In 2004, the Oakland Police Department (OPD) and the City of Oakland’s Information Technology Department (ITD) set out on an ambitious, long-term endeavor to revamp OPD’s approach to technology. The foundation of this effort was the creation of a shared vision for aligning technology, analytics, and data that would allow individual OPD officers to have cutting-edge technology and at the same time equip the department with an integrated system that provided a holistic view of OPD’s activities. OPD and ITD leaders anticipated that these reforms would contribute to—and be advanced by—the development of a culture in OPD and ITD that prized efficiency, responsiveness, and innovation. In other words, the goal of the initiative was to catapult OPD into the 21st century.
Yet in the early 2000s, the vision was far from reality; instead, OPD and ITD were facing enormous technological hurdles. The primary problem was that OPD was employing a number of disconnected and outdated legacy systems. This made it difficult for individual officers to do their work and communicate in the field and created additional work to track down information for and generate department reports; it also complicated efforts by OPD officials to develop a unified picture of the department’s activities and assess individual officer’s performances. What’s more, in 2003, following revelations of improper activity by OPD officers, the department entered into a court-ordered Negotiated Settlement Agreement (NSA) that mandated numerous reforms, including investments in new technology (e.g., records management and personnel assessment systems). Suddenly, modernizing the department’s technology was not just a strategy to improve performance; it was a legally mandated imperative.
Thus, as ITD and OPD officials began to pursue their vision for reform, they faced a number of challenging questions about whether and how they could achieve their goals. Could they effect a cultural shift within and between OPD and ITD to leverage technology efficiently and to its fullest extent? Could they create synergy between two departments that had to work together but were situated separately? Could they sustain their effort—which was expected to take over a decade—given the inevitable ups and downs of a long-term change initiative? Could they withstand the scrutiny that would likely arise from a concerned public and press amid the NSA? Most fundamentally, could they capitalize on the challenge of the status quo and turn it into an opportunity to make Oakland a safer and better place to live in the 21st century?
Unlike many police departments, which have internal IT teams, OPD receives its IT services from the Public Safety Division in ITD. From the City’s perspective, this creates attractive benefits, including opportunities to leverage economies of scale from pooled resources and expertise. At the same time, it creates a significant challenge: if ITD and OPD officials are not operating in lockstep with one another, public safety can suffer.
Thus, in December 2003, when Ahsan Baig became the Division Manager for Public Safety Support in ITD, one of his first priorities was to develop greater synergies between OPD and ITD. Internally, he emphasized to his team the gravity of their work and the need for efficiency that followed from it. “I remind our staff on almost a daily basis,” explained Baig, who in 2016 became the City of Oakland’s Deputy Chief Information Officer, “that we are the first responders of the first responders.” Meanwhile, he strove to develop the understanding and relationships to move seamlessly between the two organizations. “When I’m meeting with the police department,” Baig explained, “I’m acting as an IT person. But when I’m meeting with an IT person, I’m really acting as a cop. So, I’m trying to bridge that gap between the police and IT and the technology.”
A key part of improving collaboration between OPD and ITD was a joint effort to develop a shared vision for IT reform. Following extensive conversations, Baig and his partners in OPD arrived at a vision that focused on three priorities. One was a reliance on platforms, not point-of-service solutions. As Baig explained, he and OPD officials realized that they were often offered specific products (e.g., a document management system) that were attractive but nonetheless extremely expensive. What’s more, these one-off solutions contributed to the accumulation of numerous disconnected legacy systems. Thus, OPD and ITD decided that a better strategy would be to work toward the creation of enterprise systems that provided comparable services at a lower price and at the same time served as integrated and scalable platforms.
A second priority was becoming more agile and innovative. This depended in part on ITD developing strategies to operate more efficiently, something that could be challenging because of the tension between technology—which, as Baig observed, is “extremely fast paced”—and government bureaucracies, which, Baig added, often implement reform more gradually. Thus, Baig went to great lengths to synchronize the efforts of his technology team and other city officials who managed support functions, such as purchasing and compliance. He explained, “When we talk about building that culture and capacity, we as the leadership, need to take a look at the whole picture more holistically and really build those supporting structures.”
