Information Technology and Police Work Research Paper

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This research paper addresses the role of information technology in shaping policing organizations and police practices. It is comprised of five parts. The first part is a brief overview of police and technology. The second part outlines types of technology in police organizations. The third part discusses current police innovations in information technology. The fourth sets out the problematic collocation of data in police organizations. The fifth part discusses the focus on the incident, the core of operational policing, and the ways in which it controls and shapes how whatever technology is available is used (or not). The paper concludes with some propositions that might guide future research. Overall, while there are abundant capacities based on information technology available, they are selectively used and patterned by traditional notions of the job and the occupational culture of the patrol division.


Literature on technology and organizational change in management science, organizational theory, and social theory more generally reflects a long history of what has been called the “iron cage” thesis of Weber (Weber 1958: 181–182). In compact form, this states that rationality in its various forms drives and shapes all modern bureaux, and that this rationalization process, linked to capitalism, is inevitable, universal, and unidirectional. Implicit in this statement is the notion that organizations in their dance with rationality, forward and back, are much the same in their adaptive and environmentally sensitive maneuvers. This thesis remains a proposition, something of an assumption, such that research short circuits the general proposition and then proceeds to examine the extent to which it is true. Assuming the rational nonproblematic nature of the organization permits investigation of putative innovations in policing, corporate life, schools, and the military as if the rationality of these innovations and their success is merely a question of goodness of fit with the current practices within the organization. At the heart of this powerful assumptive assemblage is the role of technology, a sponge concept whose definition remains as elusive as any other of the treasured social science concepts on which we trade.

Inevitably, the introduction of technology into discussions of innovation always raises questions because technology is not a thing, but an imagined process and a product of practices. The term “imagined process” refers to the fact that technology is a social object that is created by actions directed toward it and responses that are made to these actions by those involved in the installation, maintenance, and use of such a social object. It is a collectively created and sustained matter with many facets. Granted that “technology” has a variety of connotations and is always embedded in an organizational structure, it can be succinctly summarized as the ways in which work is accomplished including both material and symbolic matters, the understanding of which is required to get this work done. “Technology” has a visible, material aspect (weight, shape, and size), a symbolic or representational aspect (it stands for something as shown in the actions of people who use it), a logic, as well as a range of connotative meanings – implied attitudes toward it and talk about its functions (Roberts and Grabowski 1996). What is rarely discussed (although see Manning 2008) is the cognitive and imaginative work required to understand, fix, maintain, and use the technology routinely. The imaginative and cognitive aspects are situated and situational in their unfolding, and the workings of technologies, including information technologies, are best seen or revealed by looking at how people use them in key or thematic situations that are directly and indirectly relevant to their work tasks. Technologies are situation ally and contingently relevant. Their use while in some sense is routinized is always touched off by a work situation and in that sense is occasioned. This is true because information technologies, as noted above, are invisible in their interior workings, complex in their effects, not all of which are understood, appreciated, or anticipated, and viewed with some degree of mystification. Thus, it is important to keep an eye on what is out of sight – both within the machinery as well as in the minds and bodies of users. In addition, since whatever “technology” is introduced will often be in conflict with current practices, dialectic and associated technological dramas are inevitable (Manning 1992). Information technology (IT) in particular produces response and counter responses which are attempts by those in power to stabilize the organization. The time frame of introduction and response to new technology will shape the types of responses the organization makes (Manning 1992, 2008). Technology is a plastic or sponge concept, one that soaks up meaning and reflects the meanings attributed to it. It could be said also that technology is a blank screen onto which ideas, hopes, and dreams can be projected. In this way, the ambiguity of technology and its far-reaching consequences make defining a “technological innovation” and evaluating its effects difficult (Byrne and Marx 2011). Finally, the technology of an organization speaks to the socially constructed environment, the external realities, in which the organization operates. The organization officially only knows what is recorded and officially sanctioned; bureaucracies are webs of secrets, and what is known is a function of the channels by which the information of interest is sought processed, encoded, stored, and retrieved. External realities, globalization, and political trends shape the framing of technology, how and when the technology is used. Technology also speaks to, and is shaped by, the internal realities, or the pattern of power in the organization.

The position adopted in this research paper is that while technology may alter specific organizational processes, the null hypothesis should be that organizations shape and alter the impacts of technologies. Placing technology in organizational context as such requires also interrogating the matter of what is being “produced” and the related decision-making. The process reproduces the patterned and conventionally sanctioned deciding that takes place and into which the technology is slotted. Policing is in fact a process. Policing is a people-processing system, above all and in that sense alone cannot be judged by the criteria or standards of economic organizations with a product, a market, and conventional standards for judging “profit” and “loss.” Certainly, “people work” is complex and daunting because of the roles and statuses of the people who are dealt with. Ostensively, their social class, gender, ethnicity, and occupational status are relevant to the incident at hand, regardless of the basis for the negotiation; the standards employed are flexible and situational as people morally are defined as ends in themselves, rather than merely tools of the trade. The assumption of technological rationality, that technology has exclusively positive, systematic, predictable, and endearing consequences, is untenable. The craft of policing, archaic as it may be, is predicated on managing the vagaries of the human condition.

