Online police reports started with a stolen garden hose
The story of police online reporting systems — the tool found on many department websites today that allows people to report minor crimes without the need for a face-to-face meeting with police — began with a stolen garden hose in 2002.
Randy Burkhammer was working as a police officer in Fremont, California. He noticed one day that the hose from the front of his house was missing. It was the kind that spools onto a little cart.
“It just annoyed the snot right out of me because I wanted to call and tell them, but I know how low of a priority that is and the fact that nothing is going to be done about it,” Burkhammer said.
Burkhammer didn’t come up with the solution to his annoyance overnight, but a couple years later, he partnered with meteorologist-turned-computer-scientist Shuangxi Xu to build a web tool and then eventually a business. With Burkhammer as CEO and Xu as chief technology officer, the company began as ePoliceDepartment, became Coplogic and now makes the Desk Officer Reporting System , which was acquired by LexisNexis Risk Solutions in 2014.
Today it’s used by about 450 law enforcement agencies in the U.S., Canada and Australia, and has saved officers countless hours listening to complaints and writing reports about stolen garden hoses, neighborhood squabbles or miscellaneous other incidents that, while valuable for police to be aware of, are not very likely ever to be solved.
In police lingo, these types of crimes have what Burkhammer calls “low evidentiary value.” If someone breaks into a car and steals some loose change and an iPhone, it’s unlikely that person will ever be caught for that crime. And, for officers, taking a report in person yields a very low return on time investment, considering an officer must drive to the call, take a report, drive back and then enter the information into the department’s case management system.
Despite all that, the police department wants the data, for a couple of reasons: saving time and keeping leads alive in the hope that they might someday help officers solve bigger crimes.
A gadget snatched from a car may never be found, but if a police department has comprehensive trend data about when and where vehicles are being burglarized, it can deploy its officers accordingly. That’s how it works in Stockton, California, said Rhonda Winkler, the city police department’s records manager.
Winkler has been with Stockton PD since 1995, and she said she was the one who, in 2005, thought it was a good idea to become one of Burkhammer’s first customers.
Her department, which serves a city of about 300,000 residents in California’s Central Valley, gets a lot of calls from feuding parents who want a record for court that “he was 20 minutes late” dropping off the kid, Winkler explained. Back before online reports, she said, the department had a shortage of officers and calls for minor crimes were backing up overnight. Sometimes people didn’t get an officer until the next day, by which time the person who had called had often lost interest or was no longer around because they had gone to work.
Today, the department has two full-time employees who do nothing but process online reports and the transition led to a stark difference in how resources are allocated, Winkler said.
By her accounting, Stockton PD saves tens of thousands of dollars a month through its online reporting system. In March 2017, for instance, a total of 1,022 reports were filed online, of which 676 were accepted and assigned case numbers. The department estimates each call would have taken about 90 minutes of work if addressed in the traditional way, which means it saved officers more than 1,500 hours of responding and report-writing in that single month alone.
“The citizen gets a report taken and a final report number a lot sooner, in most cases within a few minutes,” Winkler said. “The officers can also concentrate on those higher crimes, those felony crimes that are happening. The biggest impact is that we’re helping more people all around, with the small incidents that need to be reported and with the criminal element that needs to be arrested.”
Keeping leads alive
The other reason departments don’t want to lose data on minor crimes is that, occasionally, those leads pay off, Burkhammer said.
“A lot of times with those small things — like a stolen cell phone — we’ll stop a criminal in the middle of the night,” he said, “and the stolen cell phone becomes the catalyst to place that person under arrest and that search leads to more evidence in their pockets, which leads back to their house, which leads to larger crimes, and really that’s how a lot of big crimes end up unraveling.”
Burkhammer says his interest in computers started with an interest in computer games in the ’90s — “I was playing a lot of ‘Quake II.” He began tinkering with the game’s settings and then eventually combined his personal and professional interests, building an early primitive version of the online reporting system using PHP and Flash. It’s since become more sophisticated and is now part of a suite of products offered by LexisNexis Risk Solutions.
The company went as far as it could on its own, Burkhammer said, and now it’s benefitting from cross-pollination with several LexisNexis tools that help organizations aggregate and sort through data more effectively. One new tool helps cross-reference reports and find duplicate entries. Another feature allows callers to a police department to receive a text message containing a link to the department’s online reporting system after being referred by someone at the department. He continues to help run the business as an employee of LexisNexis after retiring from the police force last year.
Burkhammer never got his hose back, but he says he ended up getting something better — “a solution that helps a lot of people and helps police agencies at the same time.”
This story was featured in FedScoop Special Report: Public Safety & Emergency Response - A StateScoop Special Report