There is probably someone reading this who is within arm’s reach of a fax machine. Still more common, is the sight and sound of a commercial grade printer/copier/scanner not far from one’s workstation. While some public safety agencies like fire fighters, emergency medical services (EMS) personnel or security companies, believe these types of machines will always be part of their office landscape, others are finding the benefits of embracing the paperless approach. Going paperless and switching to a digital format is not as challenging as some may think and the advantages continue to grow as technology streamlines the process.
Creating a Permanent Record
Most law enforcement agencies are moving to cloud-based systems, or at least moved away in the recent past. Boxes of police reports, arrest affidavits, use of force reports, investigative files, and more can take up significant physical space. Often, these files ended up producing even more paper when the information contained within them was needed. For example, it is not unusual for a detective to need a case file from several years ago for an upcoming court proceeding. As mentioned, these files were often stored in paper form, usually in a box within a secure room with thousands of other reports. Knowing these were often the only copy of a report, detectives would spend time at a copy machine, making duplicates of the files to bring to court. In other words, more paper.
The use of a modern records management system (RMS) can help agencies reduce the perceived dependence on paper and ensure records are securely retained. With cloud storage of the RMS data combined with computer aided dispatch (CAD), the concern over the extant copy of a paper report being lost or damaged is removed. Instead, these digital records remain a part of the agency annals for as long as desired without the need to store bulky paper files.
As advances in forensic science continue, the likelihood of cold cases being solved increases as well. When stored in paper files, decades-old investigative reports can pose a danger to the successful conclusion of cold cases. A well-meaning detective may have pulled the file with the intent of reopening the case. However, pressing duties meant the reports sat on his desk for a few weeks, then into a drawer for a few months. As time passes, offices are moved, people are transferred or promoted, and paper files have a way of vanishing.
Regardless of when a case originated, cloud-storage solutions offer case file integrity with permanent retention of important reports. Paper files can be incorporated into the modern digital RMS and accessed by detectives or other authorized personnel as needed. Lost or damaged paper files can be an issue that is discussed as a thing of the past and no longer a concern for public safety personnel.
Going Paperless Means Improved Data Organization
An anonymous tip about an unsolved homicide comes into a law enforcement agency. The information points to a burglary case in which a distinct item, a class ring, was stolen. For the police department still in the paper report age, the search through files and fading human memories begins. Countless hours can be spent trying to find the theft case previously thought to be unrelated to the now years-old homicide. Was the burglary a few weeks or a few months before the murder? Or was it after? Was it in the same precinct or a different part of town? Maybe the cold case is destined to remain unsolved.
With a state-of-the-art cloud-based RMS combined with state-of-the-art dispatch systems, a few entries into the search function are likely to reveal exactly the case in question. Dates, time, subjects, and perhaps its relevance to the homicide could all be found in a fraction of the time it would take to comb through boxes of paper files. Of course, this benefit extends to more routine cases as well. Even the most sophisticated filing system cannot compare to the efficiency of being able to access the whole of an agency’s RMS from any enabled device. From a desktop to a laptop, from a tablet to a smartphone, instant, digital information has proven its superiority over the paper format.
Other advantages of a paperless system include the service an agency can provide to the public. In the era of government transparency, accessibility of records is expected. The information in police reports is often a matter of public record. While there are obvious exceptions for confidential data and active investigations, the citizens served by a public safety agency are usually entitled to reports related to the organization’s activities.
When paper copies of records were still the most frequent way to get them to the public, it was not uncommon to see a black marker used to redact parts of the report. In the digital realm, the redactions can be done electronically and with greater efficiency. Victims’ names, social security numbers, and other information can be easily removed from reports before they are distributed. The ability to send the files via email also increases the quality of service provided and saves money by not having to print and mail hard copies of reports.
Cloud Flexibility and the Paperless Transition
When files were stored in boxes and space was nearing capacity, agencies had to make tough and often expensive decisions. Building additional rooms or renting storage is costly. Repurposing other areas in a police station often meant sacrificing another component of the operation. Discarding old files to make room meant making the risky decision its contents would never be needed in the future. Of course, anything from a leaky pipe to a natural disaster could make all of these measures moot if these files were destroyed.
RMS combined with dispatch software can offer cloud-based solutions that can easily be expanded to meet the growing data storage needs of 21st-century public safety agencies. Additionally, the cloud offers redundant safety features ensuring data is not only available but protected from loss. While paper and copiers may still be found occasionally, they are likely destined to go the way of the rotary phone as cloud technology offers practical paperless alternatives.