Bill Bratton: The Commissioner of Crowdsourcing

William J. Bratton is starting a networking site for sworn personnel to swap ideas and learning.  Every officer should sign up and ramp up the learning with and from his and her peers.

The best definition of crowdsourcing (CS)  I have found is “distributed problem-solving.” In this definition police can use the internet to fulfill one of Herman Goldstein’s fundamental tenets.  “Encourage a broad and uninhibited search” for solutions and locate the problem solving with the police personnel and community residents closest to the problems.  Those closest to the problem have the most intimate knowledge of and the greatest stake in preventing the problem from recurring.

Crowdsourcing has caught on pretty widely in all sectors of the US economy, including policing.  Early, limited applications in policing are tip lines and reward programs.   In Massachusetts we have seen it deployed recently by the State Police and Bristol County DA in searching for evidence in the murder case of Aaron Hernandez and in the FBI’s appeal to the public to ID the suspects  in the Marathon Bombing.  Why not use crowdsourcing more routinely in criminal investigations and crime prevention?

I think we could make great headway on the crime of breaking and entering with a crowdsourcing approach among regional police departments and between police and community.  The  consideration of how we would deploy crowdsourcing begins with a premise that should be stated.

Our goal, per Goldstein, would be to disrupt B&E networks and prevent B&Es.  That will involve capturing and prosecuting some thieves.  But clearing cases and arresting bad guys would be a means, not an end.  One of the consequences of current thinking and practice on B&E has been to leave individuals, families and neighbors feeling frustrated and isolated when a series of house breaks attacks their communities.  At the community meeting the parties don’t even talk about the same subject.  The community people talk about prevention and the police talk about investigations and target hardening.

The problem is NOT a police lack of caring or a lack of talent or skill.  It’s the power of the ideology that defines what constitutes serious crime and therefore deserves attention from serious police professionals.  It limits what we see as possible.

If I were a thief I think I would operate with a numbers of assumptions including:

  • I want money for dope.  I don’t care if that means stealing on my own, with a partner and/or with an organized, revenue-generating thieving network, with a top guy getting a big cut.
  • My crimes are not priorities for any police department anywhere.  They treat each incident or “rash” of incidents as discrete units.  And the larger the community the more likely I am to be seen as a Mickey Mouse criminal committing Mickey Mouse crimes.  My crimes will never get the attention that, say, bank robberies get.
  • When the people I steal from get angry and hold a neighborhood meeting and demand help from the local police, the captain or other boss will come to the meeting and give them a number of reasons why it is hard to catch me.
  • They never go after the crimes as a racket, as with gangs or organized crime syndicates. No one ever bothers me at my home or on the street or in the car. I feel anonymous.
  • If my fence gets some heat I find another fence.  I have no qualms about driving or getting a ride to my fence. No one cares about what vehicles I drive or ride in.
  • I operate in a habitat within a reasonable distance from where I live.  I need to steal frequently because I never get scores large enough to steal less frequently.

B&Es deeply affect people in every community, whether affluent or struggling, renters or owners, elder and young, gay and straight and from every ethnic background.  Consider Boston as an illustration.

In the first half of 2013 all five police areas (A-E) reported over 100 burglaries each.   In financial terms burglars walked away with about $2.6 million in other peoples’ possessions in the first half of 2013.  That is much more in dollar terms than the $150,000 lost in the estimated 20 bank robberies in Boston for the entire year of 2011.

We can use CS among police to use all my of thief’s assumptions against me, to disrupt and prevent the thievery.  We can construct a disruptive network to correspond to every assumption I make as a thief.  When we apply what we know to what we do, we can identify who is doing the thieving.  We can identify the networks they belong to and who drives those networks. We can disrupt their operations by lawfully stopping them on the sidewalks, on the highways and at the thresholds of their front doors.

We can know, and let the subjects know we know, about where they live, where they “work,”what time they leave home for “work” and what time they come home; who they live with, sleep with, eat with; where they drink and what they drink; who they sell their loot to and from whom they buy their dope. We know and can let them know we know their terms of probation or parole, what they are wanted for and by whom.  We introduce daily uncertainty into their habitats to destroy their routines and continuously construct innovative, lawful barriers to their success.

