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PoliceOne Roundtable: Are mobile apps safe for duty use?

Myriad smartphone programs help cops with everything from on-the-fly translation of Miranda warnings to updates on the FBI’s Most Wanted

During the past half-decade, police use of smartphone applications has exploded. 

There are apps to replace your ballistics tables, your Swiss Army knife, and your Black’s Law Dictionary. Yes, you can even read PoliceOne on our apps for Android and iPhone.

This month we’re investigating mobile applications designed specifically for — and in some cases, conceived by — law enforcement officers. Tim Dees has put together a pair of roundup articles on apps developed for the two major operating systems, and I’ve examined how two law enforcement agencies are already using a brand new mobile application 

As part of this special focus, I connected with four mobile application technology vendors to get a sense of what they think about three specific issues associated with police mobile applications. Check out their responses — edited slightly for brevity — and add your own thoughts in the comments area below. 

Meet the Experts

Derek Litchfield is co-owner of PoliceMobileApps.com. Derek — who has been a police officer for twenty years and became a computer forensic examiner in 2006 — saw the need for quality police mobile apps for police officers and the citizens they serve.

Jason Winslow is Business Development Manager for Intrepid Networks. Winslow has more than 12 years of tactical and operational experience, including planning, coordinating and executing combat operations, civil relief missions and foreign military training combined with experience establishing value driven, strategic partnerships. He continues to serve as a light infantry squad leader and often works side by side with first responders.

Dale Tompkins is president of Code 3, Inc. Code 3 designs and manufactures emergency vehicle lighting, sirens and accessories. Dale has over 20 years of experience producing cutting edge products that energize each industry he has participated in.

Jason Coillot is founder of Ten 8 Industries. Coillot an active police officer and. Jason saw a need for a quick vehicle reference tool while he was a helicopter observer. Since there was no such tool available, he created the Vehicle Identification System (V.I.S.). Jason is currently a gang investigator at his Southern California agency.

Will Apple iOS or Google Android (there’s also Windows Mobile) end up being the “clear leader,” or will the operating system landscape remain bifurcated?

Derek Litchfield: Among smartphone users, Android and Apple are clearly the top choices among the available operating systems. In the area of police mobile apps, there is no clear preference between those two, as police apps are still fairly new. In some cases, the agency allows officers to download the apps to their personal cell phones. Other agencies require the phones to be department-issued, in which case those agencies would most likely lean toward using Apple phones, due to tighter security controls in mobile apps.

But there is always that small percentage of people using other smartphone devices such as BlackBerry and Windows Mobile. At PoliceMobileApps.com, we publish our mobile apps not only to Android and Apple, but in HTML5 format, so our police apps can be used on those other devices as well.

Jason Winslow: In our experience, Apple and Android will continue to be the major operating systems for mobile devices in law enforcement. We have yet to see any agency using Windows Mobile — a small handful are still using Blackberry. Our recent survey of 120 agencies showed about 17.1 percent using Apple, roughly 15.3 percent using Android, and almost 14 percent using a mixture of the two. Some 40 percent are either not issuing smartphones or issuing them only to command staff. The remainder support a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy. Some agencies issue only flip phones, and a small minority issue no phones at all or pay a stipend to officers who use their personal phones.

Dale Tompkins: While our own research has shown an installed-base lead for Android-based devices in LE, it is likely that the continued bifurcation seen in the consumer market will be equally reflected in the LE community. As long as there is price and feature competition, departments and municipalities will select hardware (smartphones) according to the features or price points that are most important to them. That’s why we designed vLink to work with both these platforms, as well as with Windows and Blackberry devices.  Each of these four platforms offer design features important to their advocates. 

Jason Coillot: Based on my experience, iOS is the clear leader in LE applications so far. Android is definitely doing what it can to stay in the race. I think in the long run it will stay bifurcated. I do not believe Windows or Blackberry will ever have a market share in the LE mobile space. As a developer, if you only make iOS, you can still be very successful. My iOS apps have outsold Android five to one in the last three years.

