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Patrol Briefings Go Mobile

Nine years ago, Lieutenant Robert Stack of the Lexington, KY Police walked into a training facility in St. Petersburg, FL and had a flash of inspiration that would eventually change the way his agency disseminated patrol briefing information. What he saw was a computer monitor set up to show information about the facility and the officers who worked there. Information was being displayed in rotating fashion on the monitor. Employees’ birthday announcements, new births, retirements, and other information related to the lives of the people working in the facility.

Stack reflected, “I saw a monitor in a hallway and thought that it was an interesting concept. They had these monitors placed in various locations—flashing information. It was not crime related. It was more along the line of, ‘The awards ceremony will be this Thursday, at 1 p.m. in the West Classroom.’ It was an electronic bulletin board.”

He came to find out the monitor he was watching was not some new software specifically designed to display this information. It was, in fact, PowerPoint®, the same software he had on his office computer back in Kentucky. It was just being used in a different manner. It was being used to share information about the lives of the officer’s in the Florida facility.

Being displayed were the details of the comings and goings of the people who worked there. These news items probably wouldn’t have a place in the notifications bulletin board or the other “Most Wanted” or “Be on the Lookout” (BOLO) boards so common around most law enforcement briefing and shift change rooms. And that was the moment of inspiration.

Today, nine years later, Stack is the assistant commander of the Bureau of Investigation for the Lexington (KY) Police Department, and the system he has deployed for mobile patrol briefings is as simple as the one he witnessed nearly 10 years earlier. By combining off-the-shelf PowerPoint software with the Lexington Police Department’s existing wireless communication system, Stack was able to transmit vital information to each of the patrol vehicles in a format similar to what the officer’s see during training and roll call.

Rather than sending birth announcements, the Lexington system provides an officer-driven and supervisor-monitored system of agency specific notifications, most wanted, tactical tips, and various citywide crime trends and updates, all of which are facilitated by the officer’s themselves and done at virtually no cost to the agency.

“The officers actually get it at roll call each day,” Stack said of the current deployment of the system. “A supervisor goes through it, covers it; that way we ensure everybody sees it. While the officer[s are] in roll call, they are in a hotspot that transfers the patrol briefing to their mobile data computer. This way, during the shift if they want to bring that presentation, up they can do so.”

Developing the Lexington System

Few people set out to develop a new system to wirelessly communicate information to patrol vehicles. But this was exactly what Stack set out to do. Several questions arose: What is the big picture? How should the information be developed? What should be allowed? Who should have access? How long will slides last? Other important points were only apparent after using the system for several years.

The initial idea was to share the type of information that officers normally received during patrol briefings in a mobile setting. A close corollary to this first desire was to reduce the amount of paper information being generated and disseminated at brief-ings. At the time, a large number of announcements and notifications were being handed out to patrol officers. Anything that would reduce this stack of pages would be viewed as benefit to everyone involved.

PowerPoint was part of the equation. Usually viewed as a presentation tool used exclusively in the classroom or in the patrol briefings themselves, PowerPoint would be a key component to getting the information to the officers in their patrol vehicles while on the road. The wireless communication system in Lexington would also play an important part in the system. Would it even be able to handle PowerPoint sending presentations to every vehicle on demand?

PowerPoint Basics

Since its inception in the early 1990s, PowerPoint software has resembled a 35mm slide show. Based on a concept of individual slides, a PowerPoint presentation is series of slides each commonly with a title and “bulleted list.” Other slide layout variations are possible, including slides with pictures, animation and video. Shown in order, one by one, the presentation can be set to “loop” automatically, starting over at Slide 1 after reaching the last slide. Music and audio can also be added to the presentation both as a soundtrack and individually to a single slide such as a 9-1-1 clip.

One of the first questions answered was, “Who will enter the information to be shared?” As with most governmental agencies, a secretary or administrative assistance might immediately come to mind for data entry work. But this was quickly ruled out due to the nature of the information to be shared. If a detective wanted to post information about a suspect wanted in an investigation he was working on, why give the information to a secretary to enter when the detective was more intimately involved in the case and better equipped to post the information? It would be better to have the detectives themselves enter their own information, cutting out the middleman.

But a little bit of training was required to bring the personnel up speed on using PowerPoint. “Our guys weren’t using it at all. A lot of people were a little reluctant only because they thought PowerPoint was something you had to go to college and take tons of classes [to be able to utilize],” Stack said. “I wasn’t trying to make them experts in PowerPoint. I just wanted them to learn three or four basic functions: Here’s how you insert a picture, here’s how you create a text box to put in their name, data of birth, etc.”

What was eventually devised was a process where any officer could create a slide in a PowerPoint presentation that would then become available to any officer who wished to download it from the network. On the slide would be the reason for the posting, the information they desired (or person in case of a “most wanted” situation), the author for the request or notification, his contact information, and a date for removal of the slide. Currently, detectives are the primary developers of material for patrol briefing, with oversight being provided by supervisors.

