Soundings

Henry Olsen
RoboCops
It’s time for the NYPD to computerize its paperwork.
Summer 2001

With thousands of cops eligible to retire over the next few years, New York’s Finest may soon face a big manpower problem. One solution: using technology to improve officer productivity. The NYPD may enjoy a well-deserved reputation for high-tech crime-fighting—Compstat, the force’s computerized crime-tracking system, is the envy of police departments around the world—but when it comes to managing daily precinct operations, it sometimes still seems stuck in the 1930s.

Consider a typical precinct, in the Bronx, I recently visited in the Police Foundation’s "Commanding Officer for a Day" program. As the precinct captain proudly showed me his mini-Compstat center and the snazzy machine that took digital fingerprints of suspects and compared them electronically with city and state databases, I couldn’t help notice that his desk lacked a computer—as was true of every officer’s desk I saw. Amazingly in a digital age, officers were still laboriously logging in suspects by hand in a huge book at the station desk and slowly writing up crime reports using clunky typewriters—which, at least, were electric.

According to former Massachusetts Secretary of Public Safety Kathleen O’Toole, the average police officer spends at least one-third of his time processing paperwork. Digitizing it could free up an enormous number of man-hours for the NYPD, allowing cops to spend more time on the street, fighting crime—and making the problem of replacing retiring officers less pressing. True, the cost would run well into the millions in the short term. But the potential boon in efficiency would repay the investment. 

Admittedly, the NYPD has a poor record in computerizing administrative work. An effort a few years ago to track seized and stored property by computer—the existing paper-based system, nearly 80 years old, relied on 100 different forms and took 300 cops to do the paperwork—never got off the ground because of bureaucratic foot-dragging and because the force lacked the necessary high-tech skills.

But other forces are rapidly moving ahead with digitizing paperwork. Santa Clara, California’s police department, to take just one cutting-edge example, has outfitted traffic cops with Palm Pilots that they’ll soon use to write up reports on the beat and zap them wirelessly into a central police database, without having to trudge back to the station to fill out paperwork. If Santa Clara can do it, why not New York? Eight years ago, the NYPD showed it could use sophisticated technology to help cut crime. Now it’s time to use it to slash bureaucracy, too.

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