the failure of MATRIX is available below.)
Fast-forward to today. Technology has advanced, and its use to prevent and respond to acts of mass violence has expanded. For example, agencies use data analytics, predictive software and information-sharing platforms to help uncover potential offenders. Public safety surveillance cameras, gunshot detection systems, automated license plate readers (ALPR) and cell phone tracking help law enforcement prevent and investigate acts of mass violence. And unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) provide an expanded view of potential or real mass violence crime scenes.
But at least one thing has remained constant in regard to law enforcement’s use of technology: Citizens don’t like the government using technology that potentially impacts their privacy without knowing how they benefit. And law enforcement efforts to implement technology without public buy-in, meaning a public understanding of the need for and benefits of the technology and the support of its use, will likely be hindered by public resistance and may ultimately fail.
The following are some actions law enforcement agencies can take to help the public understand the technology the agency uses or is considering using, ease concerns about privacy and other rights, and increase public support for the agency’s efforts to protect them from mass violence.
Tie Technology to a Strategy
Agencies should begin a search for technology by considering what problem they are trying to solve or what efficiency they are trying to gain by implementing the technology.
Social media posts and agency webpage content can be powerful tools for educating the public about the program in an engaging and entertaining way.
A 2016 study on the impact of technology on policing strategy showed that, in general, law enforcement agencies do not acquire technology in line with a policing strategy. Instead, they appear to adopt technology-based on factors like executive staff decisions and available funding. Often the scenario is that an agency member sees a demonstration of the technology somewhere and thinks, “Wow! That is awesome! We could use that at our agency. I didn’t even know we needed something like it.” Then they build a case for “needing” the technology to justify its purchase. Essentially, the purchase becomes a solution looking for a problem to solve.
This type of thinking is backward and may lead agencies to acquire technology that is ill-suited for their actual needs. And the justification for these types of purchases may not hold up under scrutiny because “problems” or “opportunities” presented to justify them tend to be exaggerated.
A better approach to acquiring technology is analyzing your agency’s strategy and needs and then evaluating technologies that align with the plans and needs. Agencies should first ask themselves, “What problem are we trying to solve?” or “How can we improve performance in a particular area?”
The answers to these questions help the agency develop goals that they can use to evaluate available technologies and find those that will help them accomplish established objectives for both current and future operations. Agencies will have an easier time gaining support for technologies identified as well-researched solutions or efficiency multipliers than those purchased for a problem or goal to be determined later.
Involve the Right People Early On
Once agencies have identified problems or strategies where technology may contribute to successes, it is essential to involve the right people, in the beginning, to research available technologies and find the best fit for the organization and its budget. While administrative decision-makers, such as executive staff, will likely be involved in program development from the start, consider including others who can significantly contribute to the program’s success.
For example, suppose your agency is considering a UAV program. In that case, someone from within the agency who has a passion for and experience with such technology can provide valuable perspective and support in searching for technology and developing the program. This person can also be an internal “champion” for the technology, providing information about and endorsement of the technology to agency members who may have questions or concerns about the technology.
Similarly, involving existing agency-community liaisons, such as city council or county commission members, legislative representatives, or community leaders, early on in the technology selection and program development process is beneficial. Doing so can create external champions who can help raise community support for the technology, address public concerns about the program, and advocate for program funding. These external champions must understand the cause behind the technology to better communicate the program’s benefits to community members and governmental entities.
Finally, agencies should involve their legal counsel at the beginning of the decision-making process to ensure that the considered technology can be used legally in their jurisdiction and identify any policy implications that need to be addressed before considering or using the technology. It would certainly be frustrating and disappointing for an agency to travel a significant distance down the road of technology acquisition and discover they can’t even use the technology because of legal restrictions.
Develop Solid Policy for Technology Use
Agencies need to create sound policy that requires operators to use technology in a way that balances public safety benefits with protecting the privacy and other rights of the public. Involving decision-makers, internal and external champions, government members, community leaders, and agency counsel in policy development will help create policies that protect both the agency and the public. It will also improve the chances that the technology will be accepted by the public and successful in its intended purpose, while at the same time decreasing the likelihood of the public misinterpreting the program and perhaps ascribing an ill-intent to it. Existing policies should also be reviewed for any impact or guidance related to the proposed program.
Agencies seeking public buy-in to acquire and use mass violence prevention and investigation technologies should remember that maintaining public trust is the primary goal.
