and Using Critical Information
D. Ashley, M.S., M.L.S., MFCI, ARM
The object of this article is to examine current management of critical
information by American law enforcement agencies, and to consider how legal
requirements and existing technology have shaped current practices.
Critical information in this context is defined as operational
information that results from high-risk law enforcement practices such as
use of force, arrest of individuals, or motor vehicle pursuit.
Problems: Critical Information in the Historical Context
American law enforcement agencies have historically failed in the
collection of data related to high-risk activity.
Even in departments where data collection has been attempted,
compilation of that data has been rare and generally disorganized.
Two primary reasons are frequently given for this failure; fear of
aiding plaintiff’s attorneys by providing a ready-made collection of data,
and the difficulty of gathering meaningful data from officers within the
context of their daily activities.
The first of these reasons is largely based upon a fundamental
misunderstanding of the legal system, accompanied by what could uncharitably
be called a “herd mentality”.
Many department executives believe that to collect information in one place is to make life easier for the plaintiff’s
bar. Similarly, to allow information to remain scattered about in individual
files is to make life more difficult for attorneys, thereby reducing the likelihood that plaintiffs will be able
to access the information. This
position is difficult to defend in the current legal climate.
collection of critical data has been hampered by the systems in everyday
use. In the past, many
departments emphasized actual patrol time, relegating “paperwork” to a
secondary role. Institutional
philosophies ranged from, “…it’s not important, as long as the job
gets done…” to, “…we don’t have time for that, we have to do real
philosophies ignore the reality of law enforcement, that the only lasting
record of what is accomplished is the paperwork.
Without the benefit of accurate documentation, subsequent review by
the legal system is often difficult and inaccurate, giving rise to a, “he
said, she said” approach to defense of police actions.
managerial decision-making has been severely hampered by a lack of adequate
information regarding the intricacies of “street” activities and their
logical impact on administrative functions such as policy development and
training. The danger here is
that police managers and supervisors, removed from the daily swirl of
routine law enforcement activity, may base decisions not on the reality of
law enforcement as it currently exists, but on their memories of their time
on the “street”.
Early Systems for Collection and Use
earliest “systems” for tracking critical information involved mere
verbal reporting up and down the chain of command.
While this method worked in the short term, particularly in very
small agencies, much information was lost or not collected at all.
Additionally, little clear institutional memory existed.
In essence, this method constituted the ubiquitous “war stories”.
The potential for selective memory and inaccuracies was great, while
analysis of data across incidents was almost impossible.
enforcement quickly learned that it was necessary to write things down,
giving rise to various report writing systems.
In fact, some authors suggest that, “…virtually every improvement
in law enforcement has resulted from the study of written records.”
(Patterson and Smith, p.3). Still
many small, rural departments use a simple report writing system that
constitutes little more than file memoranda.
These are simple narrative reports, with little, if any, data
course, once officers began submitting reports, some sort of quality control
system was needed. Generally,
this involved supervisory review. However,
in many departments, the primary emphasis of the review process was grammar
and spelling, accuracy of facts, and completeness of detail for
prosecutorial purposes. Little
attention was paid to minute details regarding the techniques, tactics and
tools used to control the suspect. The focus was on the presentability of
the report, and the complete reporting of the elements of the offense.
All too often, this is still the norm.
Current Legal Environment
There has been much discussion in the legal arena regarding the need
for law enforcement to properly direct and supervise the involvement of
officers in high-risk activities. In
fact, the United States Supreme Court has made it clear that policymakers
have an obligation to review the daily activities of governmental employees
in order to assure that those activities likely to result in potential
constitutional violations are addressed with training programs (City
of Canton, Ohio v. Geraldine Harris, 489 U.S. 378 (1989)).
To not do so, according to the Court, is to be deliberately
indifferent (and therefore unreasonable) to any potential constitutional
violation. This is particularly true as regards the use of force to make an
Most cases filed against law enforcement officers and agencies for
inappropriate or excessive use of force, and for illegal arrests, are filed
in federal court. This is due to the constitutional limitations on such
activity, as well as the potential for plaintiff’s attorneys to collect
their fees from the defendant (Graham
v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989)). Many
of the resultant lawsuits contain language regarding the obligation for
departments to manage officers’ selection of force implements or
techniques. Additionally, its
common for court opinions to focus on the need for job related training;
i.e. training that is commensurate with the duties of officers.
In order for departments to demonstrate the job relatedness of their
use of force training programs, they need to collect data regarding use of
weapons and techniques, the success rates of various control methods, and
the types and numbers of injuries to officers and suspects.
order for this information to be as useful as possible in this regard, and
as an analysis tool for departmental planning and management, it must be
both valid and reliable. As
such, the information must be as accurate as departmental managers can make
it, through development of simple, effective data collection mechanisms.
One important aspect of this is that the officers must see the
collection process, and the planned usage of the data, as non-threatening.
If officers believe that the information they record will be used
against them personally in some way, they may be inclined to inaccurately or
incorrectly report data. This undermines the entire reporting process, and indicates a
fundamental breakdown in the labor-management relationship.
