LAPD’s deputy chief talks technology’s role in shaping the future of policing

In the ever-evolving landscape of law enforcement, Deputy Chief John McMahon stands at the forefront of technological advancement within the Los Angeles Police Department.

McMahon, a 34-year LAPD veteran and commanding officer of the Information Technology Bureau, is tasked with modernizing the department through strategic technological integration. This endeavor is not just about updating hardware and software; it’s about redefining policing in one of America’s largest cities.

Under McMahon’s leadership, the LAPD is transitioning from traditional methods to cutting-edge technologies, such as artificial intelligence and advanced mobile devices, to enhance officer efficiency and community engagement. McMahon’s vision extends beyond the immediate: He anticipates a future where technology fully supports and amplifies the capabilities of law enforcement personnel. From adopting SWAT teams and deploying helicopters to integrating body-worn cameras, the LAPD has historically embraced innovation, a tradition McMahon continues with vigor.

I sat down with McMahon to talk about his strategic approach to technology in law enforcement, exploring the challenges and successes of integrating AI, the potential of real-time crime centers and the critical role of mobile technology in shaping the future of policing.

McMahon’s insights offer a glimpse into the dynamic intersection of technology and law enforcement, highlighting the LAPD’s commitment to staying ahead of the curve for the safety and wellbeing of its officers and the communities they serve.

Could you share your initial vision for integrating technology in law enforcement, and how do you envision its evolution as the future of technology becomes more expansive and impactful for law enforcement?

Initially, when I started this role, we were beginning to introduce new technologies. One major change involved transitioning from the cumbersome task of carrying large, heavy laptops. I recognized early on that this approach was impractical due to the laptops’ bulkiness and weight.

We’ve shifted toward equipping all our officers with new cellular devices, emphasizing the importance of mobility. I’ve implemented a mobility-first strategy, which is currently in place, and I aim to evolve this into a mobility-only strategy going forward. Integrating artificial intelligence is a crucial part of this strategy, enabling officers to perform their duties entirely on a compact yet powerful device, far beyond the capabilities of a mere cellphone.

Pride in innovation is a hallmark of the LAPD. We’ve been pioneers in adopting SWAT teams, utilizing helicopters and deploying body-worn cameras – leading major U.S. police departments in embracing new methodologies. It’s my responsibility to stay attuned to the department’s needs, scouting for emerging technologies that enhance our operational effectiveness, providing new functionalities, and aligning technological opportunities with our objectives in the most efficient and beneficial manner possible.

The primary goal is to leverage technology to alleviate the daily administrative workload of our officers, thereby enhancing their efficiency – a scenario beneficial for everyone. By streamlining administrative tasks, officers can spend less time at computers or completing paperwork at the station. This efficiency not only makes them more effective but also allows them more time to engage with the community, building stronger relationships unhampered by the administrative demands typical of police work.

You mentioned integrating artificial intelligence. What does that look like for the LAPD?

Although I may not witness the full integration of AI into law enforcement within my career, as I am nearing retirement, the future holds promising developments. Imagine an officer arriving at a scene to document an incident, such as a robbery. The officer’s body-worn camera equipped with AI captures the victim’s account, identifying them and detailing the event. The AI then processes this information to generate a comprehensive crime report and any required documentation automatically, without the officers needing to manually input the data.

All they would need to do is review the information for accuracy and approve it with the press of a button. This advancement could significantly reduce the time officers spend on paperwork, allowing them to focus more on their work within the community.

Resistance to new technology is inevitable across all departments and law enforcement is no exception.

Have you had any pushback or resistance from your officers with the adoption of new technologies?

For instance, we use a field interview form, a small card that collects basic information from individuals officers interact with. We have transitioned this process to a digital format, accessible via an iPhone application. Initially, some of the more experienced officers expressed concerns about the device’s size, arguing it was too small for effective use. They questioned the practicality of completing their work on such a small screen. However, it’s worth noting that many tasks, including booking travel, filing income taxes and completing various forms, are now routinely done on cellphones. This realization often leads to an “aha” moment when officers acknowledge they already perform many complex tasks on their phones.

