How Global Security and Technology are Changing Policing in the US

Dean M. Esserman is the NewCities Associate Fellow for Security and is the Senior Counsellor of the Police Foundation, an American, independent non-profit organization dedicated to advancing policing through innovation and science.

NewCities (NC): What changes have you seen over the last decades when it comes to safety and public security in cities?

Dean Esserman (DE): September 11 was a watershed event for the nation and for its police departments. Policing in the age of terrorism has become a reality for every police department in our country. In the preceding years, police departments were focused on crime-fighting strategies while balancing that with community relationships. The day after September 11, this third concern — terrorism — was brought to the forefront and it has remained a priority since that point.

NC: In what areas is our ability to respond not keeping pace?

DE: Large cities have more capacity to respond to terrorism concerns. Small departments, which are the majority throughout the nation, are more dependent on state and federal resources in day-to-day operations. There is no question that technology has been embraced in departments large and small. But the civilian staffing that is needed, whether technicians or analysts, have been a challenge for communities. The challenge is to be constantly responding to the changing threat picture. Departments small and large must constantly update their information and understanding of the threat picture to be able to respond to it and to prepare for it. What once was a predominantly overseas threat with a focus on interdiction is now just as equally a homegrown threat, where a lone wolf becomes self-radicalized in one’s home community.

NC: How can a community-based perspective shape our approach to safety, technology and social innovations in cities?

DE: We still maintain a decentralized local police structure in America. There is no national police force, and no set of national strategies and procedures. It is up to each local jurisdiction to embrace its own communities’ priorities and use of new technology. Many small communities look to larger communities for guidance and for examples, but this is strictly advisory. In the end, local communities make local decisions and respond to local priorities.

NC: How do we make sure the strategies used by police and policymakers lead to real improvement in the daily lives of urbanites? How can technology help track these improvements?

DE: The nation’s 18,000 local police departments, big and small, are held accountable to the final analysis by their locally elected leaders. Technology is a tool that is well used by some organizations, while the value is completely minimized by others. In the end, police departments are judged by their results. Bringing down the crime rate, community relations, and averting terrorist threats; these are the standards all departments must be held accountable for.

NC: With increased connectivity, are we more or less secure than in the past? Do you see technology as helping or posing even greater challenges?

DE: We are more secure. There is no question that the crisis of September 11 and policing in the age of terrorism has pushed local, state and federal authorities to work more closely than ever before. Sharing banks of information and personnel is the regular course of business today. Silos have begun to be broken down. Technology has been an asset in this regard. The use of technology is being pushed into the patrol officer’s hands, where, before, it resided exclusively inside police headquarters. The result is that information is more timely and accurate at the street level where the officer or the detective works.