Finally, Baig prioritized aligning his work with the Chief of Police’s vision for reform. To that end, Baig and his partners emphasized the importance of a business-centric approach. This meant that ITD officials were fully integrated into OPD’s operations but at the same time that Baig would have full visibility of what his staff was doing. From Baig’s perspective, this was imperative in part because of his and his staff’s desire to have a customer service orientation. It also reflected the importance of having “executive sponsorship” because, as Baig explained, “If the Chief is not signed up for change, then it’s going to be very hard for technology officials to succeed.”
Thanks in part to this extensive dialogue and strong alignment, ITD and OPD began to make significant progress toward reform. In particular, in 2007, they unveiled a new personnel assessment system, and in 2009-2010, OPD became the first large-city police department in the country to begin using body-worn cameras. More broadly, ITD and OPD had effected a cultural shift that would lay the foundation for future reform. “There's a complete difference when it comes to the response and the responsiveness and the pride my team takes,” said Baig. “They are supporting police and fire, which is really phenomenal. So, building that pride, and building that passion for what you do in supporting public safety, to me is very critical.”
While OPD’s and ITD’s initial efforts to develop and work toward a shared vision generated significant positive results, the partners nonetheless had a long way to go to achieve their goals—a point that came into sharp relief in 2013 when a court-appointed compliance director “noted that the department’s technology issues are ‘one of the recurring themes’ hindering its ability to comply with court-mandated reforms.”
OPD and ITD officials therefore began to take additional steps to improve the police department’s use of technology, data, and analytics. This included outfitting officers with new technology, such as Tasers, and investing in additional enterprise resource platforms, the most significant of which was the Performance, Reporting, and Information and Metrics Environment (PRIME). A replacement for OPD’s decade-old personnel assessment system, PRIME is an “integrated…and centralized data repository system” that allows OPD to analyze officer behavior and create “real-time productivity dashboards and reporting for each level of the chain of command.” With data on topics ranging from the use of force to vehicle collisions to supervisory notes, PRIME embodies the department’s goal of creating platform-based solutions. What’s more, that it was developed through an extensive consultative process—including focus groups; trainings; and a leadership committee with ITD, OPD, and other City officials—reinforced the broader cultural change that has underpinned OPD’s and ITD’s collaborative efforts.
Thanks in part to the introduction of an early version of PRIME, OPD officials were able to make better use of data and technology to strengthen and analyze their work. This included having area commanders drill down into data on the performance of each officer and offering personnel feedback in different aspects of their work. In addition, the data platforms helped OPD to monitor and accelerate progress on department-wide priorities, such as a directive that the Chief issued in May 2016 to deemphasize overall vehicle stops and instead pursue higher-quality interventions. Soon thereafter, car stops decreased dramatically because officers were using intelligence-based data—some of which was disseminated through smart phones that officers had recently received—to make more targeted stops. Assistant Chief David Downing, a member of the Executive Committee overseeing the development and implementation of PRIME, explained, “We’re seeing more and more where we push out the information to the officers and they respond. For example: ‘Look for this car. It’s involved in a robbery…And here’s all of the License Plate Reader Data.’”
Equally significant, PRIME was contributing to OPD’s and ITD’s shared vision of operating more agilely and efficiently. Downing reflected, “Why is PRIME so cool? Because this data [previously] took a lot of time and money to put together. Whereas this PRIME system will just do it automatically, I can do it myself. I don’t need to pay thousands of dollars to employees to put all this data together so I can say I got a problem or not.”
Over 14 years into their reform journey, OPD and ITD still see opportunities for further innovation. Priorities moving forward include building a crime-data warehouse; upgrading OPD’s body-worn cameras; and strengthening PRIME through (among other reforms) adding audio analytics and artificial intelligence, possibilities Oakland officials are exploring in partnership with faculty at Stanford. Nonetheless, the shared vision for reform has already paid enormous dividends. Thanks in part to advances in technology, the city has seen improving trends in a number of areas, ranging from overall crime to arrests to use of force incidents. Furthermore, when a problem surfaces, the technology and data that OPD is using make it far easier to identify and understand it. More broadly, in a department that had come under such enormous scrutiny in the early 2000s, the alignment of technology, data, analytics, and culture has contributed to a sense that OPD is capable of becoming a cutting-edge leader in law enforcement.
In other words, OPD has transformed itself and its self-image; it is now beginning to be seen as a trailblazer, not unlike the myriad startups that dot Silicon Valley.
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