Sound policies should include information on the following:
- Intended purpose and scope of technology use
- Program administration and personnel requirements
- Approved and restricted uses of the technology
- Data collection, use, retention and release requirements
- Program accountability measures, including data security procedures, access control methods and regular program inspections or audits
- Required training for technology users or operators
Pre-Launch Public Education
After an agency has followed the above recommendations for developing a technology use program, and the use of the technology has been approved through appropriate channels, they should begin a campaign to educate the community about the program.
There is a marketing adage that goes, “Good companies have customers. Great companies have an audience.” Agencies should remember who their audience is when attempting to obtain public buy-in for the program. They are not trying to educate law enforcement personnel at this point. Instead, they are marketing the program to the public and key stakeholders.
Program administrators and champions should work with agency public information personnel to:
- Introduce the technology.
- Share information on the intended purpose and benefits of its use.
- Communicate what policies and safeguards are in place to protect the public’s privacy and other rights.
- Explain the cost and funding sources for the program.
- Provide points of contact for additional information about the program.
Social media posts and agency webpage content can be powerful tools for educating the public about the program in an engaging and entertaining way. Agencies can post stories from other organizations that have used the technology successfully. These stories can be particularly compelling if the technology has been successful in a range of cases. For example, a UAV can help catch a fleeing offender and, a few hours later, find a lost child.
Agencies can also post and share information (as seen in the ABC report below) on how they anticipate the technology will help the community, such as by preventing mass violence incidents or reducing the time it takes to apprehend known offenders. And agencies can share videos of the technology, such as those provided by the technology manufacturer, that show the technology being used in various scenarios. Posts should also include information on agency contacts for community members who have questions or concerns about the program or who may want to provide support for the program.
Live displays and demonstrations of the technology can also be impactful ways to educate the public. Agencies should take the new technology on tour. Show it to kids. Present it to civic groups. Give lots of demonstrations. Some of the available crime-fighting technology, such as UAVs or ALPRs, can seem pretty amazing to members of the public. And the amazement they feel when seeing live demonstrations of the technology can translate into increased support for the use of the technology. Agencies just need to be sure not to use confidential data or information during technology demonstrations to ensure that no one’s privacy is compromised.
Agencies should also remember that public education and demonstrations may allow potential offenders to learn about prevention and response protocols and adjust their planning to avoid or defeat the demonstrated technologies. As such, agencies should be careful not to disclose information during their public education efforts that may compromise future technology deployments.
Once agencies have identified problems or strategies where technology may contribute to successes, it is essential to involve the right people, in the beginning, to research available technologies and find the best fit for the organization and its budget.
Ongoing Public Education
Sometimes a technology program starts strong, but public support and program funding deteriorate or disappear over time. This deterioration can be the natural result of the diminishing effectiveness of the technology. But sometimes, the adage “out of sight, out of mind” rings true, and support for the program dwindles because its benefits aren’t regularly communicated to the public and key stakeholders.
If a technology program continues to provide benefits for the agency and public over time, agencies should continuously share information about program successes with decision-makers and the public. Keeping stakeholders up to date with information on recent program accomplishments can help garner ongoing support for the program, especially when agencies can share impressive images or video footage generated by the technology. Agencies should also be sure to regularly verify or update information related to program points of contact so related inquiries reach the correct parties.
Agencies seeking public buy-in to acquire and use mass violence prevention and investigation technologies should remember that maintaining public trust is the primary goal. Some law enforcement technology programs have failed because they were implemented in secret or misused or abused by the police. When agencies follow a sound, transparent, and legal process for acquiring and using law enforcement technologies, and implement appropriate oversight and accountability measures, they are more likely to earn the public’s trust and support for the use of current crime-fighting technologies, and for those that arise in the future.
CAPTAIN REX SCISM (RET) is a 32-year law enforcement veteran and former director of research and development for the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Mr. Scism also served as a public safety and private sector consultant and instructor for over 20 years. He is an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Criminal Justice for both Columbia College and the University of Central Missouri, as well as a frequent contributor to multiple sources about various public safety topics. Mr. Scism is a graduate of the FBI National Academy’s 249th Session and serves as a content developer for Lexipol..
KERRY GALLEGOS serves as a content developer at Lexipol. He is a retired chief investigator of the Utah Attorney General’s Office and has over 20 years of law enforcement experience. He is a Certified Public Manager and has a master’s degree in accounting, a bachelor’s degree in business management, and is a graduate of the International Association of Chiefs of Police Leadership in Police Organizations (West Point Leadership) program.