Improving public safety is very much a data challenge

Law enforcement and other first responders need a tech upgrade to protect the public and themselves while maintaining accountability.

Joseph Tsidulko | May 10, 2023

Imagine what it’s like to be a police officer or paramedic responding to a 911 call.

What little information you get comes over a scratchy radio as you’re rushing to an address reported by an unknown caller. When you arrive, you don’t know if there’s someone waiting on the other side of the door who desperately needs your help—or who aims to do you harm.

While so many human factors are at play in these daily encounters, in essence, these first responders are dealing with a uniquely challenging data problem. And as every business leader knows, decisions based on incomplete or bad data often result in bad outcomes; for first responders, that could mean endangering their own lives or those of the citizens who call on them.

“I don’t know how many people realize this, but law enforcement is all about data,” says Chance Hill, director of public safety business development at Oracle. “You’re constantly trying to collect good data on people and places and incidents.”

Hill would know. Before joining the tech sector, he worked for years in the Duncanville Police Department on the outskirts of Dallas. At various points, he did almost every job, including patrol, detective, financial crimes, SWAT, and running the Special Victims Unit.

For law enforcement personnel in thousands of small and midsize agencies across the United States, such a range of specialized duties is not uncommon, Hill says, and nowadays “their duties are more complicated than they’ve ever been.”

In the wake of protests following the killing of George Floyd and other high-profile confrontations with police, people are rightfully demanding a higher level of accountability from those sworn to serve them.

“Citizen expectations have never been higher,” Hill says, while law enforcement agencies “have never been as understaffed and under-resourced.”

Arrested development

To meet heightened expectations while protecting themselves and the public, first responders need better tools to input, share, and surface critical data, especially in chaotic environments.

En route to an emergency, police officers, paramedics, and firefighters have a few short minutes to take in a lot of information: who called 911, what was reported, is a crime or medical emergency in progress, what’s the fastest route, have there been recent incidents at that location, is someone meeting them there? Lives could depend on first responders having those details the moment they step out of the vehicle.

We all know how hard it can be to check a map, or even find a good radio station, while negotiating busy city streets. Imagine trying to access so much data while weaving through traffic at high speeds with sirens blaring.

Hands-free technologies have come along in recent years, from voice interfaces to at-a-glance dashboards, that could make this data consumption easier. Such technologies are now common in daily life, but first responders, for the most part, are not benefiting from them in the field.

A June 2021 national survey found a 45% increase in police officer retirements and an 18% jump in resignations compared with the previous year.

U.S. Police Executive Research Forum

When we shop online, ecommerce platforms autofill our entries and immediately cull information from various data sources. But the archaic 911 computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems used by public safety agencies can’t do the same to speed inputting and distribution of critical data.

Mobile apps that track and share location, helping you connect with your Uber driver or coordinate delivery of a package from your smartphone, are ubiquitous. First responders also carry smartphones, but those aren’t equipped with applications designed to improve situational awareness in the field, something that could be particularly useful to them when dealing with an unruly citizen or during a pursuit.

Law enforcement officers already wear body cameras and have dash cameras mounted on their vehicles. But departments use these devices mainly to review incidents, not to help multiple responders coordinate their actions in real time or allow commanders to monitor developing situations and make cool-headed decisions away from the tumult of the scene. Again, this doesn’t require any futuristic leap—even social media feeds are commonly live streamed.

Hodgepodge of unconnected systems

So why don’t most public safety agencies have the benefit of technologies readily available to consumers? The reason isn’t so much that there aren’t innovative tech companies in the public safety sector; it’s more that there are a lot of small, narrowly focused vendors whose systems don’t integrate with one another.

Different companies sell standalone dispatch systems, records management services, communications platforms, body and vehicle cameras, and jail management systems to process and track inmates. This hodgepodge of vendors has left public safety agencies with an IT footprint characterized by point solutions, siloed data, and conspicuous technological gaps.

“The ultimate goal is to have that common operating picture that all of those data streams feed into—body cams, dash cams, drone footage, helicopter footage, open source data. I need it all in one place.”

Jeff Dirkse,  Stanislaus County Sheriff

That’s a problem Stanislaus County Sheriff Jeff Dirkse knows well. His sprawling department, which patrols 1,500 square miles in central California, contracts with multiple technology vendors. Some of them have changed ownership multiple times, in many cases dropping support in the process. Others have gone out of business. The department is told it needs to hire programmers to get the platforms to talk to each other, which becomes cost prohibitive.

“We just want to be able to get in there and access the information,” Dirkse says. “We don’t care how it works. I don’t want to have to train staff on technology. I want it to be like most of the apps you can download—that is, intuitive.”

Dirkse is amazed that everyday consumer products are more versatile than those he can issue to his deputies. “It’s 2023, and I can do more on my iPad than I can with my in-car system, because that’s older technology and it’s clunky,” he says.

