Learning from the Police

Fourteen weeks ago, we began the semester wide-eyed and nervous. As a group of five Harvard students in a field class about technology and innovation, we were thrilled to work with the Boston Police Department (BPD) Gang Unit.  However, since our team had very little experience in criminal justice or gang violence, we wondered what we would be able to contribute.

We didn’t have much time to worry as we were soon knee-deep in the action. We made multiple trips to the Gang Unit headquarters in Dorchester, interviewing detectives and patrolmen to better understand their challenges and day-to-day tasks. We went to the BRIC Data Center (where the police share intelligence) and visited with senior advisers in the Mayor’s Office to understand how the city was thinking about crime and violence prevention. Most importantly, we spent over nine hours in ride-alongs with officers through the Boston neighborhoods with the heaviest gang presence.

 Insights and Recommendations

These experiences gave us a view of the many challenges facing the Gang Unit. For example, we saw how difficult it was for the officers to remember, save, locate, and sort through the invaluable intelligence reports they received daily. We also observed officers frustrated with the multiple databases they access during a shift. Finally, we learned that there is a disconnect with what was happens at the policy level at the Mayor’s Office and the tactical on-the-ground work, and that police officers are not always fully informed of community programs and their participants. Our recommendations fall into two categories: enforcement and prevention.

Enforcement: IT & Data Systems

Our enforcement recommendations center on intelligence gathering and the data systems used in this process. Across all technology systems we recommend that BPD consider establishing an online directory of available tools and help guides for common tasks, to help officers navigate the numerous tools they have at their disposal, not all of which are intuitive, or even well known.

Often, we observed the same task being completed in radically different ways by two officers, simply because the more efficient way to navigate the IT systems was not broadly known. In addition, we think it’s important to require user testing and a commitment to iterate in all technology (starting at the procurement stage).

Too often in the past, IT systems were adopted because they met compliance needs (e.g. using FBI crime reporting codes) even if they didn’t meet officer needs. In fact, we heard horror stories about essential IT systems that were so hard to use, officers simply stopped using them as often. We hope that user testing will reduce the need for help guides and other crutches by making sure that police IT systems work for officers from the get-go.

In addition to these recommendations about IT systems, we also developed a specific prototype for one common task: searching for past intelligence reports. Our prototype, based on hours of tests with gang unit officers, is available online here. Should the BPD decide to further develop it, we recommend that they prioritize a mobile application, and consider building the BRIC intelligence reports for searchability perhaps in a database style format, rather than the current PDF format. 

Prevention: Operation Exit

From a prevention perspective, we looked deeper into Operation Exit, the Mayor’s flagship reintegration and job training program for former gang members. We found that despite the Mayor’s emphasis on the program, there were many officers who did not know what it was. Among those officers who had heard about it, there was disagreement about how deeply they should engage with it. Given these disagreements and misconceptions, we recommend that BPD:

·         Increase awareness of Operation Exit among Gang Unit members by featuring success stories in BRIC reports and having community liaisons visit the station more frequently;

·         Give police officers a stake in Operation Exit by providing a forum for officer feedback on nominations for Operation Exit and creating designated liaisons between the Gang Unit and Operation Exit; and

·         Develop a clear point of view about how Operation Exit should factor into the outcome of discretionary stops.

Our work over the past semester has given us an even greater appreciation for all that policemen do to keep our communities safe, and it is our hope that our work will help make the job of Gang Unit officers easier and safer. We are grateful to the Boston Police Department for partnering with us on this project and being patient, even as we made many requests of their time and asked endless questions. Thank you! 

 Looking Ahead

As we embark on new adventures, we are proud to say that we will take with us many learnings from the course. For those of us going into city government, the application will be seamless—questioning traditional assumptions about government services, focusing first and foremost on the user experience, and iterating and prototyping ideas before rolling out solutions. Regardless of our future career plans, we have all appreciated the diversity of our team, and what can be accomplished in an environment in which no idea is too crazy to explore.

-Berkeley Brown, Daniel Goldberg, Francesca Ioffreda, Nami Mody, Ihsaan Patel