Online Crime Reporting: Should Law Enforcement Turn to the Internet for Savings?

Article excerpt

Local governments continue to face difficult financial times, and so do law enforcement agencies, which are confronting budget cutbacks, hiring freezes, military call-ups, and loss of officers through attrition. Some even have had difficulty in recruiting high-quality candidates. These circumstances have led administrators to review the police services provided by the department and to eliminate or reduce such items as community services or school resource officers. Some departments are paying overtime to maintain a minimum number of officers on the street.

Online crime reporting is one solution that offers staffing relief. This article will show how police departments are starting to use the Internet to give citizens the option of filing electronic police reports, without the department's having to assign a patrol officer to a call.

Businesses are requiring police reports from their customers for a range of purposes. Cellphone companies are one example. When a user loses a cellphone, he or she is told to file a police report by the cellphone company in order to get a replacement phone. Insurance companies are another example, requiring police reports to support claims, even in incidents when there is no evidence or information about the suspects and little chance of an arrest by a police agency.

The result is an increase in demand for police services, at a time when community resources already are stretched thin by budget cuts. Managers face difficult decisions about which services to drop and about the impact on the community, as well as any potential negative publicity. So, managers might first consider the use of practical technology to help streamline operations.

USING E-REPORTS

One idea is using the Internet for online crime and incident reports. Online reporting systems permit citizens to file specified types of police reports themselves, over the Internet, 24/7, even on holidays. Law enforcement employees can later download the reports during normal working hours. The system has the added benefit of keeping patrol officers in service for proactive activities, instead of tying them up on routine reports.

Filing a crime or incident report online is a clear-cut process. The citizen who needs to file a report can access the form through the police department's Internet Web site. A set of instructions will precede the report form, explaining what types of reports can be filed and giving explicit warnings that the system is not for emergency incidents or in-progress crimes but rather for "cold" crimes--those that are no longer in progress.

This form might include required fields for identifying such information as name, address, and date of birth. There may also be a warning that outlines the penalties for filing a false report.

Once the report has been entered online, police personnel can later download the form and check to make sure that the report meets the department's criteria for the types of incidents to report. A case or file number can be assigned the report, and then the form can be printed and filed in the records division of the agency.

In a perfect world, the form could be downloaded directly into the agency's record management system. Most departments using online reporting, however, have not been able to accomplish a direct download. To keep the time spent by employees on the report to a minimum, the complainant's name and date of birth, along with the assigned file number, can be entered by a records employee so that the printed form can later be tracked if needed. Records staff can send the complainant the case number by e-mail or postcard (an e-mail and postal address can be required fields).

An increasing number of localities have begun using online reporting, including San Diego, California; Sacramento, California; Fort Collins, Colorado; Boulder, Colorado; and Aspen, Colorado. Communities in the United Kingdom also are reporting crimes online. …