Public Access to Information
Despite the fact that many in the public believe that police critical
data management practices are highly suspect (Enochs, 1995), another area of
legal concern, and one that has gained much attention within the past few
years, is that of public access to police information and statistics.
The federal Freedom of Information Act, as well as various state
“sunshine” laws, or open information laws, guarantee citizens access to
public information (Doherty, 1996).
While some sensitive information can be protected (e.g. on-going investigations, etc.), other information must be available and released upon
demand within a specified time frame (ACLU, 1997).
In fact, some state courts have reaffirmed this requirement by
ordering departments to release information (ACLU, 1998).
The need to respond to legal requests for information and records, to
demonstrate the job relatedness of policies and training programs, and to
comply with the requirements of various “open information” statutes,
points to the need to collect, analyze, and maintain accurate databases of
are two other dimensions to consider as regards the current legal
environment. The first of these
is the completeness of critical data, and the second is the ability to
ascertain what information should not be released and to act to secure it.
are frequently accused of acting inappropriately in a high-risk incident,
leading to the serious injury or death of a citizen.
When this occurs, it is not uncommon for the public and the news
media to examine the elements of the particular incident, without
considering the broader context within which it occurred.
In order to properly manage its risks, law enforcement must manage
its needs and the expenditure of its limited resources based upon a
cost-benefit analysis of its most frequent activities.
However, law enforcement incidents are examined as individual
occurrences, often without heed to the larger context.
An excellent example of this is a high-speed pursuit.
facts of a particular pursuit related incident, despite a tragic outcome,
may not support an ultimate finding of liability on the part of the police. However, the media, and the “Court of Public Opinion”,
may damn the actions of the police, based on the outcome and distorted
perceptions of the frequency with which similar outcomes occur. In short, the primary focus may be on the number of
catastrophic incidents over the past few years, without regard to the
broader context of similar incidents where no catastrophic outcome occurred.
example, it sounds bad to say that a dozen people have been injured in
police pursuits in the last three years.
But if a department has accurately collected all the pertinent data,
it sounds less bothersome to say that over the past three years, out of
15,000 traffic stops,
12 people have been injured. One
can readily see the importance of collecting information on all incidents,
regardless of outcome.
as important as collecting and presenting available data for release is the
identification of information that cannot or should not be released. Court cases have generally held that sensitive information
regarding internal practices, on-going investigations, and some personnel
information are often exempt from freedom-of-information requests, and
may be protected (Gifford v. Freedom
of Information Commission, 227 Conn. 641, 631 A. 2d 252 (Conn. 1993)).
In order to effectively achieve this security, systems must be
structured so as to allow for the differentiation of various types of
information. When considering
what we have defined as critical data, security questions generally apply to
on-going investigations, or perhaps to the release of information regarding
a specific incident. Generally,
critical data that is aggregate in nature, and therefore not attributable to
a specific occurrence or incident, can and should be released.
Enforcement’s Current Practices
Incident reporting and data collection practices have improved
significantly over the past 10 to 15 years.
Most medium to larger size law enforcement agencies are making use of
some sort of computer technology, although many are still working with older
systems that are frequently “hand-me-downs” from some other branch of
government, or the private sector.
Some departments are connected to an internal mini-mainframe computer
operated by the governmental entity, while others have such a system
in-house. Still others are
working with desktop personal computers (PCs), that are sometimes networked
and sometimes not.
are growing numbers of departments utilizing an Intranet, wherein several
police agencies are connected to one another through a private
“network”. In this way, much information can be shared regarding crime
trends, demographic analysis, on-going investigations, and
multi-jurisdictional criminal activities.
At the same time, law enforcement is increasingly gaining access to
the Internet, with all of its advantages, and attendant access security
There are still many small departments that do not have access to
computer technology within their own agency.
It is not uncommon for such agencies to rely on computers owned by
other branches of government, or on personal computers owned by the officers
themselves. In these
departments, what computer-based paperwork there is usually is centered upon
the completion of basic crime reports and routine correspondence, with
little time, equipment or resources left over for data collection and
analysis. Still, such
departments can and should collect copies of specific types of reports, and
file them together for collective review.
The determinant of the levels of departmental information
connectivity does not seem to be size as much as it seems to be the level of
sophistication and problem solving capabilities of the decision-makers. With the availability of both state and federal grant money,
as well as the proliferation of community oriented policing, many small
departments have become quite sophisticated in their use of electronic
communications and computing technology.
One technology that is growing quickly among agencies of all
different types and sizes is that of laptop computer use.
Many departments are beginning to install laptop computers in patrol
vehicles, and some are issuing them to individual officers.
These machines are most typically used for receipt and transmission
of mobile data traffic, through a linkage with the agencies’
communications system. They are
also used for preparation of written reports in the field, often with online
transmission of the completed report to a central processing area, where
reports are reviewed and stored.
This technological development does much to provide the framework for
the recommended collection of critical information. If an officer can complete an online form quickly and easily,
and transmit it to a central collection point, the information so collected
will be more timely and more accurate.