Properly designed software, with autofill capabilities and a user-friendly interface, can make navigating through essential data fields straightforward, eliminating the need for large monitors for basic data entry like names, birth dates and brief narratives.

The adaptation gap between generations is clear. Younger officers, accustomed to digital interfaces from an early age, can type rapidly on mobile devices and utilize voice dictation effectively. This proficiency demonstrates a cultural shift toward embracing mobile technology for efficiency, challenging the notion that traditional methods are always superior.

What do you think are the most critical technology skills that departments should invest in?

To provide some context, we’ve significantly transitioned from traditional office environments with desktop computers to a more mobile and cloud-based setup. This shift enhances officers’ efficiency in crime-fighting efforts. Technologies such as cloud computing, mobile integration, cybersecurity, video analytics and Automated License Plate Recognition (ALPR) are pivotal. ALPR, for instance, involves sensors mounted on poles and vehicles that capture license plate data, facilitating interventions and investigations by sending notifications directly to officers’ phones and computers.

The use of video technology also stands out as a significant tool that doesn’t necessarily require extensive technical skills to be impactful. When it comes to developing new tools for police departments, the reliance on vendors is substantial. These vendors become strategic partners, essential for advancing an organization’s technological capabilities. Given the rapid evolution of programming languages and technologies, maintaining up-to-date technical skills is challenging for traditional civil service roles, which may not always accommodate the need for continuous learning in the tech field.

It’s crucial that technology solutions for law enforcement are user-friendly and designed with the officer’s needs in mind. The success of new technologies depends not only on their capabilities but also on their ease of use, intuitive design and user interface. Even the most advanced software is rendered ineffective if it’s not adopted by its users. Designing with an officer-focused approach ensures that technology becomes a valuable asset rather than an overlooked tool.

How does the LAPD measure the success and effectiveness of its technology?

The primary metric to consider is the utilization of technology. Despite having the best technology available, it’s rendered useless if not actively used. The initial aspect to evaluate is whether the introduced programs, aimed at saving time, are genuinely being utilized or if they are being bypassed. For instance, we deployed a comprehensive suite of crime analytics tools. The critical question is whether these tools are being employed effectively or ignored.

A significant indicator of technology’s impact is observed through its application in law enforcement activities – particularly, whether technology has contributed to making arrests or reducing crime rates. It’s essential to assess whether these successes can be attributed to the technology being used as intended and whether it has provided tangible benefits.

It’s crucial to continuously review the technology investments to ensure they are being used effectively and to solicit ongoing feedback from the users. Understanding their experiences with the technology, their likes, dislikes and suggestions for improvement is invaluable.

A lot of effort is dedicated to internal marketing to address and mitigate resistance, a common challenge not just in law enforcement but across various industries. This approach is vital in ensuring that technological advancements are embraced and utilized to their fullest potential.

Have you faced any challenges beyond the initial resistance from officers regarding technology use, such as issues with community members or obtaining support from the city council?

Overcoming the significant challenge posed by community members and privacy advocates, particularly regarding the use of body-worn cameras, is essential.

However, for example, we’re looking at implementing real-time crime centers, but such initiatives require strong governance and robust transparency toward the community, detailing their usage and tracking methods. The concern among privacy advocates is loud and clear; they fear the potential abuse of technology by law enforcement, worried it may be used against them illegitimately.

It’s crucial for every police department to clearly communicate to the public how technology is utilized, monitored and governed. Publicly disclosing policies and governance strategies is key. By demonstrating how the department intends to use technology responsibly and ensuring its use is strictly for legitimate purposes, we can significantly reduce public resistance.

This approach of transparency and strong governance has enabled me to garner substantial support from elected officials and other city departments.

Talk to me more about real-time crime centers in Los Angeles. Are you close to making that a reality?

Los Angeles does not currently have a real-time crime center, a facility that many other large cities already possess. Implementing this concept in Los Angeles is crucial, especially considering the significant events we’re set to host, including the World Cup, the next Super Bowl, the Olympics and another NBA All-Star game. These events highlight the city’s need for advanced security measures.

The public may not fully grasp the consequences of not having the technology to quickly and efficiently respond to critical incidents, such as terrorist attacks or active shooters, which have occurred in other cities. Should such an event happen without us having real-time tracking capabilities, the public’s outrage would be understandable.

