By Frank Borelli
©2009 Borelli Consulting, Inc.

Not that long ago I had privilege of enjoying a conversation with a relatively new Chief of Police about the equipment needs of the Chief’s new agency. In this particular case the Chief was in a unique position to select everything from uniforms to service firearms to radios, computers, cruisers, etc. In a word, EVERYTHING. What struck me, during the course of the conversation, was that the focus truly seemed to be on technology. Now when I say technology I don’t mean flashlights or handguns; I mean computers, radios, phones / blackberries, GPS, etc.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all in favor of technology. I think computers are wonderful tools and radios are absolutely essential life lines for all law enforcement personnel. That said, law enforcement virtually always comes down to the person in the uniform. Yes, appearance matters. Yes, equipment is good. Yes, technology is fantastic. But no computer ever put handcuffs on a bad guy. An officer who looks less than 100% professional can still perform in an outstanding fashion.

I also understand that technology is almost mandatory for today’s law enforcement environment. We have more police officers and deputies on the roads now than ever before and many radio systems are overloaded with emergency traffic much less “routine” traffic such as warrant checks, driver license checks, etc. So when officers can sit in their cruisers and run their own checks via mobile data terminals (MDTs) that is obviously an advantage. However, that advantage should never be attained at any cost to officer survival concerns.

I remember when an agency I worked for first got mobile data terminals in their cruisers. Policy literally had to be created from nothing to support the proper use of the MDTs. Could they be used while the cruiser was in motion? How about when an officer was by himself on traffic? Or out with a suspicious subject? If you’re looking at a computer screen then you can’t be watching a suspect’s hands. If you’re looking at a keyboard you can’t be watching the occupant(s) of a vehicle. Where do the lines get drawn? The rules set?

Set those questions aside for a moment and let’s come at this from a slightly different angle: at what point do we decide whether to purchase MDTs instead of personal protective equipment (PPE), body armor or additional weapons for our officers? I know that budgets are limited. I know that choices have to be made. But I am flabbergasted that any agency head today would even consider putting their officers on the street without the option of a long gun whether it is a shotgun, carbine or rifle. I mention that because when specifically asked about those items that new Chief I was talking with made it clear that computers and other electronic technologies were more important than a shotgun. “I just want to start with the basics,” was the statement made. Since when is an MDT more basic than a shotgun?

Now I know I’m ranting. I know that the use of MDTs is probably responsible for more arrests, warrant services, caught revoked drivers, etc than shotguns are responsible for caught armed robbers. Still, I would never want to put my officers into a situation where they needed greater firepower and the only answer I could give them was, “Throw the MDT at them.”

How much does an MDT cost to purchase, install, and run? It can’t be cheap and I know prices vary by manufacturer and services acquired. Shotguns are about $400 each. The batteries never run out. They don’t require a system administrator to maintain. The hard drive never gets full and the modem never fails. What’s more is that when the MDT tells you that you have a subject detained who is wanted for attempted homicide, the shotgun might be a nice thing to have handy.

I’m not selling the shotgun as the end all be all of police work. I think shotguns are great and serve their purpose but that’s not the point. The point is that, in at least this one conversation, it was made clear that a police executive felt technology was more important than firepower.

Please understand my outlook, as out dated as it might be: the most important tool in any police cruiser is the POLICE OFFICER. Everything else has to support him in the most efficient manner possible. Anything that has batteries that can die should exist in redundancy. Any mechanical device that can malfunction (i.e. a handgun) should have a redundant backup or other lethal force option. And under no circumstances should the more complicated and harder to maintain / easier to break ever be more important than the more basic / simple to use and maintain.

PEOPLE protect and serve. They wear a uniform to set them apart from and make them easily recognizable to the public. They wear a gunbelt so that they have the basic necessary tools of the trade at hand anytime they are on duty. The often patrol in vehicles that are further equipped with tools and technologies that are necessary to today’s police work. I recognize all that.

Now, I also know I’m paranoid. I know that the chances of an active shooter or school siege happening tomorrow are slim to none. BUT, if it happens, what are all those officers going to do with their MDTs? Send messages asking for better weapons, more ammo and some extra body armor?

This is the post-nine-eleven reality folks. Our law enforcement professionals have to be warriors first and foremost. They must be prepared every moment that they are on duty to face combat – against one armed robber, one violent abusive husband, one homicidal maniac… or one suicide (homicide) bomber, a team of terrorists, or a handful of school shooters. Everything else that we provide to them must be in support of their role as warriors.

I am reminded of the second Rambo movie (yeah, I said Rambo): The government agent guy is talking about all the weapons and technology that they have available to support and take care of Rambo. He makes a comment about “the best weapons available today.” To which Rambo replies, “I always believed that the mind is the best weapon.” Government agent man says, “Times change.” Rambo says, “For some people.”

That’s where we are. For some, the absolutely best equipped police officer on the street will be in a new car with a mobile data terminal, radio, handgun, handcuffs, TASER, baton (if they HAVE to), and OC Spray. Rubber gloves are good too because we have to help everyone and we can’t slow down even when they’re injured due to the crimes they’ve been committing. We still have to help them so we have to protect ourselves from the potential blood-borne pathogens, so rubber gloves are good. The officer would obviously have a fully stocked first-aid kit in his trunk, be capable of speaking four languages, be paramedic certified, and maybe, just for good measure, be studying for the priesthood.

Am I being sarcastic? Yeah, a little. I think it would be great to have an officer that speaks four languages and is paramedic certified. But I think he should have a gunbelt with all necessary tools and immediate access to larger arms such as shotguns, carbines or rifles. A combat vest with ballistic plates and extra magazines would be great. Yes, I want that officer to be Joe Friendly and assist every citizen he can. But when the feces hits the oscillating rotator and everything schtinks, I want him to be able to armor up, grab a significant weapon and face the gates of hell properly equipped and ready to rock.

Why? Because I’d far prefer for him to have to do it than for him not to be available and have any American citizen become victimized by a criminal or a terrorist. No citizen should ever have to wait for help simply because the agency felt an MDT was more important than body armor that day; or because a blackberry was deemed of greater value than an AR-15 and seven magazines of ammo.

I think it’s interesting that we have some euphemisms we use every day but we never take seriously: War on Crime, War on Drugs, War on Terror, etc. War? A War is fought by WARRIORS, not social workers. The social workers come in after the fight has been fought and won. WARRIORS can act like social workers after the battle has been joined and thoroughly won. No warrior should ever face a battle improperly equipped because his leadership felt that administrative technology was more important than the tools of combat.

For the past several decades our technological capabilities have grown by leaps and bounds, but at no time has anyone come up with a technology to replace the people behind the badge. Further, no technology has been invented that relieves those people from having to commit physical acts of aggression or violence to combat those who prey on the innocents of our world. Since that is an unalterable reality, let’s insure that those people have all of the necessary tools of aggression and violence first, aid and assistance second, and whiz-bang administrative technology last. ‘Nough said… BE SAFE!