The Dallas Divide: A Problem Technology and FirstNet Can’t Fix

I have long been an advocate for using technology to improve government and governing, and in particular for advancing law enforcement.   I’ve been a long-time supporter of building a nationwide public safety wireless broadband network – a network for priority use by first responders for their cell phones, body-worn video, tablet computers and sensors. And we are seeing that network come to fruition in FirstNet.

But there are some problems technology and FirstNet can’t fix.   Specifically, technology can’t repair the divide between law enforcement and the black community, underscored by the events in Dallas, Baton Rouge and Minnesota.


In fact, technology probably exacerbates those divisions, as smart phone video of officer-involved shootings and use of force goes viral on social media, which itself is another feature of modern society made possible by technologies such as the Internet and the Web.

As an “old white guy” I certainly have no special expertise on police-community relations and how to repair or improve them.   But I can cite some innovations which many communities could adopt:

  • Community-police academies. The Seattle Police Department and many other major urban departments have such training, which helps educate non-law-enforcement people as to how their police and sheriff’s departments operate.   Of course people have to actually sign up for these courses, and then attend them.   And often they are operated at night, at times when people may be busy with family or work.
  • Ride-alongs. Most departments have a ride-along program, where a citizen can ride along with a police officer and see law enforcement “in action”.   Trust me – too often it is fairly boring, but can be punctuated with moments of terror.
  • Police situation simulators. Karen Johnson of the Black Alliance of Thurston County and Austin Jenkins of National Public Radio’s KUOW (University of Washington) put themselves into such a simulator recently.   They faced real-life situations similar to those cops find themselves handling, with some surprising results.
  • Better police training. Ron Sims was the longest-serving Executive (Mayor) of King County (Seattle). He was the Deputy Director of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.  He lives in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Seattle, Mount Baker.  Yet he’s been pulled over, while driving, by cops 8 times.   He’s 68.  He’s African American.  Apparently he’s “driving while black”. How many of you reading this blog posts have been pulled over 8 times?
  • dallas-police-protecting

    A Dallas Police Officer protects Protesters

    Guardian, not warrior, mentality. Sue Rahr, former King County Sheriff and now director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Center, advocates for this change in culture and attitudes by police agencies and officers.  Certainly the behavior of Dallas Police Officers during the recent sniper attack, putting themselves in harm’s way to protect the Black Lives matter protesters, is the highest exemplar of this change in attitude.

  • Better police training. Many departments, including Seattle Police, are training hard with de-escalation training and crisis intervention programs.   Crisis intervention is phenomenal, as it seeks to have police officers support the mentally ill, homeless and others in crisis by getting them the services they need rather than taking them to jail or a mental health ward.  Seattle Police, in fact, are working with Code for America to develop a new app to make crisis intervention data available to police officers on smart phones and tablet computers.
  • Open up the data. The Obama Administration launched a police data initiative, which 53 cities covering 41 million people have joined.   The open data portal is powered by Socrata, a Seattle technology firm.   Amazingly, the Dallas Police Department has been one of the most forthright in opening up its data, publishing datasets on use of force and officer involved shootings, something most other departments have failed to do.  Code for America publishes a report card on which police departments have released which datasets.   The Police Foundation has pushed departments to go beyond the White House initiative in being transparent in their actions and operations.
  • President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.   This Commission, headed by Charles Ramsey, former Chief of Police in Washington, D.C. and then Philadelphia, made a number of recommendations to improve police-community relations.  I was honored to present some recommendations to the task force which were adopted in its final report.

The Seattle Seahawks Superbowl Victory Parade, 2014, which cell networks where jammed – one reason we need FirstNet

Technology and FirstNet have significant roles to play as well.  Many of the innovations above rely upon technology such as open data platforms, apps, and training simulations.   Body-worn video, in-car video and similar technologies to record how police operate will build community trust.   FirstNet is extraordinarily important to providing real-time two-way wireless communications for not only police and other first responders, but anyone who responds to public safety issues – transportation, public works, utilities, non-profits like the Red Cross and even teachers who are often “first responders” to incidents in their schools.

All of these innovations are cool and important.  But, ultimately, it is not technology which will bring law enforcement and the black community back into balance.  It is cops getting out of their cars and talking to people in cafes and barber shops and on the streets.    It is one community meeting after another where police officers and commanders show up to hear the real problems facing real people and modify their tactics to help.