We are committed to establishing real-time crime centers in Los Angeles as swiftly as possible. However, the city’s vast geographic area presents unique challenges; a single center sufficient for many police departments would not suffice for us. Los Angeles has 21 geographic divisions, each comparable in size to a small or medium-sized city, necessitating at least 21 such centers to ensure effectiveness.

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Meet Andrea Cortez, a 17-year law enforcement veteran and analyst at Elk Grove (Calif.) Police Department’s Real-Time Information Center

The pressing question is how quickly we can achieve this goal. The potential of video technology to impact law enforcement significantly, especially in real-time, cannot be understated. Typically, after a crime like an armed robbery, obtaining and viewing surveillance footage can take days or weeks, delaying investigations and allowing repeat offenses. By enabling immediate access to video and other crucial data for officers and detectives on the scene, we can significantly enhance our crime-fighting capabilities. This ability is essential for law enforcement to meet today’s challenges effectively.

Here’s another quick example: When dispatch communicates to an officer responding to an emergency call, describing an individual’s appearance and attire, each officer may visualize the description differently. This variation can be eliminated by viewing the video footage directly.

In Los Angeles, a major concern often raised involves the frequency of stops that seem to disproportionately affect individuals based on age and ethnicity. This perception arises when officers stop someone fitting a suspect’s description, which, while a legitimate part of police work, can lead to stopping the wrong person.

Such incidents can irreparably harm the relationship between the community and the police, as the individual stopped, who was mistakenly identified as a suspect, may forever view the police differently.

However, with access to live video feeds showing the suspect’s actual appearance, vehicle and its color, and license plate, officers can make stops with greater accuracy. This precision significantly reduces the instances of “you fit the description” encounters, ensuring that stops are made on more concrete evidence and not merely on general descriptions.

What advice would you offer to smaller departments with fewer resources than the LAPD, which are aiming to both develop their officers’ skill sets and adopt new technologies?

Don’t be intimidated by the initial costs of technology; view it as a valuable investment.

While technology may seem expensive initially, a thorough evaluation of its benefits can reveal how it effectively frees up resources. By leveraging technology as a force multiplier, you enhance the efficiency and precision of your officers. This not only improves service to the community but also allows officers more time to foster positive relationships through increased presence and engagement.

In today’s environment, being a successful police chief anywhere in the country requires an understanding of how technology can transform police work. It’s a perfect match that significantly benefits both the police force and the community it serves.

Mobility is key. I recently attended a leadership gathering of law enforcement leaders from around the world at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino. I was astounded by the advanced mobility-only strategies employed by law enforcement agencies abroad, strategies that have yet to gain significant traction in the United States. Globally, departments have mastered the use of mobile technology to enhance the capabilities of the modern-day police officer, putting the U.S. a few steps behind.

A decade from now, what technology do you think will have the most significant impact on law enforcement and the tools officers use?

For example, the innovative uses of the iPhone I witnessed were beyond my imagination. This includes scanning a 3D scene for an almost instant 3D LIDAR scan of crime scenes, identifying fingerprints with the iPhone camera, and using a device to automatically scan a casing, providing detailed history that typically takes weeks to obtain through traditional methods like the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN).

These are just a few examples, but some departments worldwide are utilizing mobile devices for virtually every task, demonstrating the full potential of this technology.

In Los Angeles, the LAPD has been at the forefront of adopting virtual reality headsets for training, focusing on de-escalation tactics and other skills. This innovation is something I believe other departments could greatly benefit from. Virtual reality and technologies like the Apple Vision Pro goggles, which double as a computer, offer endless possibilities for enhancing law enforcement operations. These tools allow for repeated tactical training without the traditional costs associated with instructors, facilities and materials, significantly altering the training landscape for law enforcement.

The potential of mobile devices and virtual reality technology, including devices like Apple Vision Pro, represents a significant area of exploration for improving our operations and training environments. The advancements in technology continue to transform the landscape of law enforcement training and operations.

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Andrea Cortez is a 17-year law enforcement veteran and analyst at Elk Grove (Calif.) Police Department’s Real-Time Information Center

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