From Patrol Officer to Technology Lead: Steps That Enable Officers to Make the Transition
I remember getting my first MDT, or mobile data terminal—a car computer. It changed my whole world. I was running plates and pulling cars over faster than ever. The additional information about the vehicle and its driver increased the level of officer safety. Then in the early 1990s, we got “phone in a bag”; we didn’t need special agreements with convenience stores to use their phones for police business anymore. In the mid ‘90s, community policing took off and we really went back to basics. I was assigned to bike patrol. I had a bike, a radio, and a gun. We were high visibility, right in the neighborhood streets, and the community loved it. It brought back the Cop on your Block atmosphere.
All of a sudden, I’m a lead for the City of Houston on smart camera technology, cybersecurity needs assessment, situational awareness tools, datacasting, and software requirements. These weren’t deliberate choices. Technology started moving so fast and I had to adapt. I learned, however, that I didn’t need new degrees or coding skills to oversee complex technology initiatives. My background in law enforcement was what I needed, supplemented by collaboration and some lessons learned along the way:
Lesson 1: You must work with the private sector.
You don’t have to understand how technology works or how to implement it. Create coalitions that offer clear, concrete benefits to its members and those coalition members will be happy to do the work.
I manage the Houston Smart City Living Lab. Through this Lab, or sandbox, of public safety solutions, we design and deploy cutting edge technologies and services that support critical infrastructure protection and special events management in and around the City of Houston. For example, we’re evaluating a new type of camera system that looks for anomalies in typical sights and sounds. It doesn’t record; it just monitors. When the camera system identifies such an anomaly, it automatically alerts pre-defined users so they can determine how to best take action. It’s a huge advancement in cost-effective situational awareness. To make this Living Lab happen, I created a Smart City Ecosystem—a coalition of public and private stakeholders that grew out of a very successful experiment to launch new technology during SuperBowl LI in 2017. Industry leading companies, such as Axis Communications, Milestone, VidSys, Verizon, and Siklu Radio, get together and develop new technologies for the City at no cost. In exchange, they get direct access to local businesses, local government, and local subject matter experts. It is a great opportunity; they get a group of candidates to try out their newest innovations. We get direct access to industry experts who expose us to emergent technologies and how to use them.
Lesson 2: Don’t pigeon-hole anything; re-think everything.
Use your law enforcement experience to think creatively about applications of technology. Industry knows technology but they don’t know law enforcement. And they want to learn from you to improve their products and deliver useful services.
Investing and maintaining a city-wide camera network was a priority for the City of Houston, but it is also very expensive to buy and install cameras throughout a large geographic region. We had to start thinking differently. We decided to review camera networks already deployed throughout the City. Emergency management has cameras to monitor weather, transportation departments monitor traffic, and private security staff monitors their own facilities, public works monitor city facilities. Work with what’s available—law enforcement is uniquely positioned to understand what exists in our jurisdictions because we spend so much time driving our cities and meeting with our community. We started approaching camera-owners about joining the City’s network. We learned that if these camera-owners know they will get something in return, they are usually quite cooperative and willing to share. Our message became help us help you. It’s about expanding everyone’s capabilities and supporting public safety in a cost-effective manner. So, our local businesses and critical infrastructure sites started providing us with access to their cameras and we gave them some expanded camera coverage. Increased situational awareness is a huge benefit for them--perhaps there’s a traffic problem preventing people and cars from accessing their site—now they can see outside their own perimeter, directly into the problem. We both win.
Lesson 3: Your new technology may not work right away, and that’s OK.
When I started out in law enforcement, we had radios and we had guns. We all knew how to use them, and they always worked. It’s different now because technology moves so fast. If you’re managing a technology project and it’s not working as you imagined, explain to your providers what you need instead. It’s not like the old days where you’re stuck with whatever you bought. Many companies employ agile development methods, in which you only receive a handful of features at a time, but at regular intervals. This is better because you are constantly collaborating and ensuring your technologies are built, customized, or configured exactly as you want them. Just make sure the core capabilities address your basic needs in public safety.
Lesson 4: Balance capabilities with capacity
Don’t make the mistake of acquiring new, robust technological capabilities and then not have the capacity to use them. I have learned to constantly think about four things: sustainability, scalability, user skill, and support. Who will the users be? Do they have the ability to operate the new technology or do they need training? What are the costs and time commitments for that training? Is there ongoing maintenance or licensing costs? How many agencies or users are supported for that cost? Will we need contracts to support ongoing maintenance and enhancements or can IT staff do it? And very importantly, does your technology division have the resources to maintain this capability? Make sure to ask and get clear answers to these questions.
Lesson 5: Build and maintain a network.
The importance of maintaining a broad network of contacts cannot be overstated. Meet everyone. Learn who they are and what they do. Maintain the relationship, even if you are not buying something.
Some of my most valuable contacts are subject matter experts, industry leads, and representatives from the various infrastructure sectors (see the Department of Homeland Security Critical Infrastructure sectors).Leveraging my network is one of the greatest contributions that I have made to many technology initiatives. Last year, the Army Cyber Institute at West Point came to town. They had just completed Jack Voltaic 1.0 in New York City, a cyber exercise that studied interdependencies among critical infrastructure during a Cyber Worst Day Scenario. They intended to conduct Jack Voltaic 2.0 in the City of Houston. Through an extensive tabletop and live fire exercise, they assessed the ability of 8 critical infrastructure sectors to respond to combined cyber and physical attacks in and around the City of Houston. I was invited to the first planning meeting. I was surrounded by experts in the fields of technology and cybersecurity, and I wasn’t sure how I would contribute value to this effort. Then the project leaders wrote down a variety of sectors and agencies on the white board that were critical to the success of Jack Voltaic 2.0. I realized I knew someone in every single group. From that moment, I was a member of the planning team contributing real value through my network. My career in law enforcement and the contacts I made along the way helped a cutting-edge cyber security program get off the ground.
In sum, working in Law Enforcement gives you two key skills: you are used to interacting with strangers and you are not afraid to ask questions. Use these skills as a technology lead. Do not be afraid to ask any question you have. Industry wants to assist, and they definitely want you to understand their products.