Technologies have powerful and seductive appeal to police departments. Large departments in particular routinely acquire new technologies, the most central of which are variations on computer-based activities and analysis. Thus, prima facie, the topic of police technology or technologies used by the police is a topic of growing interest to scholars (Nunn 2001; Chan 2003; Chan et al. 2001; Manning 2008; Byrne and Marx 2011; Mastrofski and Willis 2010; Willis and Mastrofski 2011). Some reviews of technology in police organizations are benignly optimistic and naively hopeful, but conclude with rather disappointed summaries (Willis and Mastrofski 2011; Mastrofski and Willis 2010), while others are dystopian (Nunn 2001; Byrne and Marx 2011). But because these reviews are descriptive, accept generalizations about reported changes, for example, from LEMAS data of dubious credibility, and lack any theoretical framework, it is unclear what explains the absence of “innovation.” The tendency in practitioner-law enforcement journals is to be benignly positive about all new technologies, absent any systematic evaluation. Chan (2003) critically and systematically reviewed technology in police organizations using a framework adopted from Bourdieu. She concluded in a balanced overview that not only are there negatives associated with increased technology, but that ironically, increased technology may exacerbate the problems of factual overload, noise, stored data of modest validity, and resistance to change among patrol officers. Manning’s study of crime mapping and crime analysis in three cities concludes that little has changed in the routines and practices of police as a result (See also Willis and Mastrofski 2011).

Consider now, prior to review of the topic of police and technology, two fundamental ideas that should shape any research on policing as an organization. Egon Bittner, in many respects the theorist of record in regard policing, states at the beginning of his well-regarded classic, The Functions of the Police in Modern Society (1970): “The [function] of the police can’t be understood by working down from broadly conceived programmatic idealizations.” (p. 4), He continues, arguing that the task of his book is “… to elucidate the role of the police in modern American society by reviewing the exigencies located in the practical reality which give rise to police responses and [italics in the original – ed.] by attempting to relate the actual routines of responses to the moral aspirations of a democratic polity.” (p. 5). By “programmatic idealizations,” Bittner is referring to social theory of the Weberian sort, disconnected from the exigencies and routines of organizational life. This means in turn that technologies are situation ally contingent and relevant, rather than concretely obvious in their functions, meanings, and uses. Insofar as it is possible, then this framework requires an examination of the relationships between technology and the police organization to be ethnographically rich and textured, and somewhat reticent to accept evidence that does not acknowledge this ground in the contingencies and routines of police work. This postulate is explored below. It would appear that technology has replaced craftwork as the domain means by which work is accomplished (Bittner 1983). An ideal technology would be one in which the worker was not required to have any knowledge or interest in the task, only to follow instructions (Bittner 1983: 254). This creates an everyday contradiction with the practice of policing. Police work, in contrast, is above all a craft, a craft rooted in the intuitive grasp of contingencies, demonstrating collective trust using shared routines to manage the endlessly problematic, and connecting the ethics of the work with craft-like standards. These standards are disconnected with the technological efficiency. Policing in many respects is based on a “reading” of local knowledge, subjective knowledge of persons and places, and nonstandardized ways of knowing and doing.

This research paper has several parts. The first part is a brief overview of police and technology and outlines types of technology in police organizations. The second part outlines innovations in police technology. The third part discusses current police innovations in information technology. The fourth sets out the problematic collocation of data in police organizations. The fifth part discusses the cynosure of the incident, the core of operational policing, and the ways in which it controls and shapes how whatever technology is available is used (or not).

Police And Technology: An Overview

The notion that scientific or technological innovations in police organizations would fundamentally alter the nature of policing and, in turn, social security and safety is almost 100 years old. It was set out as a principle of policing by August Vollmer and has long been associated with “professional policing.” The steady march of more efficient communicational devices, the telegraph, call box, radio and two-way radio, telephone and cell phone (with the numbers for reaching police as 911, 999, and 311 in addition to routine local numbers), computer, and mobile digital terminals, have had impact. All have reduced the “pass through or processing time” of requests for service, escalated demand for policing, and stimulated a variety of ways in which the police screen, set aside, delay, and otherwise manage demand that is sometimes, albeit rarely, overwhelming. On the other hand, the long history of innovations suggests the following: active and passive officer and civilian resistance to innovations; abundant short-term and abandoned nonevaluated projects; on the ground cynicism about the latest-soon-to-beabandoned “new thing;” a devotion to the craft-like nature of the work; and a slow creeping intrusion of some technological innovations that build on already processed facts-asknowledge. These changes are overlays or superficial elaborations upon the truculently guarded craft skills.

