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Technology can lead the way in better policing

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“The scientific and technical revolution that has so radically changed most of American society during the past few decades has had surprisingly little impact upon the criminal justice system.”

It is hardly surprising that these words were used to describe the use of data and technology in the American criminal justice system. What is surprising is that those words — written as part of a Presidential report on crime in 1967 — ring equally true today when it is even more critical that we improve public safety while restoring trust between police officers and the residents they serve.

The slow speed of innovation in American policing over the past 50 years stands in stark contrast to the vast technological advances we have seen across many industries.

{mosads}We have seen tremendous progress in areas such as driving directions and traffic forecasts so that today we have a real-time understanding of how to travel and what to expect on different routes when we drive.  Yet despite these kinds of advances in many industries, police departments today largely operate the exact same way that we have for the last two decades.


There is nothing more important than a police officer’s experience and intuition, but there is also no doubt that we could give officers far better tools to fight crime and improve the lives of the people they serve.

We saw this first-hand while leading three departments over the last two decades — Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and Camden, New Jersey.

We embraced emerging performance management systems like CompStat and strategies like “hotspot deployment,” and saw terrific results.

But none of these programs gave us the kind of real-time, actionable crime-fighting information that police officers need, and that the best of today’s science and technology can deliver. If we want to build and run 21st century police departments, we need to embrace the best of the 21st century.

Public safety departments need new types of technologies to deploy their officers in a smarter way while also building trust within the community. We believe that these values should be the foundation on which all public safety technologies are built.

Use really good technology.

Advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning have helped us build neural networks that are specific to the unique nature of crimes, and using new techniques like downsampling results in far higher accuracy than other systems in use today.

Put another way: the technology of today allows us to provide real-time, precise information to police officers at the moment they need it.

We don’t need to use three year averages of crime to identify big areas of a city that could be crime hot spots anymore.  Now we can use tools that allow us to target hot spots within three blocks and one hour.  This lets us be proactive in how we fight crime, instead of waiting around for the next crime to occur.

Listen to the community.

Across America, only a handful of police departments incorporate information about community concerns into the day-to-day work of policing the streets.

Most police chiefs can tell you what beat is experiencing an uptick in violence, but very few can tell you what neighborhood is experiencing an uptick in community concerns. By using 311 and other data that captures community input, we have built a tool that can identify patterns and hotspots of community concern.

We can see what issues concern residents in specific neighborhoods — often issues like graffiti, broken streetlights, and abandoned buildings — and use that information to provide insight to police chiefs, commanders and beat officers.

The technology provides a systematic way to bring the voice of the community into the world of law enforcement. It is a critical bridge between the police and the communities we serve.

Show your math.

It is possible to use data and technology in a way that improves transparency, openness, and community trust. It’s not the model today; most police data and technology is run in a black box that the public cannot see or understand.

We believe that all of us who want to use technology and data to fight crime and improve police-community relations should have to show our math. So we do, and every company who works in this space should do the same.

We post everything there is to know about our tool; what’s in it and also what steps we have taken to minimize data bias. This must become the norm if smart technology is ever going to find a lasting role in improving public safety.

By embracing these three principles, we believe that technology can not only prevent and solve crimes, but it can also aid in rebuilding community trust in the police.

Now more than ever, it is critical that we bring together the best in technology and science to create a new generation of tools that are accurate, transparent and community-informed.

Charles H. Ramsey served as Police Commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department from 2008-2016. Commissioner Ramsey has over forty-seven years of knowledge, experience and service in advancing the law enforcement profession in three different major city police departments, Chicago, Washington, DC and Philadelphia.

Anne Milgram is a Professor of Practice, and Distinguished Scholar in Residence at New York University. Prior to joining NYU, Milgram served as New Jersey’s Attorney General.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Compstat D.C. Hotspot Philadelphia policing Technology Washington

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