When one B&E is reported we can activate the whole neighborhood to take preventive action — within the law — to learn what the neighbors know (or think they know subject to police vetting).

We’ll never prevent ALL B&Es but we can reduce them by continuously disrupting  the routines and the networks.

Let’s challenge the assumptions and see what is possible in this new era of high-quality, readily accessible data and networked communication.

[i] Using estimated figures from the FBI.  They do not keep data on bank robberies by individual city.


(Reuters) – Bill Bratton, the high-profile police commissioner who has run three of America’s largest police forces, is preparing to launch the first comprehensive social media network for police officers – a kind of Facebook for cops.

The network, known as BlueLine, will be launched globally at the International Association of Police Chiefs annual conference in Philadelphia in October.

BlueLine is part of a growing trend in high-tech information-sharing among law enforcement agencies that proponents say is producing a force-multiplying effect on crime-fighting in an era of dwindling police budgets and manpower. The collaboration enables better communication between different jurisdictions and helps police identify patterns of criminality.

Combining the most popular user functions of a number of leading social media sites, BlueLine is being billed by Bratton as the first secure network for cops. It’s also a safer alternative for a younger generation of officers who Bratton says share a shocking amount of information on public networks.

“If you’re a SWAT officer, gives you the ability to find other SWAT officers in departments around the country and engage them, share best practices, talk about innovations,” Bratton told Reuters recently.

The for-profit company behind BlueLine, Bratton Technologies, was founded to develop the proprietary product, and aims to generate revenue from a spectrum of cop-related products – everything “from socks to Glocks,” said BT Chief Strategy Officer Jack Weiss.

The network is being beta-tested this summer among about 100 officers in the Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and the University of Southern California police force.

Several dozen more police departments will join the beta test later this summer, said Bratton, who is BT’s chief executive officer.

Most existing law enforcement information-sharing networks involve sharing intelligence about specific cases, while BlueLine is geared toward collaboration on policing issues like gangs or drugs and product and technology advances.

Bratton has led the New York, Los Angeles and Boston police departments and was responsible in 1995 for introducing Compstat – a groundbreaking software-driven, crime-fighting strategy that mapped crime patterns and enabled real-time deployment of forces. For him, “collaboration is the key to successful policing.”

BlueLine includes the key elements and the look of Facebook, with “like” and “share” buttons and the ability to post messages, photos or video clips on a wall visible to other users.

The network also features secure videoconferencing capabilities and an iTunes-like app store open to third-party developers. A commercial component will allow companies that make policing products to market them directly to members of the roughly 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies in the United States and beyond.

The startup is being funded by G2 Investment Group, said G2 Chief Executive Officer Todd Morley. Bratton declined to say how much capital was involved.


Open only to accredited law enforcement officers, BlueLine users can create or join customized groups, with names like Gangs, Narcotics, New Technology or Sex Crimes – and then “crowdsource” colleagues for help with general aspects of investigations.

One group might discuss the benefits and drawbacks of a new type of police radio, or a new drug that has hit the streets of their town.

If a gangs investigator in one department comes across an unfamiliar tattoo on a suspected gang member, the cop can post it to a Gangs network, and someone from another department may help identify it as the sign of a new crew. Members can search for each other by name, geography, expertise and interest.

Data analytics companies are developing BlueLine applications, which will let users create databases – of gang tattoos or graffiti tags, for instance – and analyze them.

BlueLine will operate a secured network requiring multiple verifications to join, with protocols based on the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) guidelines, established to ensure secure transmission of criminal case information online, said David Riker, president of Bratton Technologies.

“This is not intended to replace strategic police communications capabilities,” said Bratton. “It is primarily for people to find each other,” he said. “We are quite clear about the guardrails we are staying within.”

(Reporting by Chris Francescani; Editing by Arlene Getz, Douglas Royalty and Prudence Crowther)



About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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