Baltimore goes back to basics to improve technology

With the new technology mandated by the consent decree come new challenges

BALTIMORE — Over the next year, Baltimore's police officers will type crime reports on computers installed in their cars. Those reports will upload to a data storage system that will help officers track crime, and it will help the city assess whether the police officer has done his or her job correctly.

That technology, already used by police forces in Washington and many other cities, is just one of the technology upgrades advised under the consent decree negotiated last year between the U.S. Justice Department and the Baltimore Police Department.

A 2016 Justice Department investigation found the city’s police department’s outdated technology hampered officers’ work. “The City must invest in its police department to ensure that officers have the tools they need to properly serve the people of Baltimore,” the Justice Department report said.

The digital equipment due in coming months is intended to improve police work and to allow citizens to see statistics on police activity.

Chief Martin on the consent decree

“We have a lot of propaganda against the consent decree”

For police departments around the country, the technological possibilities are vast — if their departments can afford them — from drones flying over crime scenes for better visual documentation to digital mapping that overlays crime patterns and officer deployments.

But Paul Herman, the Baltimore Police Department’s new chief data and technology officer, said the improvements in basic computer and data storage that the department is working toward will advance the force’s goals of meeting or exceeding other cities’ technological standards.

“There are infrastructure-related things that aren’t quite so glamorous and shiny, but are nonetheless very important and very expensive,” Herman said. “Before we can implement a front-end solution, it’s required to have the back-end infrastructure.”

That infrastructure includes a records management system — a database that allows users to search crime reports and traffic stops. The database will file information by category — such as stops, crimes, suspects — which will make searching for information easier.

Mobile data computers will soon allow officers to fill out those police reports in their patrol cars and upload instantly — which will make filing the reports much faster.

Today, those police reports are being written by hand by officers on the scene. At the end of a shift, an officer places those reports in a mailbox, and they then are driven to police headquarters, where they are typed into a computer by desk-duty officers.

“Baltimore is the eighth largest police department out of 18,000 in the United States. And so, when I was [police department] chief of staff, I thought it was quite ridiculous that we didn’t have mobile data computers,” said Ganesha Martin, the police department’s chief of the Department of Justice Compliance, Accountability and External Affairs Division.

“The mere efficiency that would be created by, say, officers being able to write their reports in the field is in essence a work-force multiplier,” Herman said.

The force has been so behind on technology that, when Justice Department investigators arrived in 2015 to review data and assess the problems with the force, “some of our data was in boxes on the floor,” Martin said.

The police department’s plan for updated technology includes more body worn cameras. This year, the department signed an $11.6 million, five-year contract for cameras.

But implementing them hasn’t come without problems. This year, video from body cameras appeared to show officers planting evidence, and more than 100 related cases have been dropped.

The consent decree addresses which officers are required to wear the cameras and where on the body the cameras will be worn. The decree also mandates that officers document the existence of any camera footage on all required reports. And if that officer fails to record an event, the officer must detail why he or she did not.

Herman said “funding has always been a challenge” for the department.

The program expenses involve more than just the cameras. The contract covers the cost of the cloud storage system that pairs with the cameras.

But those cameras won’t fix all of the problems Baltimore police have, experts say.

A study conducted by the Lab @ DC and released this fall found there was no significant difference in use of force by officers when they were wearing body worn cameras compared to when they weren’t.

“Body worn cameras are not a panacea,” said Jennifer Doleac, a senior social scientist at the Lab @ DC, an innovation team within the District of Columbia government, who is also a public policy and economics professor at the University of Virginia. “Body worn cameras are not going to solve, magically solve, a very deep rooted social issue.”

And new technology will require developing new training to keep up with each innovation.

“The technology could easily overwhelm the best training,” said Chris Stone, the president of the Open Society Foundations.

“Rather than try and solve this technology by technology, particular innovation by particular innovation,” he said, “American policing needs a way to to assess and deploy technological innovation in a much more rigorous, much more efficient way.”