Crime analysts also contribute to the presentation, providing information on crime trends and relevant intelligence. “They also put out a 24-hour list of the cars that have been stolen that we’re looking for. The officers can bring that up on their mobile data computer and see what area of town in which they were stolen; see the make, model, description and license plate number. A lot of officers ride around with that on their mobile data screen; particularly in the areas where we typically recover stolen cars,” Stack said.

Whenever an agency creates a system designed to last in perpetuity, there is always the risk of creating something that works great for the first few months when there is only a little information but that bogs down after a few years because of the staggering amount of useless data in the system. So they created a self-cleaning process by which anybody could remove a slide once its useful moment in time had passed. This process has helped keep the patrol briefing manageable; comprising only 30 to 40 slides of rotating information.

“The detectives always put an expiration date on the slide so that whether they are here or not, whoever opens that presentation has the right to delete it because it expires on that date. That way requests don’t stay in the system forever,” Stack said. If an announcement or information request needs to be posted again, its original author could simply post it again for another run.

Lessons Learned

One of Major Stack’s original concerns was regarding the nature of the material being created in PowerPoint. As personnel begin to use the program, many new users are typically caught up in their ability to add sound and other “bells and whistles” to the program. Would this become a problem as more and more users were added data to the system?

Instead of using heavy-handed tactics to dictate what would be acceptable and unacceptable, the system instead was turned on and allowed to govern itself with modest supervision. Detectives through their own trial and error quickly decided what looked the best, what should be included and what should be left out. Pictures of wanted suspects were clearly necessary, dancing animations were left out. An illustration of what should be left out and how the process is guided is outlined below.

During the commission of a vehicle larceny (vehicle burglary in other parts of the country) a surveillance photograph was taken of a female suspect. The detectives had an image, but no name. The wireless patrol briefing would be a great method to get 600 eyeballs on the photograph and possibly generate some leads. But a little situation arose during the creation of the intel request slide.

When posting the request, the title “Do You Know Who I Am?” was entered into the title block above the suspect photo. To some supervisors, the title appeared a little cavalier, and after a couple of quick e-mails between supervisors, it was easily changed before being published citywide.

Stack said, “While [the title] wasn’t incorrect, it could have been worded better…it was changed to ‘Det. J. Doe needs your help in identifying the subject below. Please contact him at…’ The detective had built the slide himself, which we encourage, but it does need to be ‘policed’ a little bit. We’ve not had any big issues with it, but we do have to do our own monitoring to make sure it stays professional and true to what was intended: strictly crime-related information.”

Another concern was bandwidth of the wireless transmission of the briefings themselves. As of this writing, this hadn’t turned into much of a problem because of the method of using high-speed hotspots to download of the PowerPoint presentations to the officer’s mobile data computer during roll call. As it turns out, primarily text-based presentations do not require much computer storage space and therefore “send” themselves rather quickly across a network. Pictures, on the other hand, do require more disk space and increase send times, but the high-speed download still quickly facilitates the transfer of data.

Not PowerPoint Rangers

The Lexington Police Department has fine-tuned its process of sharing information using off-the-shelf software. But an often-cited PowerPoint case study of the U.S. military shows how it can go very wrong if left unchecked.

During the initial applications of PowerPoint as an information-sharing tool, the U.S. military experienced near shutdowns of some of its Web servers after well-intentioned but inadequately trained personnel created their first presentations. They included everything but the kitchen sink in terms of video and audio, creating massive files that caused international slowdowns in communication traffic.

Previously, the term “PowerPoint Ranger” was favorably applied to those officers who created fancy presentations for their superiors, but it would later be applied derisively to those who didn’t fully understand the nuances of program or to those whose unnecessary additions of animations and sound effects to the program created “PowerPoint overkill” among the audience members.

Beginning with a moment of inspiration in the state of Florida nine years ago to the deployment of an officer-driven mobile patrol briefing platform in the commonwealth of Kentucky today, Commander Robert Stack has found a unique application for software that his agency already owned. Stack said, “It’s almost too simple to be true.”

Rather than spending thousands of dollars on a redundant system and training only a select few people to operate it, PowerPoint software was utilized in conjunction with an existing wireless communication system to develope an entirely new process for mobile patrol briefings while additionally training an entire cadre of personnel in the use of the program.

But the best part of mobile patrol briefing is the results: Crimes that would have gone unsolved have been solved. Stolen vehicles that might have slipped by unnoticed have been recovered; and wanted persons have been arrested sooner than later. And all of it due to PowerPoint and a little thinking outside the box.

Thomas M. Manson is the owner of Police Technical LLC and the technology editor for LAW and ORDER magazine. He speaks nationally on technology and law enforcement. He can be reached at Photos courtesy of Randy Myers, Lexington Police Department

Published in Law and Order, May 2008

Rating : 7.7

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