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Challenges of Emerging Technology: Beyond the Technology Itself

By Richard L. Johnston, Principal, RLJ Group, Bethesda, Maryland

ith the rapid evolution of various technologies, law enforcement leaders have found themselves barraged with a constant stream of innovative technology tools, all of which are designed to improve crime fighting. It is a daunting task to remain informed about what really works and what does not.

Finding a so-called better mouse trap has faced each generation of police leaders. The creation of new tools has always been aimed at serious issues for public officials including officer safety, public protection, operational efficiencies, cost containment, recruitment and retention benefits, and so on. Over the decades, the so-called hard technologies (e.g., cars, guns, vests, less-lethal weapons, restraints, and barriers) have been the tools requiring constant evaluation. These tools have varying degrees of value to officers and their organizations.

It was not until the information age brought a significant change to the way people communicate, network, learn, and problem solve that a fundamental impact, beyond the technology itself, became clear. The emergence of soft technologies as crime-fighting tools has been apparent for several decades. The people agencies are employing, especially members of generation Y, have a unique experience with technology compared to their older colleagues. There is now a gap between the way soft technologies are integrated into young peoples’ lives and the experiences of the older generations. At the risk of oversimplifying the situation, the over-40 crowd probably tends to view the use of technology as a tool—something to be used or not used depending on personal preference. In contrast, most people under age 40 and nearly all under age 30 have assimilated new technologies into their daily ways of living—it is almost a fabric of their DNA. For example it is estimated that by the time today’s Americans turn 21, they will have sent 250,000 emails and text messages.1

This gap has implications for building and retaining effective talent and managing human capital. It requires all law enforcement leaders to examine how their organizations can proactively embrace this change and create opportunities rather than react to problems or deny their existence.

The Challenge

Most leaders experience some level of concern over recruitment and retention issues, which seem to be more serious each year. There is good reason to believe that a major contributing factor is related to a lack of focus on multigenerational workforce issues—the key one being the respect for and the utilization of information technologies as part of day-to-day operations. There are three critical areas where departments may realize their challenge to this emerging problem:

Learning. Today’s training paradigms are changing. Traditional teaching environments are evolving into highly interactive and individualized learning experiences. Younger employees are likely to be motivated to learn as much as they can about a subject they believe will impact their positive contribution to the work objectives. They know how to access a vast knowledge base on almost every topic.

Communications. A vast array of social networking opportunities are the norm for those under 30, with increasing buy-in from the over-30 group. The norm for 20-somethings is constant communication but with greatly reduced physical, face-to-face interaction. This paradigm shift is drastically changing interpersonal communications—a change that is under way now with significant implications for managers.

Approach to problem solving. The traditional approach of promoting and rewarding individualism through competitive processes is being challenged by a group approach to finding answers to problems. The younger generations are quick to ask their peers to share experiences and knowledge and to reciprocate the same when asked. They are experts at locating information quickly when it is needed. They are sold on the value of the wisdom of crowds.

Each of these three areas, plus the entire structure of the traditional law enforcement organization, should be revisited in light of the skills of the individuals coming into the profession. Ultimately, hard questions will need to be asked regarding the evolution of the law enforcement workplace. This can be done in parallel to efforts aimed at finding a new appeal for the younger generations to consider policing as a profession.

Attracting and Retaining a Good Workforce

There are indications that some of the younger police recruits may be questioning their career choices based on a belief that the police do not respect or use available technologies to make their work easier. Some of this criticism is directed at the hard technology expectations, such as the assumption that every officer of every department has all of the technology tools they have seen in the movies and on television all of their lives. But more importantly than that, young recruits see outdated technology, outdated mind-sets about technology in agency policies and procedures, and outdated approaches to developing solutions to problems. Further, they are accustomed to immediate communication processes and expect a flattened structure that allows instant feedback from any level. Hierarchical structures and processes are foreign to this mind-set and breed rapid frustration.

Even those from military services who are considering careers in civilian law enforcement are finding the state of technology utilization in many departments disappointing. They come to agencies accustomed to the paramilitary structure but also having experienced a high level of technology readily used in everyday training and communications.

It is said that by 2013, a super computer will have more computational ability than the human brain. By 2050, a $1,000 computer will have more computational capability than the entire human race.2 Simply put, technology continues to propel forward and shows no sign of stopping. Integrating this influence into the organizational culture of a law enforcement agency is a challenge. The assets of any agency reside with employees, and, with a forward-looking mind-set, alternative options can be examined and implemented.

Addressing the Problem

Leaders of policing in the 21st century must assess the impact of all these technology enhancements. Today, officers and civilian law enforcement employees are seeking and expecting a work environment that optimizes technology and the human talent. The people considering careers in law enforcement automatically expect an organizational embrace of this tenet. Agencies that do not will often be dismissed as obsolete.

Law enforcement leaders may recall the profession’s slow response to the reality of computer crimes in the early 1990s. Today, almost every crime has a digital component. So, too, agencies are shifting to a techno-savvy workforce, and their leaders should embrace the change and ensure a positive outcome for those they employ and those they serve.

The IACP and the National Sheriffs’ Association each have committees that will be charged with examining this issue and more specific issues of criminal use of emerging technology (i.e., real crimes in virtual worlds). They will exchange ideas and concerns in an attempt to keep all of law enforcement updated and engaged.

Over the next year, law enforcement leaders may want to seek out information on this matter and challenge their staffs to identify issues and suggest solutions; participate in discussion and work groups on this challenge; support research if the opportunity arises; and, above all, be aware and focused on agencies and their multigenerational workforces. ■


1See Karl Fisch and Scott McLeod, “Did You Know 2.0,” YouTube video, 8:20, posted by “xplanevisualthinking,” (accessed July 1, 2011); and Marc Prensky, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Part II: Do They Really Think Differently?” On the Horizon 9, no. 6, (December 2001): 1–6.
2Ray Kurzweil, Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (New York: Penguin, 2005), 127.

Please cite as:

Richard L. Johnston, "Challenges of Emerging Technology: Beyond the Technology Itself," The Police Chief 78 (September 2011): 60–62.

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From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVIII, no. 9, September 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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