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Big ideas bring big benefits when small groups think and act together

When we think of technical innovation, we often conjure up images of the rich and famous entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates and their paradigm shifting products and initiatives. These technologists were bold enough to advance big ideas that continue to have a big impact on the world. Their popularity and legacies grow by the day.

In my experience though, most bold ideas and innovations come from everyday folks. Their names may not be well known and some of us would hardly consider them hi-tech innovators.

Take for example, the story of Chief Mike Bradley, the former chief of the Long Beach Township Police Department, in New Jersey. He ignited a spark across the state to layer the various types of existing and disparate law enforcement data sets and leverage it to combat crime.

Long Beach Township is a shore community in Ocean County. During the summer, the town swells with thousands of vacationers and beach goers. In the colder months, the population dwindles, and the traffic light cycles are switched to continuous flash.

During his tenure, Chief Bradley discovered several public safety concerns that were unique to the ebb and tide of the tourists and the sea – they were “shore things.” One “shore thing” of particular concern, was the phenomenon of cross-jurisdictional criminals visiting the beach. It is a problem for Long Beach Township throughout the year.

In the winter, these serial offenders, particularly burglars, would take advantage of vacant summer homes to ply their trade. In the summer, these offenders would blend in – camouflaged by the crowds of vacationers. Chief Bradley knew that these circumstances would make it a challenge for his cops to identify the perpetrators. He knew there had to be a technological solution.

When we think of Jobs, Musk, and Gates and their respective innovations we think of teams of technologists huddled together daily collaborating over what their constituents need. But in law enforcement, there is often this wide gap between the technologists and what is truly needed in the field operationally.

Those able to bridge this gap often reap long lasting benefits that not only aid their own departments but the larger community in the long term. Here was the genius of Chief Bradley. Knowing a local technologist, he challenged him in 2013 to help solve his transient crime problem. Nearly a hundred years earlier, the highwaymen, as they were called, would rob unsuspecting victims on their weekend jaunts as they travelled outside the cities. Police then were limited to the technology of the day – flags, automobiles, and saddled horses – to combat the problem. That would not be the answer for today’s highway and byway criminals.

Chief Bradley knew that the data from the automated license plate readers coming onto his barrier island layered with other law enforcement data sets he had access to could somehow identify perpetrators of the crimes in his jurisdiction. The collaborative partnership between the operator in the field and the technologist would take close to two years to develop a prototype of what is now a core component across the state for identifying, arresting, and prosecuting serial offenders whose victims’ span jurisdictions.

Most importantly, with accurate data driven information police can target criminals with a high degree of precision.

So how did this all occur?

First, Chief Bradley did not accept the status quo as it related to investigating serial crimes occurring in his jurisdiction.

Second, he understood that value of technology as a force multiplier, and how aggregated disparate law enforcement data sets could yield a far greater awareness of criminal activity and its offenders.

Third, he knew that if he had the patience and spent enough time collaborating with a technologist to tease out and understand the problem, they could collectively develop an effective solution.

Fourth, the technologist was willing to listen to the needs of the Chief and not think he had a solution before a problem was identified.

And lastly, the two were willing to invest the time and energy into developing a capability that while not an overnight success would achieve great benefit in the long-term.

There are said to be three phases of innovation: insight, identifying the problem, and creating a solution. While this description is useful for understanding what underscores innovation, it does not do justice toward delineating what it takes in terms of time, collaboration, and the implementation challenges that will be faced along the way. More importantly, the timeline of the innovation will consist of the highs and lows related to the people, processes, and technologies involved. In other words, innovation is not for the weak at heart or the impatient, it takes time, perseverance., and relentless follow up.

Seven years later, Chief Bradley’s vision of leveraging law enforcement data sets to identify burglars victimizing his residents has been realized. However, his vision has now blossomed into something much larger: a crime fighting tool that provides commanders, investigators, and analysts with the necessary information needed to identify and combat patterned crime, gun violence, and those serial offenders committing these crimes.

Over the years, more and more believers in Bradley’s vision came together to contribute their insights and experiences into the project. Today, this endeavor has evolved into a much larger capacity that underpins the state’s precision policing capability, which overlays and leverages available law enforcement data to provide justice to victims, resolution to their families, and peace to impacted communities.

What can we learn from Chief Bradley? It is not enough to have a big idea; it is just as important to seek out a team to advance that idea and see it to fruition. We are grateful to Chief Bradley for showing us the way!

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