A few years ago, the Apple Inc. slogan, "There's an app for that" went viral.
Whether marketing serious smartphone applications or parodying popular culture, even back then, it was clear that mobile applications were the way of the future.
And in the seven years since, all kinds of industries, services and individuals have developed their own apps. But until recently, police departments have been tentative about entering the world of mobile applications.
More than a trend
In October 2013, the Victoria Police Department (VicPD) in British Columbia became the first Canadian police agency to unveil an interactive mobile application, which Victoria's public can use to report or track crimes online from their hand-held devices.
"We're really excited to be working so directly with the public," says Cst. Mike Russell, of the VicPD. "This product is for the public and to see people using this every day is great."
Their application has 14 different features, including push notifications about missing children or Amber Alerts, crime reporting and the ability to geolocate or track crimes happening in the radius of places like homes, schools or businesses.
Jamieson Johnson, the vice president of business development for MobilePD, the company that developed the application for the VicPD, says that with brand-new notification features and the updated operating system for iPhones, it's the best app they've ever worked on.
Johnson adds that apps are almost a necessity now.
"I think that communication between the police department and the community is something that's universal," says Johnson. "No matter what city you go to, everybody's going to want that kind of level of communication and real-time information. People are just expecting that."
The first public safety-related application MobilePD ever developed was for the Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD) two years ago. Santa Cruz was the first North American police agency to develop an interactive mobile app.
For SCPD Deputy Chief Steve Clark, it was a "no-brainer" decision.
"We realized that this was the way our community consumes information," says Clark. "And we wanted to find ways to increase transparency and to continue to make ourselves relevant and important in the lives of the people that depend on us."
The most popular feature on the SCPD's app is the police scanner. With a 90-second delay, users can listen to the various calls for service that are happening across their city. Clark says it was important for the department to show the people they serve how hard they work.
For Johnson, that's the whole purpose of public safety applications – and that's what he would want to tell agencies that are unsure of this kind of technology.
"I think the ultimate goal is for this to result in a safer community," says Johnson. "A lot of hesitant departments have come around when they actually see the return on their investments just based on the increase in safety in their communities."
Making the effort
One of the VicPD's other social media ventures has also generated a lot of attention from the community. Last year, they got their own account on Pinterest, a site where you can post photos and links to various things from across the Internet to your own page, to track down the owners of stolen property.
They called their page "Is this yours?" and after exhausting all the available databases and resources to find the property owners, they put up images of property from bikes and iPads to wedding photos and coin collections.
"The feedback on that has been really positive, even just from people that just think that it's neat that we'd be doing something like this to make that extra effort to try and get the stuff back for them," says Russell.
Although it can be a risky move to open up your organization to the public, Clark says the days of a closed-off police culture are no longer realistic. People want information, and they now have the means to seek it out. It's time police consider what they gain from withholding information.
"I would encourage those departments that are hesitant to really have an honest discussion about why they're afraid to expose themselves in this way," says Clark. "Not getting involved is almost counterculture now because it's through tools like this that you're able to build relationships."