Nevertheless, let us step back and recognize that many technologies are in operation in policing, and some of them are quite new. In general, and without question, the most obvious and salient “technology,” or means of accomplishing police work tasks, is talk – face to face verbal communication. This is the baseline “information-processing system”. The efficacy of what might be called “tactical talk” has not been researched by social scientists. While most social science attention has been paid to information technology and its role in shaping the police organization and police practices, and that is the focus here, there are four other types of technology at work. It could be argued that weapons technology – both lethal and nonlethal – is understudied by social scientists. Transportation technology is also assumed to be gradually improving in some sense, but emphasis has been placed on speed, presence, and availability, rather than economy or environmental prudence. Training technologies are used in the academy. The core remains symbolic (shaming, harassing, conditioning, and rapid response to orders) and secondarily, lengthy lectures, “academic learning” about the law, diversity, interpersonal relations, and problem-solving, combined with rote learning and exams. Police are also adopting sensory processing and extending technologies, transformative devices, means to enhance the senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. They include radar guns, listening devices, night sights, crime scene and accident scene technologies, DNA, CCTV, fingerprinting, and ballistics, as well as the breathalyzer (See Nunn 2001). Increasingly, police are adopting these sense-extending devices to monitor events and track ex-offenders and the general population (Nunn 2001; Byrne and Marx 2011). While these last named technologies decrease time spent on tasks, and increase reliability, they are dependent on the quality of the input and interpretation, usually scientific, to convert facts or data, placing it in a context, thus creating information. The primary interests of social scientists are in the information technologies. The central operating information technologies have expanded rapidly in the last 40 years since the introduction of 911 systems and computer-assisted dispatch (CAD). The primary systems are: records management system (internal matters such as employee records – payroll, attendance, leaves, and illness); jail booking system; criminal histories and offender identification; CAD data; mobile digital terminal (MDT) records; GIS; crime analysis and crime mapping; UCR/NIBRS, AFIS, NICS, data and links to the Internet, search engines, national databases such as NCIC, and the FBI’s new (2012) N-Dex, a national data exchange system and website []. Also national are UCR/NIBRS, AFIS, NICS, and the FBI’s various crime lists. Not all states participate in submitting data to these databases, the quality of data varies widely and is unaudited, and the lists are frequently redundant and contain useless or dated information (Geller and Morris 1992). The maxim is that the more the better, regardless of the quality of the input. It must be said that the use of cell phones, police-issued, multiple private phones, “personal assistants,” “smart phones,” and other private communication – computer devices, including handheld cameras, scanners, and in-car fax-machines and mapping capacities, for example – have not been researched and their impact on practices not well understood.

Recent Police Innovations

Technologically driven management-based innovations are sprinkled across the many departments in the USA and elsewhere but their effect is not known. Research with known results has been carried out briefly, in only a few cities, and has not been widely and consistently evaluated and diffused (Willis and Mastrofski 2011). Police departments are:

