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Tech squad chief

Technology has become indispensable in battling crime. Victoria Police CIO Valda Berzins makes sure the force uses it to the full.

Any aficionado of TV cop shows knows that technology is increasingly important in the fight against crime. Whether it is flagrant Cisco product placement enabling Jack Bauer to catch a terrorist before the world goes boom in 24, or a CSI bad guy being nabbed by a lightning-quick database of villains' DNA profiles, we have become accustomed to the idea that the police are a high-tech lot.

Working as a chief information officer within the force is, therefore, a job that many would probably like. No pesky shareholders to impress, a dynamic working environment and clear examples of how your technology innovation has helped further the greater good of society. In Victoria, the police CIO job is held by Valda Berzins, who left her role at Australia Post to take on the crime-fighting challenge.

Berzins is closing in on the completion of a significant tech refresh policy. It involves updating 10,700 PCs and adding another 1500 to accommodate the growing demand for technology within the force. She is in a good position to reflect on the challenges she faces as the culture within the police evolves - and on the progress she has already made.

Despite a heavy workload, she says that she is relishing the job, in a time of change and improvement in police IT.

"All of a sudden, we have a situation where we are trying to implement a whole raft of new systems," Berzins says. "A lot of them are updates of older systems and some are allied to major cultural change, such as how we want to run rosters in Vic Police with work/life balance considerations taken into account. These sit alongside improvements to how police can actually do their job in the field and back at the station."

Among the numerous projects on the go internally is a replacement of the law enforcement assistance program, which is government funded; a replacement of human-resources systems; an implementation of a rostering program; a seized property system; and an upgraded forensic system.

One of the most important developments in recent times, however, has been the launch of a mobile data network that covers all emergency services in the state. It was initiated in a deal with Motorola worth $140 million back in 2003.

From safety to efficiency

The Bureau of Emergency Services Telecommunications, within the Department of Justice, managed the initiative. It was intended to provide a major upgrade of Victoria's capacity to deal with large-scale emergencies, as well as everyday activities. For Berzins, the challenge was to enable the police service to make the best use of the new potential.

The force initially equipped 700 police cars in the metropolitan Melbourne area with data terminals, with a view to greater statewide deployment to come. Berzins says the data terminals were installed to improve the safety of police officers but that immediate access to the police database caused a considerable improvement in the efficiency and performance of officers in the field.

In the past, if police saw a suspicious car or individual lurking on the street and wanted to know if there were any warrants out on them, they would have to ring in to a call centre, give a description and wait for someone to get back to them.

"With the city busy like it is on a Friday or Saturday night, an officer ringing a call centre for important information would often end up in a queue," Berzins says.

"With a PC-based system that allows officers to type the information in for themselves and get answers quickly zapped back to them, they can act on the car or person in question or let them go, as appropriate. If the vehicle isn't registered, you can grab them immediately, rather than watching them drive off and having to look for them again later."

Satellite technology that tracks a police vehicle's location complements this initiative, allowing the closest cars to be sent to an emergency. There is also a separate project that is installing video in police cars for the traffic-management unit.

The success of the mobile system was apparent quickly. Police figures show that since the technology's introduction, the number of vehicles being checked for regulatory offences associated with suspended registrations, unregistered vehicles, unlicensed and disqualified drivers has increased by four to five times.

Aside from the criminal-catching element, the system has also unshackled officers from time-consuming desk work. Information can now be entered into the system at the scene of an incident, rather than the officer having to make notes on the street and then re-enter the details back at the office.

Training, connecting

"The technology has freed up officers to do the real policing, as opposed to sitting at the police station in front of their computer, which is not what they have been hired to do," Berzins says.

An important job for her team is to train police so they can make use of the technology in an operational sense. The same principal applies to all upgrades. The tech refresh and new mobility deployment system are big efforts in logistics, as well as being technical tasks.

The method for training staff depends on the nature of the initiative. Berzins mixes formal courses, where people have to come in and attend various academies, with onsite tutorials and roadshows, DVDs or the intranet to get the message across.

She finds that some older police officers can be cynical towards new developments, but when technology can clearly be shown to improve the way officers can perform their jobs, people quickly open up to new methods and ideas. To implement this technology, staff work closely with operational teams so their requirements are understood, which can lead to an unusual day's work for an IT employee. When new people join the IT team, part of their induction involves being assigned a police buddy, whom they accompany out on the beat for a day in order to get a genuine appreciation of where their back-office work will end up.

Berzins finds this involvement particularly rewarding. She reports directly to Chief Commissioner of Police Christine Nixon, alongside two deputy commissioners and a further group of 25 people, including police officers and senior public servants. Berzins says the environment is structured to encourage a collaborative approach.

"There is a different level of innovation than I experienced in my former role, because policing is such a special profession. The innovation that can be achieved is more exciting, in all honesty, because you know that what you are doing is going to do good for the public if you get it right," she says. "Knowing that you are helping people and the state helps drive innovation because people are motivated by good intentions, rather than just putting some more dollars on the bottom line of an organisation's profit."

With the IT refresh due to finish at the end of December, Berzins says there is plenty of scope for planning future initiatives and ongoing improvement. Ideas are shared with police forces from around the country in a cross-jurisdictional police CIO forum.

She says there is a fair amount of collaboration with federal organisations such as CrimTrac and the IT division of the Australian Crime Commission. "Biometrics is something we are looking into, as all of those sorts of technologies are of huge interest to police. We will pilot some things but there is nothing firmly planned at this stage."

© Fairfax Business Media

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