Accuracy, Confidentiality, Fast Turnaround, and Security
Law enforcement and prosecutorial transcription are different from other forms of transcription. Accuracy is absolutely essential. There is a big difference between “Yes, I did it,” and “No, I didn’t do it.”
Likewise, the maintenance of confidentiality is imperative. False accusations and leaks to the media can have devastating effects on people’s reputations. They can compromise the safety of victims and witnesses, mislead and bias public opinion, and undermine the legitimacy of a case.
Fast turnaround times are also crucial. The investigation and prosecution of criminal activity is a step-by-step process. Each step builds on the one preceding it. Skipping the transcription step is simply impossible.
Security must also be maintained. The integrity of the transcription process is of paramount importance. The chain of custody needs to be preserved.
Transcribing the Indescribable
The most seasoned transcriptionists have to listen to subject matter to which most people are not accustomed or with which they are uncomfortable. The content of many interviews is distasteful, particularly those involving murders, brutal crimes against children, and vicious sexual offenses. The nature of this work impedes the recruitment of qualified transcriptionists. It often takes a trained professional with law enforcement experience to transcribe the often indescribable.
Meeting the Demand for Transcription
As population and crime increase and court requirements become more stringent, the demand for transcription in many jurisdictions will skyrocket, if it has not done so already. Transcription can no longer be left to administrative staff members, who are often distracted with their many administrative responsibilities. Furthermore, transcription cannot wait; agencies do not have the luxury of “getting around to it” when their staff members have spare time on their hands.
Meanwhile, criminal justice organizations and defense counsel throughout the United States are looking for creative ways to manage the rising demand for transcripts without compromising accuracy, violating confidentiality, impeding turnaround time, or breaching security. They are also concerned about foreign-language translation, the cost of internal transcription versus outsourced transcription, and a variety of technical matters—not the least of which is the transition from traditional analog to digital audio technology.
This article features three law enforcement agencies that are using Internet technology to outsource their transcription needs: the Las Vegas, Nevada, Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD); the North Las Vegas, Nevada, Police Department; and the Monterey, California, Police Department.
Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department: Transcription Outsourcing Speeds Criminal Investigations
Department Profile: Prior to July 1, 1973, five police agencies served Clark County, Nevada. They were the Clark County Sheriff’s Department, the City of Las Vegas Police Department, the City of North Las Vegas Police Department, the City of HendersonPolice Department, and the Boulder City Police Department. The individual cities policed their respective incorporated areas, and the Sheriff’s Department provided police services to 8,000 square miles of unincorporated area in Clark County. At the time, the Las Vegas Police Department was the largest police agency in Nevada, with approximately 500 personnel (both commissioned and civilian). The department was responsible for police services in the city of Las Vegas, which consisted of approximately 53 square miles.
In 1986, the Las Vegas Police Department and the Clark County Sheriff’s Department merged. The newly consolidated department was administered by a sheriff.
Today, the LVMPD is the ninth largest law enforcement agency in the United States. It is composed of 2,635 sworn police officers, 747 commissioned corrections officers, and 4,177 support staff and serves a resident population of 1.4 million. Las Vegas also hosts 38 million visitors annually.
Crimes Against Youth and Family Bureau: The Crimes Against Youth and Family Bureau is responsible for investigating crimes involving violence and abuse against youth and family members.
The bureau consists of the Family Crimes Section, the Sexual Assault and Abuse Section, and the Special Victims Section. The bureau investigates accusations of sexual assault, sexual abuse, Internet crimes against children (such as child pornography), the abuse and neglect of children and the elderly, child exploitation, child fatalities, suicides, domestic violence, and missing persons. In addition, the bureau also administers the Sex Offender Apprehension Unit and the Victim Services Office. It also handles all juveniles suspected of committing a crime.
In 2006, the bureau responded to 135,000 calls for service. These included 37,000 cases of alleged domestic violence, 17,000 reports of runaways, and nearly 20,000 accusations of sexual assault.
Transcription Criteria: The decision to transcribe a particular interview is determined on a case-by-case basis and is dependent on several criteria. For example, is there sufficient probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed? Would a transcript have genuine evidentiary value? Is the case going to be submitted to the district attorney’s office? Is the case likely to go to court or will it be pleaded out?
Interviews with the victims of sexual assault cases are generally transcribed. These interviews require exceptional detail. Interviews with children can be very lengthy depending on the victim’s age and understanding of the alleged crime.
The bureau limits its outsourcing to its nonpriority transcription needs. When “rapid closure” of a case is deemed to be particularly important, such priority transcriptions are handled internally. These may relate to high-profile cases, officer misconduct, or child victimization. Spanish-language translation and transcription are also handled internally.