  • Developing and publishing on accessible websites and in hard copies strategic plans, annual reports, mission statements, and the like. Organizations may submit and revise annually a policing plan with goals, objectives, and a broad mission statement. These are overwhelmingly focused on “crime” and based upon unaudited and unreviewed data generated by the departments or Constabularies themselves. In recent years, especially in the UK, these may be related to performance criteria for ranks and linked in turn to bonuses or other perks.
  • Offering varied communication channels to and from the public. Websites now display descriptive materials, some data on calls for service or crime patterns, and hyperlinks to other websites. Often headlined is a current crime, wanted offender, or seasonal concern, for example, traffic and school closures for holidays. Some are appropriately mundane such as warnings about drinking and driving, congestion as a result of sporting events, community activities, and local holiday celebrations. Chan et al. suggest that these channels, including crime reporting, are growing in use in the UK, but they are limited for the same reason that reporting in general is sociologically constrained.
  • Assembling more integrated databases and systems. This process may include linking software and geocoded databases and computer-assisted dispatching (CAD) data that facilitate crime analysis and crime mapping (Manning 2008).
  • Managing tactical deployment including short-term efforts directed to manage known problems of crime or disorder or longer programs based on crime analysis. The rise of an experimental criminology devoted to controlled, randomized experiments focused on crime control has resulted in a number of such research projects in Boston, Jersey City, Lowell, Massachusetts, and St. Louis.
  • Adopting tools for career-assessment of young officers while also monitoring complaints to identify high-risk officers and guide supervisors in their evaluation tasks.
  • Supporting a modest research capacity. In part as a result of Community Oriented Policing Services agency (COPS) funding, growing political pressure to demonstrate and be seen as “efficient,” and pressure to employ systematic and unrelenting “smart management,” large departments now have a “research and development office.” Many departments receive and manage state and federal grants. For the most part, the research units are in fact merely data entry and tabulation centers.
  • Establishing public relations units with explicit policies, specialized, nonsworn personnel, equipment, and offices (Mawby 2002). These units and their spokes persons are increasingly sophisticated and well-funded and are designed not only to respond to queries but also to propagate “good news.” They communicate with media and the public routinely, in a noncrime-focused as well as in a crisis modality.
  • Arranging institutionalized communicational channels by which public can contact police, such as providing business cards, e-mail addresses, and voice mail for uniformed officers as well as sites by which police can contact villains, victims, or witnesses on a case by case basis. Some departments have introduced programs to target groups, neighborhood associations, corporations, and other governmental agencies (Mawby 2002). There has been a move toward more communication from the public to the police. These include incompatible channels of communication that connect the public to the police and between units within the police department. Police use websites, e-mail, cell and land-based phones, “snail” mail, personal visits to stations, face to face encounters, network communication via fiber optic cables, paper documents, and “blogs.” None of these data is assembled or checked for overlap, inconsistency, validity, or utility. Included and increasingly important are the social media. In particular, Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, Twitter, and variations on these are used by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Greater Manchester Police (UK), and New York City Police Department. These can be used, of course proactively to solicit information as well as reactively to be in receipt of useful information.
  • Organizing internal management-oriented meetings of a compstat-like character that involve presenting crime maps, recent trends in crime, quality of life issues, current problems of police interest such as gang activity, changes in drug use, or guns fired. These have become wide-spread but their functions and the depth of analysis presented varies. The relationship between these meetings and the drop in crime in New York City in the 1990s is now seen as problematic (Eterno and Silverman 2012).
  • Presenting data routinely to public meetings, in some places required by law. As a part of political changes brought on by the Patten Report, PSNI officers are required to report in local districts patterns of crime and disorder. Similar meetings are also held regularly in Chicago.
  • Linking with city governments and private corporations to monitor public areas via CCTV (Goold 2004). These may include parks, train stations, bus stations, airports, and harbors, as well as areas of the city deemed trouble spots. A few police departments have added the aural and visual monitoring equipment designed to detect shots fired in high crime areas (Mares and Blackburn 2012).
  • Developing some information-based operational infrastructures. This includes transforming management information systems into networks linking electronically created and sustained databases; making these networks accessible wirelessly; as well as seeking integration of various nonlinked (typically) paper databases such as criminal records, juvenile records, CAD data, and social facts about neighborhoods (Dunworth et al. 2000).
  • Increasing the number of nonsworn employees. Demands for service as well as management by objective approaches, crime analysis, and some augmented research capacity, has led to an increasing civilianization. The present composition of police departments shows about 27–30 % of their employees are civilians (LEMAS 2000 survey). This figure is some 5–7 % higher in the UK.
  • Innovating in regard to thinking about crimes that are planned, politically imagined, and organized, and belief-based such as human trafficking, anti-terrorist, and homeland security programs mounted by the NYPD and other large departments. These are funded by massive infusions of money through federal and state-based grants.
  • Introducing more systematic database access and storage for investigative work. These systems also include the possibility of exchange of information concerning crimes that have area-wide significance. Formalized systems are used in the UK, such as HOLMES and HOLMES 2; they provide a format for entering data on serious crimes and enable sharing of key facts and evidence (See website http://
  • Engaging in networks of data internationally while developing dedicated systems for specialized crime and investigative work. For example, in the UK, the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), established in 2006 the Home Office, which operates within the UK and collaborates (through its network of international offices) with many foreign law enforcement and intelligence agencies (www. It is the result of the merger of the National Crime Squad, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit, the investigative and intelligence sections of HM Revenue and Customs that investigate serious drug trafficking, and the Immigration Service, and the Assets Recovery Agency.
  • Linking data and analysis through the Internet.

The FBI has a massive network of data including phone calls, e-mails, addresses, and other information that is available for police agencies, and is working on linking the many state agencies including police, corrections, and social services in this database. (N-Dex cited above). There are also planned databases in the UK centered at GCHQ to monitor all cell phone, e-mail, and web-use, while the UK national database of DNA data includes 3.4 samples, and the fingerprint database includes 5.5 million prints. There are large datasets based on number plate recognition in the UK, and these are used for enforcement, fines, and other penalties assessment. It is estimated that there are four million CCTV sites in the UK although research suggests they have limited value (Welsh and Farrington 2009). Some of these are monitored directly in police stations, for example, in Belfast, while others are either privately owned or owned by local authorities.

