The Baltimore Police Department is in severe need of reforms to its information technology policies, according to a report published last week that found the department relies on outdated software and equipment, struggles to train its officers and lacks a uniform process for crime data collection.
The study, conducted by the National Police Foundation, was required under a consent decree Baltimore Police entered into last year with the U.S. Department of Justice as a result of the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African American man who died while in police custody. Gray’s death prompted several days of protests and riots throughout the city, and sparked a federal civil rights investigation that found Baltimore Police guilty of discriminatory and unconstitutional conduct, especially in predominantly black neighborhoods.
Investigators conducting the IT review concluded that one of the biggest problems is that data collected by officers and police units is stored in disparate silos throughout the department, and no one is pushing for any kind of meaningful consolidation. While Baltimore Police has an IT division, it has been bounced around the organizational chart repeatedly in a series of department overhauls, resulting in a lack of decision-making authority.
Since early 2017, the department’s IT personnel have been elevated from an office with a staff director to a division with a sworn chief, consolidated under a subdivision of the homeland security and training office, and then transferred to its own office inside the homeland security division. The upshot, the report reads, is an IT staff that responds to requests on an ad-hoc basis rather than established departmentwide standards.
“BPD does not have a central authority that can advocate for sound IT decision making throughout the department,” the document states. “As a result, BPD has had a habit of reacting to opportunities that unit commanders perceive to help individual units rather than examining opportunities from a department or citywide perspective.”
And without that citywide authority, Baltimore’s police commanders all have their own ways of keeping track of their data, the study continues. Over the course of the assessment, the National Police Foundation’s team found it “notably challenging” to obtain information using the department’s processes.
“For example, each patrol district commander prepares statistics differently for Comstat” — the city’s crime data platform — “every week, pulling information from varying databases, and compiling statistics that may differ from BPD’s database of record, InPursuit.”
At the same time, officers are using outdated equipment and software, and upgrades for the oldest system do not appear imminent. The department still uses 45 Motorola dispatch radios manufactured in 1999, and those devices will no longer be supported by the manufacturer at the end of the year, but there is no funding for replacements in Baltimore’s proposed budget for the 2019 fiscal year.
InPursuit, the main records management system, is — in addition to its tetchy compatibility with ComStat — also an “end of life” product no longer updated by its manufacturer, and not compliant with the National Incident-Based Reporting System, which is scheduled to become the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s sole platform for crime reporting in 2021.
Perhaps most glaring finding in a report that came out of an investigation into police misconduct is that technology training for officers in Baltimore was found to be “virtually non-existent.” With laptops used in the field, for instance, the IT office was found to have relied on a “train the trainer” method in which representatives from each police district would be trained, and relay that training to fellow officers in their districts. Results of that effort were lacking, the report says.
“[T]hat process translated into those representatives handing officers a printed-out PowerPoint presentation to review independently as training,” the report states.
The report leaves Baltimore Police with several recommendations, perhaps most significantly the creation of a single IT office with authority over the entire department’s tech needs, including a chief innovation officer and chief data officers who can advocate for technology investment and modernization to the top brass. The report also suggests more data sharing with Maryland state officials, third-party database audits and better training for officers.
Baltimore Police appear to be receptive to the report so far, with spokesman T.J. Smith telling the Baltimore Sun that the department’s IT is “out of date and inefficient.”
Smith referred StateScoop to the city’s Office of Information Technology on questions about how quickly any of the recommendations will be implemented. Baltimore CIO Frank Johnson could not be reached for comment.