We cannot rely on police departments and sheriff’s department for all of our public safety needs.  Keeping the community safe from those who prey upon us is, ultimately, everyone’s responsibility.

Police officers are also citizens, and need to think like citizens, not as warriors.   But also, perhaps every member of our communities needs to become a police officer, or at least put themselves in the shoes of cops.


Filed under Code for America, community technology, Law Enforcement, open data, Seattle Police

8 responses to “The Dallas Divide: A Problem Technology and FirstNet Can’t Fix

  1. I think agencies do themselves a huge disservice when they have video of an OIS that they hold onto. Meanwhile the cell phone video, typically turned on late, often misleads. A great example of this is the Facebook live video started right after an OIS where woman says they were stopped for a broken tail light. Radio communications revealed they were stopped because officer thought they could be robbery suspects. Obviously an officer stopping robbery suspects is going to be on higher alert. But most people only saw the Facebook live video.

    SPD has really lead the way on rapid video release. I was worried that videos of controversial shootings would not get released quickly. But the Taylor shooting and this last shooting that OPA is investigating over lack of Taser use have me less worried about that.

    • Schrier

      Good comment, Tim. Unfortunately some states (North Carolina, Texas) prohibit cities and counties from releasing such video. Luckily Washington is not one of them.

  2. “Guardians”? That’s rather paternalistic and leaves police positioned on a pedestal looking down at those who employ them. We’re not a flock of sheep who need protection from wolves. How about we have our peace officers think of themselves as peacekeepers and as public servants?

    I applied for the Citizen’s Police Academy a few years ago–as someone who was very involved in my community: previous chair of Capitol Hill Neighborhood Plan Stewardship Council, founding board member of Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, and then-member of the chamber’s Clean and Safe Committee–but was denied entry (“you are a less competitive applicant for the SPD Community Police Academy and therefore will not be accepted.”)

    And if you look within your organization, you’ll find the attitude among decision-makers that 1) proactively publishing public records results in more requests for more records and 2) those should, thus, not be published.

  3. Law enforcement is a process, not a group of people. When you wrote, “law enforcement and the black community,” possibly you meant to refer to police, who are currently are primary enforcers of law in this country. I hope we keep it that way and don’t slip into thinking of law enforcement as something that is done by private security contractors or military staff (sometimes collectively known as “security forces”) as in other jurisdictions.

    Please, can we refer to our police either as police or (as defined in state law) as peace officers? Enforcing the law is only one of their duties, and it should not be our sole focus.

    • Schrier

      Sorry I missed this comment. I use the term “law enforcement” to include state troopers and sheriff’s deputies as well as city police. The posse comitatus act prevents the military from enforcing laws on the domestic soil of the United States. Similarly, I do not know of any private security contractors who are authorized to enforce city, county or state laws unless they are deputized by the county sheriff, in which case they are sheriff’s deputies. I’ll continue to use the term law enforcement.

  4. Randy Kaminsky

    Bill, One topic that hasn’t been discussed is that some people are not suited to become police officers. Sure they pass background checks, psychological evaluations, physical agility, and other qualifiers, but not every department looks at how this officer will perform in a situation he or she will encounter only a handful of times in their entire career.
    It is common place for a 911 telecommunicator to undergo pre-employment screening using computer based products such as Criticall, a computer based program to evaluate how they’ll perform in the most stressful of situations. It’s not a perfect indicator of how one will function under extreme stress down the road, but it does help ‘weed out’ those who may loose control in chaotic situation.

    I recently viewed some publications that actually coach a individual undergoing a psychological evaluation and how to ‘properly’ answer questions being asked of them. That may lead one to believe that this may not be a true indicator of how ‘together’ these candidates are.

    Maybe we need to look at how much training is focused on confrontations that will test the decision making capabilities of the most seasoned police veterans, along with those of the newly hired candidates in time of stressful encounters that many of us hope we never have to face. Thank God we have such people that willingly put themselves ‘In harms way’ for our safety.

    I have no perfect answer since like you, I’m an old public safety radio guy.

    • Schrier

      I 100% agree. When I was a cop there were folks on my department who wanted the authority that came with wearing a badge and carrying a gun. Perhaps some of those folks have caused our recent problems. I didn’t realize that people coached potential recruits to get through the psych evaluation. That underscores your points about training and making sure the Field Training Officers help weed out recruits who should not be police officers.

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