Each of these examples is built upon a core of information processing. The new information channels operate embedded in a structure, strategies, and values largely unchanged since the 1920s. As Chan et al. (2001: 113) have argued correctly, these new channels produce more work, more paperwork, and more data within organizations already awash with uncollated facts. The fantasy of efficiency of course has not been validated. There have been no structural changes, setting aside 911 and computer-assisted dispatch (itself a means), since the mid-nineteenth century when detective work was added. The rest are add-ons to the basic model developed by Sir Robert Peel prior to 1829 – the model featuring reactive, uniformed, visible, full time patrol. The pastiche that has resulted has not been systematically evaluated; that is, an evaluation that assessed the extent of integrated functioning with respect to clear and established criteria and valid and reliable data in one or more police organizations over time.

The Problematic Collocation Of Police Data

While the term system is used to describe the information modalities within a police organization it is better seen as an occasioned assemblage based on “need to know” and patterned by use and power. While many police departments have acquired new information technologies, and most departments typically possess many, they remain fragmented and scattered throughout the organization even if electronic, scarcely used beyond daily needs, and marginal to the core of the job as seen by working officers. They serve many functions and are assumed to perform in connection with certain assumed rationalities. These rationalities, connecting ends and means, are incompatible in theory and are mediated and ignored in practice. It is not surprising that any given system or facet of the information system is so intertwined with others that it cannot be distinguished for research purposes. This makes evaluation very imprecise and narrow, while the impact of information technology is amplified throughout the organization and its practices.

Consider these features of current modern information systems in policing. As Bittner wrote (1970: 64), “… police departments accommodate a colossally complicated network of secret sharing combined with systematic information denial.” A reflection of this, among other structural aspects of the craft, he also avers (1970: 65), correctly “… even the most advanced among our police departments are not anywhere near the objective of developing adequate information and storage retrieval systems.” His point is that the majority of information known is seen as personal knowledge, not shared, may not even be written down, a product of a combination of individualism and defensive occupational solidarity (p. 65). If this position is definitive, and it is consistent with my fieldwork, whatever technology shapes and is used to enter, store and retrieve information, is a modest part of what is known.

The stated capacity to gather and process data quickly, to store them in an accessible and orderly fashion, and to develop vast fact-based files of fingerprints, criminal records, lab reports, arrest documents, and cases, most of which are still in written and printed form (or both), is considerable. There is vast storage capacity and it is increasing, but storage capacity and use are not calibrated. The growth in storage capacity absent access and use reveals the tendency within policing and perhaps other public agencies to acquire systems without clear standards or stated purposes, and without considering the complexity of creating usable, and simple modes of interface, collocation, and analysis. What is useful is not fact, but fact in a context or information.

While the systematic use of databases such as the Internet is growing and linked to trends in policing new forms of crime such as human trafficking, white collar and Internet-based crime, these are not connected within and between police departments, or done so unsuccessfully, for example, HOLMES. Individual cases crossing police boundaries are rarely connected and investigated systematically.

Given these databases and their related platforms, it is not surprising to find that numerous software systems exist (e.g., ArcView, for geocoded material; Pop TRAK, for monitoring problem-solving; specialized programs for workload management; many spread sheets for accounting and noncriminal records maintenance). Changes in software are seldom done well “in house” and when out-sourced, lead to confusion because training is not provided, new systems have new “bells and whistles,” and the oral culture for actually using them well may not exist. A parallel matter is that when federal or state funding expires for a given software, it is abandoned in time because those who knew the routines were transferred or retired, and no one knows how to run it (Nesbary 2001).

Many inconsistent user and backside technology interfaces are in place. A large police department will house: several servers, diverse and uneven mainframe access and work-place terminals as well as Internet connections via fiber optic cables. These work-place terminals have varied and varying memory and memory capacity. Perhaps as a result of the ad hoc accretion of these via technologies, uneven and unplanned purchasing, the influence of grants, vendors, trends, and fads, and now abandoned failed innovations, police possess disparate information technology clusters. These are not additive or cumulative in their effects. Unlike technology-sensitive organizations, such as universities and corporations, they do not systematically and routinely, that is, every 2–3 years on a rotated basis, replace software, laptop, and desktop computers. The work stations are often acquired ad hoc and used by several officers over the course of a 24 h period of three or more shifts. Large departments have diverse work stations, running software of various generations (several versions of Microsoft) and a sprinkling of MACS and IBM clones that do not “speak” to each other. Research suggests that they are rarely and poorly utilized (Dunworth et al. 2000; Manning 2008); and data transfer, especially of large data sets, is awkward and flawed. A variety of limited and many nonlinked access points exist.

