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How the cloud helps police agencies manage data costs

Efficiencies from cloud computing free officers to do more substantive police work


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By Laura Neitzel, PoliceOne BrandFocus Staff

“The cloud” is a term that is commonly used in law enforcement. Still, its meaning can seem as nebulous and shape-shifting as the atmospheric phenomenon, itself. Is the “cloud” the same as “cloud computing” or “cloud storage” or “cloud architecture”? If the term seems broad, that’s because it is.

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If you’ve ever backed up your photos and videos on your personal phone, uploaded family photos to a sharing site, checked your bank balance from your mobile device, or used a navigational app to find the quickest route to your destination, you were using the cloud.

But when it comes to using the cloud in professional settings like law enforcement, cops are more skeptical. They want to know: Will it help me do my job better, keep me safer, and save me time and money? Is it reliable, secure, and CJIS-compliant?

How the cloud assists with law enforcement tasks

Many applications that officers are familiar with and use are turning to the cloud to innovate on behalf of the law enforcement community. Whether through computer-aided dispatch, records management, or data analytics, the cloud in law enforcement enables an officer’s ability to do tasks like:

  • Upload, store, and secure massive quantities of data directly from mobile devices

  • Access records from multiple databases at once;

  • Deploy and track emergency response units;

  • Enhance situational awareness;

  • Dictate and submit incident reports from the field;

  • Automate and accelerate transcription and data collection services

These capabilities, supported on CJIS-secure solutions, are convincing many law enforcement agencies to migrate data and software to the cloud for part, if not all, of their computing needs. But when it comes to the daunting task of moving data storage and software from on-premises equipment to a new model in the digital ether, some agencies are reluctant to make the switch.

To understand the value of cloud computing for police investigations, let’s compare the traditional way police departments have managed data, versus how it works in the cloud.

The traditional model

Traditionally, police data has lived in siloes. To investigate a suspect, a law enforcement officer might use one tool to check arrest records, another to locate the suspect’s whereabouts, and yet another to determine known associates. This approach can require switching between several disconnected databases at a desk-bound computer. While this can result in success, it is costly and time-consuming.

Supporting this workflow requires significant capital expenditure on information technology – computers, servers, and software. With an on-site data center comes the added cost of infrastructure, security, and provisioning, as well as continued support for responses to malware, ensuring adequate computing power and storage to keep information flowing and maintaining compliance with CJIS standards.

The cloud model

With a cloud model, instead of investing in costly infrastructure, you rent computing power, data storage and applications on a pay-as-you-go, use-what-you-need basis. The cloud provider, which is typically better resourced and positioned to deal with security threats and the specialized requirements of CJIS security policies, is responsible for security updates and compliance.

Appriss Safety is one company using AWS to host solutions that help law enforcement officers fight crime using real-time data. Brian Matthews, Senior Vice President of Data Products, describes how the traditional workflow is evolving and how the cloud accelerates this process.

“With the cloud, law enforcement organizations can break down those multiple data silos and use solutions to automate and expedite data entry and transcription, freeing officers to focus on their missions.” Matthews said. “Instead of searching for needles in a proverbial haystack, officers can start their day with the intelligence that’s been provided by these systems, along with the benefits that are driven from a single, cloud-based architecture.”

Cloud computing, coupled with applications and solutions that automate data processing, can alleviate some of the time-consuming and tedious manual tasks. By narrowing the data set to just tens of potential suspects instead of thousands, investigators can spend their time getting out into the field where true police work happens.

Addressing Cost Constraints

Even with the benefits of the cloud, nearly half of respondents to a recent PoliceOne/Amazon Web Services survey reported their agency continued to use on-premises data storage. When asked why their agencies were not using the cloud, nearly half indicated that cost was the dominant factor, followed by the perception that their current system was working fine.

Law enforcement agencies are often working with a fixed budget for IT and need to get as much mileage out of their IT infrastructure as possible. Unfortunately, this approach can lead some agencies to keep legacy systems patched together, potentially denying officers access to tools that can save time, money and possibly lives.

So what is the true cost of cloud?

The misconception about the high cost of cloud computing in law enforcement is largely dispelled when you look at the total cost of ownership and consider factors such as increased efficiency.

“If you look at it holistically, by moving to a cloud environment to leverage automation, we can make law enforcement ‘feet on the street’ and investigators significantly more productive,” said Matthews.

Here are three key considerations when weighing the investment in hardware and IT infrastructure against the cost of a cloud solution:

1.   The cost of the cloud is shrinking

Cloud computing offers a number of benefits that can be attained at a price point that is cost-effective relative to the traditional model. Moreover, providers like Amazon Web Services continually offer new options for making cloud-computing more affordable every year. According to new research from TSO Logic, “the prices for AWS keep getting lower, and…those declines are pretty durable. The more of your resources you move to the cloud, and the longer you keep them there, the more value you can expect to get for your money.”

2.  Pay only for what you use

When an agency makes a capital investment in infrastructure and fixed storage capacity, it can often involve guesswork about how the resources will be used and how much infrastructure capacity is needed. With cloud computing, you don’t have to make an upfront investment in capacity you might not use; you pay only when you consume computing resources, and based on how much you consume. If an agency needs more data storage and computing power, cloud computing allows you to scale up and down as required, with only a few minute’s notice.

3.   Security and updates

Law enforcement agencies have unique needs when it comes to data management. It requires safeguarding enormous quantities of sensitive data like police videos, electronic warrants and other criminal justice data in a CJIS-secure environment, plus constant monitoring to thwart security threats. Using a cloud provider with a CJIS-secure environment to manage, store and secure data provides access not just to the storage itself, but also to security experts who can take some of that burden off your IT staff.

“You’re leveraging your cloud provider as, really, an extension of your organization, assuming they are CJIS-compliant – which most leading providers are today. They have very sophisticated infrastructure in place and are constantly looking for malware and security vulnerabilities,” Matthews said. “They’re really absorbing that responsibility on behalf of your organization, allowing law enforcement to focus less on IT and more on actual investigation and law enforcement.”

As technology companies create cloud-enabled apps that help law enforcement agencies more efficiently conduct data-intensive tasks, including tracking and deploying emergency response units and sharing criminal justice data across agencies, migration to the cloud seems inevitable.

Industries around the world are increasingly using cloud computing to manage costs, simplify processes and create efficiencies. The law enforcement community should follow in these footsteps. While agencies are budget-focused, cloud computing can be within reach even for smaller agencies. Just as a start-up uses the cloud to avoid costly upfront infrastructure expenses, the price flexibility, paired with maximizing the time and value of human capital and empowering them to focus on true police work will drive the technology contributing to the future of policing.

To see how cloud computing can work within your agency’s IT budget, explore Amazon Web Services’ total cost of ownership calculator.

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