Choosing a Transcription Vendor: The Crimes Against Youth and Family Bureau determined that outsourcing was a costeffective alternative that would save money. Outsourcing would also negate the need to hire additional transcription support staff, thus saving salaries, fringe benefits, and overtime pay.
The decision to outsource the nonpriority transcription needs of the Crimes Against Youth and Family Bureau was made by the bureau’s chief administrator; her colleagues concurred. They were aware that transcription outsourcing was already being used successfully to transcribe patrol reports and general arrest reports. The sheriff set aside the funds needed to engage the services of an outside transcription vendor.
The initial bidding process was challenging. The subsequent need to draft and finalize a contract was time consuming. A transcription budget had to be compiled.
The chosen vendor had sufficient resources to address and eliminate the LVMPD’s burgeoning transcription backlog. It could ensure brief turnaround times and maintain security and confidentiality in the process. Furthermore, the vendor could provide transcripts in a form acceptable to the district attorney’s office. The vendor was familiar with the LVMPD’s culture and operational procedures as well as audio recording and other technologies available to the department.
Transcription Outsourcing Experience: The bureau had a backlog of more than 400 audio recordings that had to be transcribed. Cases could be dismissed or lost if the backlog of audio recordings was not transcribed. Transcription outsourcing enabled the bureau to clear this backlog and avoid future backlogs.
Many potential transcriptionists find the content of interviews conducted with alleged perpetrators, their victims, and witnesses difficult to transcribe due to the often objectionable content of these interviews. This made it difficult for the bureau to recruit qualified transcriptionists directly. Transcription outsourcing solved this problem when the vendor assumed responsibility for recruiting and screening transcriptionists.
The bureau was quite satisfied with the accuracy and speed with which transcripts were produced. Audio files were uploaded and finished transcripts were downloaded easily, and a minimal learning curve was required for bureau staff members.
As a result of outsourcing nonpriority manuscripts, the investigatory process is now more responsive to both victims and suspects. Cases are closed more quickly. There is no longer any risk of losing a case, because the bureau is unable to complete required transcripts accurately and on time. If it had not turned to an outside transcription vendor, the transcription backlog would have continued to grow, and numerous statutory requirements would have been violated.
The Future: The bureau’s transition from analog to digital audio technology is complete. Therefore, aside from the possible expansion of existing interview facilities or the addition of more facilities, no further funds need to be expended on digital audio technology at this time.
Given the inevitable turnover among support staff, there will always be a need to train new staff to upload audio files and download completed transcripts.
The bureau plans to increase the number of audio recordings it will outsource to its transcription vendor. Additionally, although no final decision has been made, the bureau might begin outsourcing its Spanish transcription needs, rather than continue to handle them internally.
Advice for Other Agencies: Critical technical components need to be put in place before engaging the services of an outside transcription vendor. For example, the transition from analog audio recording to digital audio technology is critical for taking advantage of the capabilities of state-of-the-art outsourcing technologies, particularly the ease of uploading audio files and the downloading of completed transcripts via a secure Internet site.
Sufficient funds need to be allocated to this transition process as well as the cost of day-to-day transcription outsourcing. Anticipated expenses need to be carefully budgeted.
Additionally, resistance to change is common. Therefore, agencies contemplating transcription outsourcing need to be prepared to address concerns about confidentiality, security, accuracy, and turnaround time. Agency leaders should understand the apprehension among staff members who may be uncomfortable with new technologies.
It is helpful to identify appropriate staff members who are comfortable with computers, the Internet, and learning new ways of doing old things. Ideally, they will be reasonably technically savvy. Their support and willingness to embrace transcription outsourcing can prove critical to an agency’s success.
North Las Vegas Police Department: Transcription Outsourcing and the Internal Affairs Bureau
Department Profile: The City of North Las Vegas was incorporated on May 16, 1946. The population at the time of incorporation was 2,875. The population as of July 2005 was 178,166. It is the second fastest-growing city in the United States, populated largely by a mixture of middle- to lower-income residents.
The North Las Vegas Police Department (NLVPD) serves a suburb of the greater Las Vegas metropolitan area. The NLVPD has five commands divided into 24 divisions. The department is staffed by 662 employees, 416 commissioned personnel, and 246 civilian support staff.
Internal Affairs Bureau: The NLVPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau investigates complaints regarding alleged misconduct by police officers. Approximately 100 investigations are conducted annually. The purpose of these investigations is to determine the validity of allegations of misconduct on the part of department employees. Examples of the types of investigations include allegations of failure to follow departmental policies and procedures; the excessive use of force; dishonesty; and criminal acts.