The Incident Cynosure And Police Beliefs

The ground of policing is the work of the patrol officer. Ideas about the what, why, and how of the work is surrounded by and protected by beliefs about it. These beliefs are the most profound impediments to information-based technologically driven change. These beliefs vary within and across the segments of the organization, among civilians and sworn officers, and probably vary by years of service and gender, but they underlie the powerful world view of the uniform patrol segment. They are in many respects the primary interface – where the organization’s boundaries are maintained, expanded, or contracted over time – between the police and the public.

Consider the incident itself: a situated face to face encounter. This matter of some interest to the police may arise from an on-view matter; from a call to that unit or another; from a cell phone, or a decision to make a stop. These incidents, especially those of most public importance, are seen as perceived as distributed in time and space, as semi-autonomous and bounded, and have little if any connection except as they are clustered within an area. These are here and now moments, and the future alone can tell whether some level of crime or disorder will arise and have to be dealt with, but it is believed that without some action, things will get worse. Officers believe one cannot predict the occurrence of any given event as regards time, even given local knowledge of an area and its residents or habitue´s. A general policing proposition is: social life is odd; “things happen.” The patrol culture and cops’ stories, a vague set of configured resources, are loosely fitted to guide response to a given incident confronting an officer. The somewhat heroic yet quixotic world of the officer is always at risk from society’s oddities. One might say, “society is what it is, and changes little.” Correcting such lasting and troubling things as homelessness, mental illness, poverty, crime, and inequality are beyond the necessarily limited scope of policing, and of a given officer, and to some degree their causes and consequences are beyond the understanding of the average police officer. This is not a comment on intelligence or education, but seeing the “big picture” is regarded as a hindrance, and ignoring it a logical necessity, given the pressing, repeated, anomalous demands of police work. Policing is about practical, decisive action that minimizes the consequences of the visible and present here and now incident. Thus, ratiocination, reflection, and paperwork are secondary to “real police work.” Details, abstractions, reflection, and cogitation may in fact impede accomplishing this work, extend the job, and add unnecessary complexity. This concern, the defined incident, is itself a flexible and elastic matter. Many events can be overlooked, ignored, or made irrelevant, but those in which the police intervene are truly multidimensional, could be handled in a number of ways, and as argued above, are governed by forces largely out of control of the officer. Once defined, the incident shapes the needed information: that which is accessible and useful in the incident at hand, and arrives “just in time” for use by an officer. The extent to which the incident extends to other matters is problematic and an information search, if undertaken, is guided by past success with the source, whether personal or technological in nature. Inquiries from patrol officers or investigators tend to be restricted to referring to or querying a handful of trusted (external) data sources: vehicle registration and driving licenses, outstanding warrants and/or criminal records, and other field stops. It follows, then, that the defined incident and its contours drive the nature, number, and types of records kept. It may not be written up, or may be dismissed by a number of routine modes of closing an open incident. Officers emphasize: “keeping up the numbers,” “output,” or showing what counts: processing calls, moving on quickly to the next, making the odd traffic stop and citation, and showing one is part of a team. This means, by extension, that some information will be passed on often verbally, about dogs, guns, dangerous alley ways, and “cock-ups” that are heard as cautionary tales. Always, the technologies and related information sources required or used are matters for the officer at the scene to best determine. The cynosure of the incident is combined with the notion that “you had to be there” and the reluctance of officers to judge others officers’ decisions.

While there are technologies that actively circumscribe action – the mobile digital terminal in the car and the cell phone if used – the technologies used by officers are not used for the intrinsic merits ascribed by computer scientists, sociologists, or other experts; they are occasioned or used when an incident is fraught with rich and troubling potentialities. They are used as and when, by the needs of the moment, interpersonal trust, and a subtle assessment of the audiences to which the information might be presented. The imagined audience for the report, for example, a sergeant or a prosecutor, or internal affairs officer, shapes the written report. If the record associated with a technology is to serve the immediate situation, one’s partner, citizens, and on-lookers, it may have a lower horizon than something written for management. If it is seen as having broader, media-based attention, it has a longer and more uncertain horizon of possibilities. How problems are defined, approached, managed, and disposed of is situational, governed by context, and what is seen as a resource shifts as contexts change.

