By Mike Mitchell, Assistant Chief of Technology, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
Technology trends change rapidly in law enforcement, and conservation law enforcement officers (e.g. game wardens) have a unique subset of challenges. Often these officers are widely distributed across their jurisdictions, a warden might not see his or her supervisor for multiple days and he or she may not even have cell signal for days at a time.
While working conditions are moderately different for conservation law enforcement officers, their need for funding and maximizing their budget is similar to mainstream public service agencies. They, too, have high demands and expectations from the individuals they serve.
When it comes down to it, all law enforcement agencies must be more creative and smarter with how they apply the funds in their operating budget. Knowing when, how and where to stretch the dollar is more important than ever.
Technology purchasing decisions
It is helpful to place technology purchasing decisions in the context of Diffusion of Innovations. Everett Rogers, a professor of communication studies, popularized the theory in his book Diffusion of Innovations. Essentially, the theory seeks to explain how, why and at what rate new ideas and technology spread. Rogers allows decision-makers to consider whether they are innovators, early adopters, majority and laggards.
In technology decision-making, the critical moment is around the 15-18 percent adoption rate. That’s where decision-makers ought to select and take advantage of what will become the majority or abandon and avoid the tool.
Let me give you a real-world example that most of us can remember. Do you recall when the VHS tape competed against the Sony Betamax tape format in the 1970s? The VHS format won and Betamax lost. Managers need to heed that comparison and stay out of the risky area (like the Betamax format), while achieving the progress of available tools (like the VHS tape).
Technologies worth considering
There are countless new technology products and innovations impacting conservation enforcement officers. By drawing from the best use-cases from seven states, here are 10 solutions worth considering.
Mobile apps are performing simple tasks well for officers in the field. Some require connectivity, while other apps store information within the mobile device.
In Texas, for example, game wardens can use iPhones to check driver’s license, license plates, boat registrations, missing persons, warrants, hunting licenses, fishing licenses, education certification, officer locations and other pertinent and useful information.
Some apps are internally developed while others are hosted by a third-party. The cost to develop an app is usually around $20,000 to $40,000. And some third-party apps cost annually between $100-280 per individual.
BWCs are huge in the public eye due to recent well-known cases such as the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. BWCs bring the advantage of showing one viewpoint, but also have the liabilities of storage, retention, redaction, privacy, policy, training and auditing.
As U.S. law enforcement agencies are collectively purchasing these by the thousands, dozens of vendors are offering BWCs and storage services. South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, for example, just got BWCs in April 2017. It is in early deployment to about 86 conservation officers.
Lack of bandwidth is often a concern among officers as the video must be uploaded. Some agencies are finding unintended consequences coming from these tools. Decision-makers are urged to utilize resources such as the U.S. Department of Justice toolkits and do their due diligence before procurement.
Costs of BWCs vary by features, storage and vendor. Typically, BWCs and training cost around $400-800 per user. And data storage generally ranges from $600 to $1,000 per user annually.
Radiological and nuclear detection
In Texas, there are four million surface acres of coastal waters and 16 deep water ports, and the game wardens deploy detection capabilities daily. This elevates maritime domain awareness, information sharing, intelligence, prevention and protection. Grants have been used to secure 106 pieces of technologically advanced radiological and nuclear detection equipment.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office and the U.S. Coast Guard are constantly seeking partners to enhance the radiological and nuclear detection efforts in the maritime domain. The goal is to have a mesh network reporting triggers to federal partners.
Issuing e-citations saves time, reduces steps and leads to increased officer safety. General concerns about the solution include connectivity, printing, screen size and accuracy. Some jurisdictions may also need to change processes or interfaces.
In conservation law enforcement, the concern is increased by issues such as printing citations on a jon boat in the heat near saltwater during ten hours of patrol. Florida Fish and Wildlife has resolved this concern particularly well by having its portable printers in waterproof plastic cases with batteries. Other printing options are developing.
Side scan sonar
Any tool bringing rapid closure to the distress of a drowning is appreciated. Water is difficult to work in and dive teams are expensive. Fortunately, today there is a strong track record for the ability to locate persons or evidence underwater, using side scan sonar and towed arrays. Recoveries are occurring over minutes instead of days.
Side scan sonar units cost around $1,300 to $1,800 each and can even be made portable. Towed array sonars cost about $50,000 with training and rigging.
Social media is proving to be a significant, low-cost, high-yield tool in conservation enforcement. From outreach to obtaining tips, it is proving to be invaluable.
In a 2016 post about poaching, a suspect called one Texas agency’s dispatch center within two hours, asking, “Why is my picture on Facebook?” There are several resources out there for agencies to learn how to get started like the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Center for Social Media.
Conservation related citations, licenses and education certificates are not often stored in any shared databases. Although some data is shared through the Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact Act, there are still several states and jurisdictions that do not participate.
Shared databases could greatly improve cross-border information sharing. Regulatory, privacy and legal issues remain. Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources and Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game are providing some information to the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System.
Since conservation officers work in disparate areas at disparate times, having an online collaboration tool is invaluable. There are CJIS-secure platforms available that offer discussion boards, wiki pages and specific access for who can see what online. These collaboration tools often include virtual screen sharing using any type device (mobile or PC) and automatically adjusts to available bandwidth.
The cost varies number of licenses and other bundled features. One state conservation agency currently pays about $100 per person per year.
Public safety broadband
First responders having voice and data communications capability in times of crisis is crucial. Thus, the federal government is pursuing FirstNet, a nationwide system that will provide broadband service for first responders. States must opt into the system or come up with a similar one.
It is an exciting, integrated approach that should deliver specialized features that are better for public safety.
Some concerns among conservation law enforcement include rural coverage capabilities, pricing and the potential need for new equipment.
The days of manual reports are over. New technologies bring better ways to gather, store and share information. From entering evidence to writing case reports, from entering daily vehicle information to monthly summaries, reporting can be done securely online.
For example, at Oklahoma’s Department of Wildlife Conservation, game wardens report daily patrol vehicle mileage via a mobile app. They can then check or print their work via a desktop computer. Routing and approvals are done electronically.
Many states also use records management systems for case and/or evidence management. Vendors host these in the cloud or they may be developed in house. An example of cloud-based annual fees from one vendor is $558 per individual.
Looking toward the future
We know from Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation theory that exposure to new trends is key. Public safety managers need to consider what trends are developing around them and what tools might help their officers.
In the case of conservation enforcement, there is a unique set of needs. But perhaps some of the trends could be valuable for any public safety manager to examine.
About the Author
Mike Mitchell has 14 years of service in public safety and serves as the Assistant Chief of Technology for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Mike has a Master’s Degree of Management in Hospitality from Cornell University, and a Bachelor’s of Science in Geography from Texas A&M University. He is a certified Texas Peace Officer and a member of the IPSA.