Transcription Criteria: Transcriptions are limited to interviews conducted with individuals directly involved in an investigation. For example, transcripts are compiled when allegations arise that might lead to serious disciplinary action or potential termination from the department. Additionally, interviews related to grievances that might lead to future litigation are also routinely transcribed.
Choosing a Transcription Vendor: The choice of a transcription vendor was based on a referral from the department’s Detective Bureau. The members of this bureau made the initial decision to outsource their transcription needs.
The staff of the Internal Affairs Bureau contacted the vendor referred to them by the Detective Bureau to discuss their concerns regarding the need for extreme confidentiality. The bureau chose Net Transcripts, Inc. (www.nettranscripts.com) after the vendor satisfied the bureau’s confidentiality concerns.
The transcription vendor’s services also met the Internal Affairs Bureau’s performance criteria. The vendor not only was able to ensure confidentiality but also provided a high level (98.8 percent) of accuracy and a secure method of uploading audio files and downloading completed transcripts while adhering to strict turnaround deadlines.
Transcription Outsourcing Experience: Transcription outsourcing simplified the archiving of bureau documentation. It has also been a more cost-effective approach, saving the bureau and thus the NLVPD money.
For this bureau, the turnaround time for completed transcripts is comparatively faster than handling transcription internally. Additionally, users do not have to leave their desks to access the vendor’s secure Web site. Overall, bureau personnel are satisfied with the finished transcriptions that the vendor provides.
The vendor has also simplified its “ordering” process, reducing the number of steps required to place an order. New software enhancements enable users to designate preferred pricing tiers tied to desired turnaround times.
Access to the vendor’s transcriptionists is not an option at this time. However, bureau staff members believe it would be helpful if they could speak to transcriptionists to ensure the correct spelling of proper names and clarify words or phrases that might be judged unintelligible. For the time being, users can provide notes with their transcription orders that include the spelling of unusual words or names.
The Future: In the not-too-distant future, the demand for fluent Spanish transcriptionists and translators will increase significantly. Other foreign language requirements will also emerge.
Additionally, digital video will someday be used to supplement digital audio recordings for the purpose of capturing the investigatory nuances of body language. However, this will not negate the need for transcription.
Advice for Other Agencies: Law enforcement agencies should discontinue their use of analog audio recordings in light of the demonstrated merits of digital audio recording technologies.
A trained, dedicated support staff is also essential. Ideally, these will be people who are comfortable around computers and digital technology. Inevitable employee turnover and the continuing introduction of new technologies will necessitate further training. The more people an agency has who know how to access the transcription service, the less burden will be placed on remaining staff when key employees are ill or on vacation.
Monterey Police Department: Transcription of Patrol Report Narratives
Department Profile: The City of Monterey is a coastal community of 30,000 permanent residents and many thousands of tourists. It is located 112 miles south of San Francisco on California’s Monterey Peninsula.
The Monterey Police Department (MPD) is a full-service police agency, with 83 employees, including 56 sworn officers. It uses an outside transcription vendor to optimize its limited resources and increase the efficiency of records staff members and patrol officers.
Transcription Backlog Overwhelms Records Staff: The MPD’s records staff processes all documented police activities. Like other law enforcement agencies, it also compiles statistics for the U.S. Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the California Criminal Records System. It also manages the department’s front counter and operates its jail facility.
In a typical month, the Records Bureau completes 9,600 separate transactions, an enormous workload for a small staff. This includes the scanning of 4,900 pages of documentation, the preparation of 1,400 worksheets, the completion of 1,200 pages of transcription, and the preparation of 900 pages of court documentation.
Each month, records staff members, called police services technicians (PSTs), also prepare and process 100 fingerprint cards, complete 277 name searches, prepare and issue 200 warrants, and issue 150 tow letters and vehicle releases. They book and release 160 inmates. Many of these transactions can take an hour, sometimes more, to complete.
PSTs also operate the MPD’s Type I jail facility. The jail can hold prearraignment prisoners up to four days and must be staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week with male and female PSTs. Because most of the prisoners are male, the time demands placed on male PSTs are greater than those placed on female PSTs to manage prisoners. Over time, this disparity led to a genderspecific division of labor, with typing assigned to female PSTs, who were less likely to be interrupted by jail duties.
Over the last few years, additional job functions were added to the PSTs’ task list. There were also staffing shortages that required the prioritization of critical functions, causing low-priority reports to be put on hold.
As their workload grew, records staff members found themselves drowning in paperwork. A frustrating transcription backlog of as many as 200 patrol report narratives was causing unacceptable delays of six to eight weeks. The MPD was paying overtime to its records staff to transcribe patrol reports, yet the backlog of unfinished report narratives continued to grow amid other increasing service demands and limited departmental resources.
