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SF police have no budget for smartphones for touted mobile app

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Last week, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, his police chief, Greg Suhr, and his top political fundraiser, Silicon Valley investor Ron Conway, announced plans to develop a mobile phone application to make it possible for police officers to file reports from the field, allowing them to spend more time on the streets and less time at their desks.

But the police department does not actually have plans or a budget to buy smartphones or other devices that would allow officers to use the app, according to Susan Giffin, the department’s chief technology officer. The city has no contractual relationship with mobile app developer ArcTouch, according to the company's Chief Operating Officer Adam Fingerman. 

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Giffin said she had not given serious thought to acquiring such technology before the mobile app project began.

“We had not planned to focus on handheld devices, because we’re still trying to get the data sorted out,” Giffin said in an interview. She suggested that officers might be able to use the app on their personal phones, when it is built. But that won't be for another six months at least, according to Suhr.

It could take much longer to find the money to buy smartphones for every officer on the force. By conservative estimates, the department would have to spend more than $1.5 million a year on devices and calling plans.

None of this uncertainty slipped into the news conference, where the latest class of police cadets stood at attention as speakers touted the promise of the new technology.

“We thought it would be very apropos for sf.citi to get involved in helping San Francisco's police department leapfrog technology and be a national showcase for the use of technology,” said Conway, who founded the San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology & Innovation, or sf.citi, nonprofit association that counts many of the city’s technology companies among its nearly 300 members. Sf.citi is contributing $100,000 to fund the development of the software, and one of its members, ArcTouch, is building the app.

Conway's group is also leading the charge for a ballot initiative that would eliminate San Francisco’s 1.5 percent payroll tax and replace it with one based on companies’ gross receipts. Such a change would benefit many of the city’s tech companies, including some of those funded by Conway's SVAngel firm, while potentially hurting less labor-intensive industries such as financial services. The lobbyist sf.citi hired to push for the payroll tax initiative, Alex Tourk, was on hand to help answer questions about the app at the last week's press conference. The mobile initiative is "just a pilot," Tourk acknowledged.

The mismatch between the promise of the technology touted at the app announcement and the reality of the police department’s budgetary and technological constraints does not surprise Ron Jayne, a computer consultant who advises California law enforcement agencies.

“There are a lot of applications that will not work to the extent necessary unless there are data sets and interfaces that work well,” he said. “Often you’ll see people experimenting with leading-edge technology, and it founders, or fails, or takes so much time that it’s outdated by the time it's ready. So there’s a high failure rate in law enforcement technology.”

The San Francisco Police Department is struggling to replace 1972-era technology with the kind of information systems many police agencies take for granted, including building a basic database. Before hiring Giffin, a former Cisco Systems marketing director, in 2010, it had spent 13 years and $20 million on aborted attempts to computerize a largely paper-based records system.

And the department’s record-keeping staff has often lacked computer skills. For years, the records division had been a holding area for police officers who have been taken off the streets for injuries or other reasons. Giffin's current team includes eight such officers.

But Giffin has been able to help the department make some important strides. Last year, officers received individual departmental email addresses for the first time. And with Suhr’s help, Giffin hired two civilian staffers and spent $600,000 to replace the old computer system and build a new database, which the department calls its Crime Data Warehouse. It holds 12 years of portions of police incident reports. Staffers are now working to integrate it with other regional crime databases.

The department has also obtained $2 million in federal Homeland Security grant funding to continue building out the database.

“There’s just a lot of data that needs to be linked, connected and made accessible, such as being able to search for suspects' phone numbers, license plate numbers or crime information from other Bay Area agencies,” she said.

At last week’s news conference, the police chief also announced that Hewlett-Packard is donating 60 laptops for use in patrol cars, which will be used by graduating police academy cadets to file reports from the field. Giffin said the department doesn’t have the money to buy the 1,700 laptops needed to equip the entire 2,100-officer force.

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