The incident cynosure reduces the likelihood of open channels of communication between the public and the police. Consider these beliefs that are intimately related to patrol work. The focus on “doing something” shapes interactions with the public, and is based on a distrust of the public. Police are often lied to, misled, and subject to provocative dramas. They learn to keep some distance from what is said, make quick judgments, trust their “gut feelings” and learn from experience, and to honor the oral traditions of the job. The cloud of the media, their preoccupations and biases are misleading and public fears, insecurities, and concerns are generally inconsistent with police interpretations of these problems. They are obligated to act, as Bittner (1970: 40) writes, in spite of the citizens’ natural attitude (Citizens’ requests, definitions of solutions to the situation) about a possible solution. There is parsimony about the job and its craft. It is assumed that what is written is just enough and just in time to accomplish what the officer anticipates accomplishing, no more. This often limits radically additional comments, asides, observations, and other matters that might, if included, link this incident to others. Although it is most entrenched and honored in the patrol segment, the ideology of the power of the present and the incident is not restricted to the patrol segment. It is revealed in the focus of detective work on the case and its clearance, and the ideology of crisis management at the command level.

The Fundaments Of Police Information Technology: Some Propositions

What are the grounding fundamentals of the police organization and of policing as a practice? One might argue that police organizations shape the uses of technology, that is, simple assumptions about the “what” and the “how” of policing – the basis for the craft, what is seen as “the job.” In this sense, the rationality of the worker, poised between work control and ratebusting, persists and determines production, for example, the speed and quality of responses to calls for service, clearance of crimes, visits to schools and neighborhood meetings, clearance rates, and cold cases. In the same sense, technology in use, whether in the communications center, patrol, or investigation, produces pressures to speed up deciding. Operators are monitored by several means to coerce them to rapid processing of calls for service and for categorical “by the numbers” dispatching. Patrol officers are encouraged to “keep up their numbers,” for example, running number plates, making traffic stops, and returning to service promptly (Meehan 1998). Detectives are pressured to “produce” clearances; they quickly focus on cases that can be cleared. Technology compresses deciding time and simplifies complexity. There is a “group think” aspect to deciding because the greater the time constraints on action, given ambiguity in technological human interaction, the greater the tendency for coping based on collective cues. Nevertheless, work fills the time available to do it. One aspect of this (Goffman 1959: 110–111) is “make work,” activities that maintain the appearance of working, whatever the actual level of activity, as well as the appearance accuracy, involvement, pace, and personal interest. In every police department, detectives claim they are overloaded regardless of the workload; patrol officers complain of the same. As MDTs are installed in patrol cars, officers with patrols increase their inquiries to databases (Meehan 1998; Meehan and Ponder 2002), especially if they have a partner in the car. Police technologies stimulate and shape work routines which in turn shape roles (Goffman 1959: 16). The segments of the police organization, for example, top management, middle management, and the lower participants, tend to be loosely connected through occasioned routines. Management dicta flow down, but little information flows upward. Given this segmentation of the organization communication networks, technology has different meanings and functions when the police organization is in a crisis mode. The influx of information about a riot, a disaster, or a flood of calls for service may require changes in command authority (it moves up in emergency), resources available (“assets”), and tactical deployment. In an emergency mode, the organization communicates internally and externally quite differently, more quickly and with less reflection and anticipation of outcomes. Technology amplifies police communications in crises and emergencies and increases uncertainty (matters that cannot be answered factually and are contingent and contextual). Police organizations have more images, facts, and records than ever before. As the police organization increases its capacity to make short-term surveillances and interventions, it increases the use of “high tech”-based activities, for example, heavily armed and elaborately uniformed SWAT teams for relatively benign incidents. These encounters increase the chances for a mistake in judgment, a bad shooting, a false entry, a response to an exaggerated risk. As has been emphasized above, information technologies are variously rewarding to the officer. Those with features that decrease effort in respect to valued routines – checking data from traffic stops, running field stops, credit checks by detectives, ad hoc retrievals – are used and praised; those that are associated with unwanted efforts or disvalued routines, “paperwork,” whether electronic, typed, or handwritten, are ignored, sabotaged, or seldom used. Uneven performance of the IT is frustrating and leads to reduced use of the technology. As Chan has shown (2001), skill and knowledge of the workings of information technologies is not randomly distributed within police departments. It is used for different purposes by the command, patrol, and investigative units; varies by age and gender; and increasingly is a source of social distance between young patrol officers and senior officers. When a form of IT violates the zone of indifference at the bottom, that is, when monitoring and surveillance are seen as “big brother” activities, the relevant IT will be sabotaged, damaged, turned off, or not used. It is resisted. This is seen in connection with audio and video monitoring in patrol cars, transponders, and GPS devices used to track the movements of unit (Meehan 1998). While technology strives for unity in the face of complexity, it separates content or “propriety” from efficiency (Bittner 1983: 258). As Bittner points out (1970: 55), policing is a means to deal with complexity and with exceptions or contradictions. Rules for organizing are bureaucratic and formalized, but cannot define when and how to intervene. Quality of response is less valued than pragmatic resolution of incidents.

