Thursday, February 16, 2012

It's Not Enough To Have Great Software, You Have To Know How To Use It

The Denver Post had a piece yesterday that covered a controversy caused when a Denver Police detective testified that their computer records management software overwrote information originally obtained in an investigation with information obtained later.

Witness descriptions of criminal suspects are often overwritten in computer records to reflect the descriptions of suspects later taken into custody by police, a Denver detective testified recently.

Defense attorneys say the system's flaws hide potentially exculpatory evidence, but the Denver Police Department denied that any evidence is intentionally overwritten or withheld.

Police spokesman Lt. Matt Murray on Tuesday said the detective who testified misunderstood how the computer record system works, and Murray promised a department wide refresher course on how to take and preserve witness statements.

Of course this brings up a significant issue. If the victim in a criminal case originally describes the suspect one way, and then the information is later changed to reflect a differing description of the person later arrested it appears that the evidence is being changed to fit the police agency's theory of who is responsible for the crime. If it's done unintentionally it's unfair and if it's done intentionally to frame the arrested person it's criminal. I'm not going to way in one way or the other in this particular case other than to say in both instances it's wrong.

What I do think is important to take from this is that it is very important to know just how your records management system works. Most modern police records management software are very complicated pieces of software. But just because they are complicated does not negate your responsibility to know how to properly use it.

Being my agency's resident computer geek I am often called to help folks out with their computer problems. One thing I've frequently told folks is that you can't complain about your software not working as it was designed if you aren't using it in the way it was intended to be used.

For instance I once was called to help a detective with his computer. He was having trouble accessing and retrieving documents he had created in Microsoft Word. As I began to work with him I noticed that his trash can icon indicated that there were a number of items in the "Recycle Bin". In order to help him get his files organized I emptied the Recycle Bin. Horrified, he then told me that this was where he was storing all his documents.

As we talked about this disaster, he indicated that he did not know how to access or create folders on his computer so he just stored all his working documents in the Recycle Bin as this was the one location he knew how to access.

Does your agency provide training on its various software applications? Is this provided by the software vendor or other knowledgable person or is your training more like "the blind leading the blind"?

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