Welcome Winds of Change: Changing service demands required a candid self-assessment. In 2003 the department established a business practices working group, which completed a comprehensive, department-wide, top-to-bottom analysis of the MPD’s traditional business practices.
The department also received a single direct-mail solicitation promoting the use of cutting-edge Internet technology to complete patrol report narratives quickly. After a thorough review of the technology, real-time testing of its capabilities, and a rigorous trial period, the department chose to outsource the transcription of its patrol report narratives.
Successful Transition: Sworn officers continue to record their patrol reports on audio tape. Records staff members upload audio files to and download completed documents from the vendor’s secure Web site. PSTs add the finished police report narratives to electronic case files in the automated records management system.
As a result of the move to outsource transcription, overtime pay for transcription has been virtually eliminated. One full-time staff member has been transferred out of the transcription pool to handle other responsibilities. The MPD is moving away from its traditional male-female division of labor, and there is rarely a transcription backlog. Staff morale has improved.
The Future: Access to digital in-car dictation is one goal the MPD has set for itself. This change will be followed by same-shift turnaround of completed transcripts. Some predict that digital audio recorders could be replaced someday by voice recognition technology that would permit direct data entry into case files.
These changes are sought because it is believed that the use of traditional in-car laptop patrol reporting compromises officer safety, distracting officers from the goings-on of their surrounding area.
Additionally, studies show that the ergonomics of using in-car computers for lengthy periods of time can adversely affect user health. Patrol report dictation takes less than one-third of the time required to type a report of similar length, thus freeing officers for other patrol duties.
Pros and Cons of Transcription Outsourcing
Using the Internet and other technologies to outsource transcription is not an automatic panacea. First, law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies who want to outsource their transcription needs must have high-speed Internet access to the vendor’s secure Web site and be able to interact with the vendor’s Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocols.
Additionally, the quality of a transcript reflects the quality of the audio source from which it is transcribed. Portions of some audio recordings are unintelligible. This can be frustrating.
Furthermore, not everyone is comfortable with computers and the Internet. Employees can resist both. Staff turnover is another challenge. People come and go, often with little notice.
Cost of Outsourcing
The need to ensure that the technology used by law enforcement and other agencies remains state-of-the-art can be challenging. Analog audio recording technology will inevitably give way to digital audio technologies. This transition has budgetary implications.
For example, the cost to upgrade an analog audio recorder to digital technology generally ranges from $100 to $250 for each recording device, depending on a given agency’s technical specifications. (These expenses are a fraction of the $500 to $700 per-unit upgrade expenditures that faced agencies as little as three years ago.)
Furthermore, the cost of transcription outsourcing pales in comparison to the aggregate costs of internally recruiting, hiring, and training transcriptionists as well as the employee-related benefits, salaries, and overtime provided or paid to them.
By eliminating these expenses, agencies are better able to concentrate on their respective public safety missions while reserving the option of transcribing particularly sensitive recordings in house.
Transcription outsourcing also improves staff morale and permits management to allocate staff resources to other activities. Additionally, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that transcription outsourcing saves money (often costing as little at $2.57 per page for the most commonly used transcription service).
The demand for foreign-language transcription and translation is also mushrooming. Secure Web-based technology enables outside vendors to transcribe and translate Bosnian, Cantonese (traditional Chinese), Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hmong, Iraqi Arabic, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin (simplified Chinese), Portuguese, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Swedish, Thai, and Vietnamese.
Wave of the Future
The Internet enables any law enforcement agency to engage a qualified transcription vendor and outsource its transcription needs. Continuing software advances enable users to easily upload audio files and download completed transcripts.
Digital audio technology is readily available, increasingly less expensive, and more easily installed and operated. The training process is simpler than for analog technology. The training of new employees can be accomplished easily over the telephone.
An agency can also assign one person to coordinate all of its outsourcing activities, or it can provide system access to more than one individual, so transcription orders can be placed as needed.
Outsourced transcription allows for improved accuracy of completed transcripts. Turnaround times are faster. The use of secure Web sites and protocols ensures that the information passed between user and vendor is automatically encrypted. Security and confidentiality are guaranteed. The integrity of an unbroken chain of evidence is ensured.
Law enforcement and other agencies wishing to learn more about transcription outsourcing are invited to contact Captain Lesney via e-mail at T2373L@lvmpd.com, Lieutenant Rose at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Deputy Chief Aspland at email@example.com.
The authors wish to acknowledge the assistance of Daniel Durrenberger of Net Transcripts, Inc., in composing this article. ■