How do you answer critics who say that officers whose noses are “pointed at an app” have diminished situational awareness and potential officer safety concerns?

Derek Litchfield: All officers trained in situational awareness, officer safety, and proper tactics should be aware of the dangers of subject contacts, regardless of whether they are using a cell phone, the laptop in their patrol car, or writing a ticket. The use of a police mobile app is no different. It is simply another tool on the officer’s belt. 

Officers should keep in mind that distance and barriers — such as a car door — between the officer and subject can help with any threat potential. On the other hand, a tremendous benefit to a police mobile app is gaining information as quickly as possible to help identify potential suspects. Those of us in law enforcement know that the longer the waiting during a contact situation, the higher the “fight or flight” risk by the suspect. If an officer can quickly identify a suspect via facial recognition, fingerprint scan, or jail photos (including tattoos), the less likely the suspect has time to think about formulating a plan of escape or attack.

Jason Winslow: This is an ironic question considering our mobile application is part of a situational awareness system. No matter the situation, common sense must prevail, and officers certainly wouldn’t be staring at a phone screen during a dynamic scenario. A majority of agencies have used cell phones for years and phones are simply advancing. A properly designed application should have an interface that provides rapid information exchange to minimize the amount of time taken to utilize and glean information. 

Regarding officer safety, our application — STING — enhances officer safety by providing a visual means of communicating their physical position. For example, should an officer become non-responsive over the radio and are outside of the patrol car, their position will be known for more efficient and rapid response. Officers are already using smartphones for documentation and information exchange. Our application simply integrates the process and maximizes efficient information flow, all of which enhance situational awareness.

Dale Tompkins: We definitely advocate the appropriate training of smartphone use in the job of LE.  Smartphones, since their introduction in 2008, have been, by and large, a force multiplier both in terms of officer safety and field effectiveness.

Jason Coillot: As a police officer I know most applications are for reference. If I wasn’t using an app, I would have my face in a book.  It is usually in an admin posture or I have a backing officer there if I am researching a charge in a penal code, vehicle code, etc.

Do officers using LE apps on their personal phones expose themselves to having those phones (and their contents) subpoenaed and/or discoverable?

Derek Litchfield: At PoliceMobileApps, we believe that the majority of law enforcement agencies would agree that any use of a mobile app by an officer while in an official capacity always has the potential of having that phone being subpoenaed. If an officer’s personal phone became discoverable after using the app, defense counsel could use personal information found on the phone (such as text messages, photos, Facebook comments) to discredit the officer, even if those texts or comments are seemingly harmless. We recommend that only department-issued phones be used to utilize police mobile apps by law enforcement officers engaged in their official duties.  

Jason Winslow: This depends on the mobile application and the architecture of the product. The novel architecture of our system STING, for example, provides means to have no data stored on the device, including notes or photos. Even temporary cache files are automatically deleted. All information is stored in a secure cloud server, so should a subpoena be issued, it would be issued for data on our servers and not an officer’s device. Any time data is stored on a device, that device could certainly become discoverable if it is found it was used in an investigation, operation or arrest. 

Dale Tompkins: There have already been situations where this has occurred. However, to protect the officer and the department, we advocate the proactive development of a Bring Your Own Device — BYOD — policy jointly developed by both the operational-side of law enforcement and the legal-side. Most new technology, smartphones included, precedes operational routines and legal protocol. An effective BYOD policy will put the officer at ease to use their personal mobile phones while on-duty. Examples of BYOD policies are available under ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ on our website.

Jason Coillot: I’m a firm believer that using an app does not make it your phone discoverable. It’s nonsense. Using my V.I.S. application, for example — there’s no reason ever to mention in a report, “I educated myself what the suspect vehicle was supposed to look like, then I saw it.” It should be, I was in the area of X and Y and I saw the suspect vehicle. If it was ten years ago and my app was a paper reference guide, it would never have been discoverable.

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