Calling for backup

The COVID-19 pandemic took a heavy toll on first responders. And just as widespread pandemic fatigue was setting in among their ranks, deteriorating community relations and escalating crime and homelessness in many parts of the country further stressed the capabilities of public safety agencies. Some are close to crisis—under intense scrutiny, they are being asked to do more with fewer people and less funding.

To effectively protect themselves and the public while maintaining accountability across their ranks, first responders could use backup in the form of advanced, integrated technologies they’re inexplicably lacking.

“This is a problem that needed to be solved, and it needed to be solved by a big, competent technology company that was serious about this space,” says Steve Seoane, a longtime executive in public safety tech.

About two years ago, Oracle’s leadership recognized the company was well positioned to tackle the persistent challenges that had stymied smaller companies—it had the size, scope, software engineers, and public sector experience to develop a comprehensive suite of applications built on its underlying data services and cloud infrastructure.

Seoane was brought in to helm a new Oracle Public Safety Services unit, which began building the tools and data systems that could improve first responders’ situational awareness and empower them to make better decisions, even in the most chaotic moments.

“Oracle has a long history of solving really complex and challenging problems faced by the world’s most essential industries,” he says. “We felt a moral obligation to bring this expertise to public safety, knowing we were uniquely capable of providing first responders with cutting-edge technologies that would help them better serve our communities.”

Partners in crime fighting

To fully appreciate the real-world challenges first responders face, Oracle partnered with a handful of public safety agencies, among them the Stanislaus Sheriff’s Department, to develop tools and information sources that could help them do their jobs better.

Close coordination with those public sector partners has produced a set of modern cloud services, integrated data sources, mobile applications, purpose-built devices, and records management systems. Some modules have been released; others are due in the coming months. All will work as a tightly integrated suite, handling the full cycle of a public safety response, from dispatch to booking:

The CAD system speeds data entry, increases accuracy, and accelerates dispatch by autopopulating information, anticipating “next word” text, merging duplicate calls, verifying incident location in a blended map view, and incorporating all available data about locations and subjects. It can alert dispatchers of issues noted in previous incidents at an address, such as someone there suffering from mental health problems, to assign the most suitable personnel.

Newly developed body cams activate automatically to record interactions and can stream video in real time. Different responding units can see what each other are encountering in different rooms, and commanders can keep an eye on all of them from the station.

A roof-mounted camera bar on the vehicle provides automatic license plate recognition and in-car processing of a 300-degree field of view. And a “touch-talk-listen” tablet application improves the in-car experience by responding to voice commands and providing actionable data at a glance from records systems, dispatch, or other nearby units. When police pull a vehicle over, they’ll know more about who they’re dealing with sooner, reducing the risk for the officer, as well as for the driver, when they approach.

Mobile applications have been designed to enhance situational awareness and safety with automated location sharing and subject-based alerts. These apps automatically connect to records and dispatch systems, letting first responders view or update case information from their phone or tablet. And after officers return to the station, new records and jail management systems should reduce the time they spend filing reports.

“For me, the ultimate goal is to have that common operating picture that all of those data streams feed into—body cams, dash cams, drone footage, helicopter footage, open source data,” Sheriff Dirkse says. “I need it all in one place.”

Serving those who serve

After more than 30 years in law enforcement, Todd Hoffman realized he could do more to advance the profession by stepping outside of it. In a career that started with the Minneapolis Police Department and ended as a captain in the Wright County Sheriff’s Department, Hoffman saw the unnecessary risks resulting from an inability to effectively share information.

There were vehicle pursuits that should have been called off, but weren’t, including one involving eight deputies following a truck onto a golf course. There was a two-day standoff in which a camera mounted on a drone saw that a man who had been shooting from his house had put down his gun, but the video feed wasn’t visible to the team penetrating the front door. There were deputies who needed backup but couldn’t make a radio call while “hands on” with a suspect.

And Hoffman saw Wright County cycle through disconnected public safety systems that siloed data and failed to incorporate the tech innovations prevalent in daily life. “Historically, we’ve been underserviced by these vendors,” he says.

Now a customer success manager at Oracle, Hoffman is one of several former law enforcement professionals lending his expertise and experience to solving this problem. (The Wright County Sheriff’s Department is one of Oracle’s design partners.)

Hoffman believes that small and midsize departments need to reduce the costs and complexity of deploying technology, as well as the time spent on paperwork, if they are going to continue to effectively do their jobs. “That’s why I feel so close to what we’re doing now,” he says. “Those officers are tasked with wearing lots of hats, and they’ve been traditionally under resourced.”

The work of first responders is inherently unpredictable; life-and-death decisions often need to be made with little time to think in extremely tense situations. Every additional piece of information a public safety system provides makes a positive outcome more likely. At the other extreme are encounters that gradually spin out of control—where a commander remotely watching an incident unfold through a real-time body cam feed can issue an order that will avert a tragedy.

It’s long past time for the tech industry to develop integrated tools that make that kind of intervention possible. After all, public safety technology companies aren’t just building products—they’re helping build trust between first responders and the communities they serve.

View more Oracle Connect articles