Law Enforcement Crowdsourcing: Letting the Outside In

We know the nature of police work well.  In the time needed to ask how long it will take for a police supervisor to make a decision, the order has likely already been given.  Our paramilitary style dictates we maintain the ability to decide convincingly and without hesitation.  In the field, when seconds often count, this approach is essential. Supervisors who take too long to make a decision are seen as indecisive or “shaky.”  Deliberate and timely decision-making by supervisors and commanders in critical circumstances is not only important, it may be lifesaving.

Behind the front lines however, we are evolving to understand that we can take the time to seek input from others in administrative decision-making.  We are slowly, and often begrudgingly, shedding the because-I-said-so attitude.  This old-school, hardline, and narrowly focused approach that was once the cornerstone of police culture is finally waning.  Enter the age of law enforcement crowdsourcing.

The term ‘crowdsourcing’ is younger than the concept itself.  The term originated in the private sector, where tasks were farmed out to any number of people, often from outside a company, to be tackled in smaller bits.  Recently, the definition has loosened to include presenting ideas to larger groups for input, typically in an open-call format.

In law enforcement, crowdsourcing is used to describe employing the help of the public to solve a problem.  The term is gaining popularity, as it helps define our increasing use of public input, paired with technology and social media, to aid in solving a crime.  The concept of reaching out to the public to achieve a goal is not new to policing.  However, crowdsourcing is growing every day with heightened public interest in social media and the availability of computer platforms designed for the purpose.  Public involvement in crime fighting remains strong – after all, who doesn’t want to be a sleuth?

The private sector is full of examples of external crowdsourcing.  Take Starbucks.  Five years ago the company launched a crowdsourcing platform called My Starbucks Idea.  The initiative sought customer input on all aspects of the company – from operations to product offerings.

Since inception, 766 of the 130,000 suggestions have been carried out.  While this number may seem like a poor return, it is not.  First, the investment is minimal – it doesn’t take much to ask for ideas.  Second, every single one of the 766 adopted suggestions were vetted against the public, or the “crowd,”  making them more valuable than internally generated ideas that had little input from end users.   Among the many positive results were increased employee engagement and customer loyalty.  For law enforcement, this translates to improved officer participation, and a stronger relationship between the police and the community.

These public, or external, crowdsourcing techniques are becoming better established, and will undoubtedly continue to be key ingredients to effective policing for the foreseeable future.  Internal law enforcement crowdsourcing, on the other hand, may just be starting to garner wider acceptance.

Internal crowdsourcing involves using members from within a profession or agency to tackle tasks and test ideas collectively.  More traditional employee suggestion programs and focus groups are evolving to include wider audiences, and more open forms of feedback and communication.  Social enterprise networks, or social intranets, are often used in this effort.

While these agency-specific platforms may work for police agencies with a large number of employees, they do not work as well for smaller agencies.  All police departments, large and small, can benefit from tapping into the insight of members of other agencies. Therefore, broader crowdsourcing platforms, including popular social media sites, may be better suited to collaboration across police agencies, allowing even the smallest agencies to benefit.  Communication beyond small workgroups and other familiar environments is a key component to making the most of internal police crowdsourcing.

As part of a broader collaborative approach, internal crowdsourcing is well suited for law enforcement today.  Asking for input is no longer seen as a sign of weakness.  The future of law enforcement will include unprecedented communication and input from a variety of sources – other agencies, private consultants, citizens, and fellow employees who may not be directly involved in decision-making are just some of the potential contributors.

While over the past few decades we have made amazing advances in intelligence gathering and sharing, police technology, and crime analysis approaches, the future will likely include an array of sources that have direct input into our strategies.  Reasoning that once included “because I’m the boss” or “because we’re the police,” has begun to give way to embracing input.  Questions are now more likely to include “how do other departments approach this?” and “what do you think about this idea?

As our policing continues to include more input from others, from within law enforcement as well as from the public, one of the greatest challenges will be how to pare down, or best use the input we receive.  Law enforcement’s future must include tapping our resources to the fullest extent for the best quality results, but not without an efficient process.  So, as we come together to refine our approaches to law enforcement, let us also work collaboratively on  new ways to streamline our shared insight to make the most of this crowd-based resource. Only then will we be able to extract the most out of our information sharing.