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In today's cyber environment, many public safety organizations struggle to advance their technology and maintain security. Many departments would love to seek out efficiencies through advanced, cost-saving technology. They know they must improve their cybersecurity and operating efficiency. Unfortunately, due to limited technology consulting budgets, these same departments are often at the mercy of vendor promises and integrators whose recommendations primarily benefit their own bottom line.
Since key leadership within the department must have some assurance that their department's limited budgets are being well-spent, they must know the efforts of their information technology staff and service providers to forward the stated public safety mission. Even leadership for technology departments can benefit from financially disinterested and qualified professionals' input on how they are doing.
Likewise, outside input can often be leveraged to obtain better terms, rates and even higher quality service, as it can discover weaknesses and reaffirm strengths in ways that no financially interested party can. There is nothing better than having a fresh set of qualified eyes in the form of a technology advisory group to review operations with the goal of helping to improve the environment for improvement's sake, and not for a bigger check.
The benefits of a technology advisory group
From the smallest independent technologist to managed service providers and large integrators, the technology community often gets involved with the public by offering their services to religious and nonprofit organizations, those who have suffered from disaster, and others who are in need. Personally, I see many associations designed to improve education and help those who wish to succeed in the industry by providing valuable insight into how these companies work and what it means to run a technology business.
There are many organizations designed to tie together the community of technologists with law enforcement to fight crime and better protect society. They do this through groups like Orange County, Calif.'s OC Shield; the Orange County Homeland Security Advisory Council; the FBI's InfraGard; and the U.S. Secret Service Electronic Crimes Task Force. I participate in all of the above groups, but strictly work with, and not on or in any of the partner departments.
The vast majority of public-private partnerships are designed to improve the public's safety through services provided by law enforcement to individuals and commercial entities, from education to prevention, and even intervention and post-victimization support. What I do not see are highly qualified civilian professionals who are partnering with law enforcement on a volunteer level to benefit the department and public safety.
Now, having worked with the Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD) since 2009 in exactly that capacity, I understand why: law enforcement leaders have never been introduced to the idea, and they are skeptical of motives.
Those who would like to help their local sheriff or police department often have no idea how to start, and there is an understandable distrust between law enforcement and outsiders poking around and asking questions. While getting started can be a challenge, it is amazing what can happen once everyone has had a background check and the sworn members begin to realize folks are just there to help.
Assisting law enforcement agencies
When I was appointed by the Orange County sheriff, Sandra Hutchens, in 2009 to run the department's technology advisory group, she was acting as a truly forward-thinking leader. She was newly appointed and had devastating budget cuts to contend with, but she knew that technology was part of the answer. The sheriff needed an honest view of where the department stood with its technology, so she searched out the independent advice she knew the department needed.
Sheriff Hutchens, who I did not know at the time, approached me after receiving recommendations from others, explained what she needed and asked for my commitment to put together a volunteer team that could help. This action formed what is now known as the OCSD Community Technology Advisory Council (CTAC).
The OCSD CTAC includes a number of top professionals from various technology backgrounds and disciplines. These professionals are all volunteers, and they have agreed that their services cannot be used as a nexus to gain business from the department -- they are dedicated to offering their professional advice and consultation.
For the first several years, we all worked to find the best way to support both the department and Sheriff Hutchens -- the Community Technology Advisory Council worked closely with various members of command and, of course, Sheriff Hutchens herself.
The past several years have been productive because we've worked very closely with Undersheriff Don Barnes, who is the department's COO and the biggest technology advisory group cheerleader. Undersheriff Barnes is a no-nonsense and highly effective manager who fully understands the importance of technology. With Undersheriff Barnes' support, we have been able to work closely with the OCSD's IT director, Kirk Wilkerson, and his staff, resulting in positive and impactful work.
The OCSD Community Technology Advisory Council is focused on technology and security through best practices that can improve efficiency, help to ensure cybersecurity and increase the return on tax dollars invested. Wherever possible, the CTAC helps to facilitate relationships with vendors, while looking out for the best interests of the department and Orange County taxpayers. The CTAC operates under strict confidence and nondisclosures to be sure that no operations are compromised and that vital confidential information is never released to the public.
"Members of TAC formally agreeing to not solicit or otherwise seek profit from the sheriff's department or coroner's office limits any questions about personal motives. It helps those like myself who interact with TAC members to trust they are here to help and for the right reasons," said Wilkerson. "They offer invaluable and unfiltered support and advice that would be difficult and very costly to purchase."
Since the OCSD CTAC has delivered on its review and report functions for nearly eight years, it has had impactful interactions with many members of the rank-and-file sworn and civilian members of the department, all levels of command, information technology leadership and IT team members. CTAC members draw from their professional disciplines, personal observations and information provided by both sworn and civilian staff members.
"Members are respected practitioners in computer sciences, networking, physical and logical security, telecommunications, AFIS [Automated Fingerprint Identification System], infrastructure, vendor management and more," said Undersheriff Barnes. "The professional independent insights provided the TAC [are] very helpful to us as leaders. The TAC offers us highly qualified points of view that are not swayed by profit or self-preservation. It is a powerful thing to have a group like this that we can call on when we need them, and all without budget concerns."
After running advisory committees for legislators and other civic leaders for more than a decade, I know that this type of arrangement would benefit many departments and other law enforcement-affiliated organizations throughout California and the country. Even where budget constraints are less of an issue, having volunteer professionals providing an independent view and laymen's translation to the department's leadership is a wonderful thing. Dedicated technology advisory groups like CTAC bring with them many positive factors from which every community could benefit.
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