The illusion of technological advance is made murky by those who use the technology, and define the utility of its apparent capacities. Bittner (1970: 64) states this succinctly “.. .police departments accommodate a colossally complicated network of secret sharing combined with systematic information denial.” And later, in a phrase that no evidence has yet contradicted since he observed this pattern in the late 1960s (1970: 65): “… even the most advanced police departments are not anywhere near the objective of developing adequate information storage and retrieval systems. Even is present efforts to make modern electronic technology would succeed in coding existing information, this would not encompass the knowledge that is currently neither shared nor recorded.” His point is that much knowledge is “local knowledge” gathered by officers and occasionally shared within the oral culture; that much knowledge is not recorded or written down in any form, and that this body of knowledge is more useful in practice than that which is seen as centralized, administrative, stored, and formatted (Brown and Brudney 2003). The reticence is in part ignorance and lack of training, in part due to the here and now incident focus; and in part due to a resistance to sharing information that might advance the career of a given officer. The working rules that govern policing include a set of contradictory themes in action – information is personal property of a kind to be guarded and protected; the most useful technologies are those that have visible, useful, local, immediate, and consequential properties: checking on driving licenses, insurance; ownership and registration of the vehicle, databases concerning previous stops, arrests, and criminal record of driver and passenger; watch your back and avoid close surveillance (Chan et al. 2001). These join other reliable and trustworthy technologies such as vehicles, weapons, and everyday tools of the job (logbooks, second gun, accident scene equipment, cell phones, and the radio-computer when help is needed). Those technologies seen as functioning to carry out surveillance, track and monitor (and perhaps to punish) workers such as in-car videos, sound recording capacities, and traffic stop records, are untrustworthy and might be sabotaged, turned off or on as need be in the situation, or used as self-protective devices in problematic circumstances.


The focus and implicit purpose of police technology is somehow to increase efficiency, or the level of resources, effort, and time required to accomplish a given task or set of tasks. Policing, however, is ill-suited to considerations of efficiency minimally, because it acts in a turbulent rapidly changing environment, responds to complex, problematic, human situations, and is “people work.” It requires slack resources in anticipation of a complex, lasting, and engaging emergency, natural or man-made, such as a hurricane, earthquake, riot, terrorist attack, or power loss. Patrol officers, the front line and most powerful segment politically in the organization, spend more than 50 % of their time doing “nothing,” driving around randomly (Famega 2005) and this is valued and lauded as the essence of police work, and much admired by the public. The emphasis in technological innovation has been upon time saving, yet the most fundamental waste of time is random, unfocused, and aimless patrol. The work, on the other hand, is viewed to some considerable degree as a sacred, representative entity rather than as an industry. It produces at best trust. It is not surprising, furthermore, that innovations in policing vary widely in their purpose, focus, cost, and utility, and that they are rarely evaluated internally. This ensemble of technological add-ons can only at best be an augmentation of the fundamental technology, interpersonal skills, verbal and nonverbal, that are the tools of policing everywhere. The ensemble also reflects the competing rationalities within a police organization: the focus on various ends such as crime, on crime prevention, public trust and respect – the mandate itself – or on means of policing, more patrol officers, more arrests, more partnerships, and better and faster equipment.

This review has set out types of technology and focused on the information technology-based innovations that have been most visible in the last 30 years or so that are typically called “technology.” They are numerous. The framework presented here, a concern for practices that constitute the social objects that are considered technology, has identified how the data and information systems are loosely coupled within police organizations, rarely integrated, inconsistent in detail and format, varying as to content and form, and widely scattered in many locations. Thus, claims for capacity are misleading as they do not consider actual usage and outcomes of such utilization. The incident or case and how to handle it is the focal concern of policing; technologies that are seen as reducing paperwork, surveillance, time and energy, and supervisory intervention in entrepreneurship on the ground are valued.

On balance, the research on the impact of technology on police practices is thin and there is very little systematic evaluation of force-level impact available except the work of Chan in Australia. It is very likely, however, that the primary impacts are subtle, not directly affecting the work on the street or anything resembling “crime,” but on the following: the speed and availability of response, given a call for service from a land line or cell phone; the availability of records for jail occupancy, arrests, field stops, CAD, and MDT inquiries for the previous year or so (others tend to be destroyed or stored); the skill of younger officers with various forms of ecommunications, and the quality and quantity of internal communications, for example, e-mails. The resistance to innovative thinking, for example, problem-solving (Brown and Brudney 2003) and the power of the patrol segment to define the nature of the job remain. The ways in which the lower participants work around, with, and innovate in their usage of, technology remain unexplored (see however, Meehan 1998; Meehan and Ponder 2002).


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