Additionally, programs located in the central computer can analyze
the data automatically, thereby negating the necessity for manual input of
information by a second party. This
system enables faster, more accurate collection and analysis of critical
information, while reducing the potential for input errors and other
problems associated with the human element.
There has been a parallel development of off-site data collection
mechanisms geared toward analysis of critical information.
The FBI Uniform Crime Report (UCR) system has been in existence for
many years, and once involved writing information by hand onto large
“rainbow” forms, which were then mailed to a central office for
collation and reporting. Now,
many agencies are submitting the same information on-line.
While only about 80% of agencies in the United States participate in
the UCR system, the increasing ease of data submission may lead to greater
involvement on the part of non-participating agencies.
This is important, as the UCR reporting system provides much of the
background against which individual departments compare and contrast their
local critical data. Greater
participation by more agencies, with continued emphasis on completeness and
accuracy of information, will lead to greater overall validity of critical
One specific data collection effort deserves mention here, that being
the Use of Force Database Project
promulgated by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (National
Institute of Justice, 1996). This
project comprises a searchable database of use of force information,
providing even more clearly delineated information against which to view a
local agencies’ data and practices.
Using the Data
Several specialized uses of critical data have already been
discussed, such as legal defense of local practices, and response to FOIA
requests. Beyond these, two
broader uses of such data can have a significant impact on the internal
practices of an agency. The
first of these is the establishment of a formal review process, while the
second involves the enhanced training of officers, supervisors and trainers.
In the past, normal practice in most agencies has been for an initial
supervisory review of reports and data, with occasional review by upper
management. The most useful
approach to such review would result in the establishment of an Incident
Review Committee (sometimes referred to as a Safety Committee).
a committee would be charged with reviewing all incident reports resulting
from high-risk incidents, particularly those wherein an injury to officers
or citizens occurs. This review
should be geared toward continued development of policies, training and
supervisory methods, or perhaps analysis of the efficacy of equipment and
techniques. The aim of this process should be to improve these
departmental mechanisms, so as to reduce the potential for future harmful
outcomes. Any incident review
geared toward disciplinary or other outcomes should be a separate process.
Because of the limited training resources available in most
departments, maximum utility must be derived from any training effort. Rather than participating in training on a hit-or-miss basis,
departments should review critical data to determine the type, quantity, and
frequency of training needed to address officers’ daily high-risk
In many departments, the tendency is to focus on the types of
high-risk activities that have the most severe potential outcomes (e.g.
pursuit driving, use of deadly force).
While these types of outcomes can be very costly, in both dollars and
in public ill will, they are not usually the most frequent of occurrences.
fact, when the overall frequency and cost of high-risk activity is
considered, the greater risk is usually from the more common daily
occurrences (any one of which could escalate into one of the infrequent
catastrophic incidents). Instead of pursuit driving, efforts should be focused on
driving skills in general; instead of deadly force, training efforts should
be geared toward overall use of force issues.
In this way, as the more frequent incidents are better managed and
controlled, the likelihood of a more costly catastrophic incident is
significantly reduced. This is
known as the Inverse Frequency/Severity Relationship, and is made possible
by the Law of Large Numbers.
Need for Further Technological Developments
The most significant need in the short term is for simpler, more
affordable alternatives for incident reporting, data collection and
analysis. This should lead to
more widespread use of modern technology.
Most departments struggle with the affordability of new technology,
both in initial acquisition costs, and in the training and assignment of
manpower resources to facilitate operation of new systems.
So they continue to use older, outdated systems that are incapable of
fully utilizing newer, more user-friendly features and equipment.
One example of this shortfall in capability is in the attempted use
of digital imaging (i.e. scanners and digital cameras) with older computers.
The slow speed and low resolution output that older computers
manifest when using these new devices frequently leads to frustration on the
part of users.
Simpler systems are needed, at least for the immediate future, as
many older officers are frequently less computer literate and more
computerphobic than their younger counterparts.
The more user-friendly systems are, the more likely these older
officers are to use them accurately and completely, thereby assuring more
accurate reporting and collection of critical data.
Simpler software systems for analysis and reporting of information
would lead to greater use of information by first line supervisors, as well
as the officers themselves. Generally,
what information is currently available is often only accessible by training
coordinators and executive level management.
Despite the fact that many law enforcement agencies have moved slowly
to develop incident reporting and data collection systems, many are now
taking advantage of existing technologies.
The current legal environment, and other managerial pressures,
clearly indicate the need for continued improvement in both
incident-reporting systems and data collection, review and use practices.
As this movement toward more widespread collection and reporting of
data continues, the need for simpler, more affordable systems becomes more
evident. In the short term,
simplicity should be emphasized due to the make-up of the work force.
Ultimately, this will be less of an issue, as more computer literate
officers move upward through the ranks.
Perception of information as a valuable resource, to be accurately
and thoroughly collected, and carefully analyzed, is the key element in the
continued development of police incident reporting and data
As these systems continue to proliferate and evolve, departments will
be better positioned to defend officers’ actions, while enhancing officer
safety and efficiency through more comprehensive, job-related training.
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