Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Business Targets Law Enforcement

I’ve long argued for commercial principles in government and so, a big grin continued to expand across my face as I read Sarah Bridges’ Retailer Target Branches Out Into Police Work piece in the Washington Post.


Most large retail operations have in-house ‘inventory conservation enforcement’ programs of one kind or another, a euphemism for making sure shoplifting and employee theft don’t get out of hand. Target, the retailing giant, has just such a department that’s been unusually strong and effective over the years, building on latest technology as well as recruiting top-level law enforcement officials to make it run.


And run it does, to the envy of such police entities as the FBI and police departments nationwide.


TargetrobertulrichRobert J. Ulrich, Chairman and CEO at Target had one of those moments we’ve all had over breakfast, when he read about a repeat offender walking out of a courtroom because the judge wasn’t aware he had a record elsewhere in the state. The State was Minnesota and Target is headquartered in Minneapolis. It turned out the man who was released raped a woman the day after his dismissal and Ulrich was outraged. He wanted to know how the guy got out of jail so fast and assigned Nathan Garvis, Target's vice president of government affairs, to find out.


It turned out that one branch of Minnesota law enforcement didn’t have access to another agency's records. Uh huh, guess we’ve all heard that one. City, county, state and federal criminal record systems had different ways of entering data and couldn't routinely share information. According to Garvis, "It struck me that following repeat criminals was really an inventory-management problem."


A eureka moment and confirmation of my prejudice. A government agency would never think like that.


Unlike many competitors, who may have developed some degree of technology in order to keep an eye on things, Target has been called “a technology company masquerading as a retailer.” Be that as it may, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, there are those who credit Target for teaching police departments that may have been masquerading as law enforcement agencies. Target’s high profile helpings-out include


  • A Houston arson-homicide in 2004, where a woman and two children died in a fire.

  • A bank robbery that the FBI brought brought in to try to figure out who the criminal was, who happened to have been videotaped. Target experts made an identification that led to conviction.

  • Building a forensics lab for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

  • Including FBI and other agency officials in their corporate leadership programs

  • Providing various agencies with trucks filled with electronics and other merchandise to lure criminals.

  • Running programs for the World Customs Organization to protect cargo with advanced technical systems.

  • Developing surveillance programs in various cities to monitor high-crime areas.

That’s pretty impressive stuff. Still, uncomfortable with such close associations,  Ernesto Dal Bó a professor at Berkeley says, "It is a tricky issue when firms get too close to government. There is no reason we need to say that anything bad is happening, but we do need to watch." There’s truth in that, no doubt. But commercial businesses run on a different parameter than government agencies and that can be refreshing.


In the matter of bringing Minnesota agencies together, Richard Stanek, a former Minnesota public safety commissioner said in the Post article, "This kind of thing had been tried before. The extra thing that Target brought was neutrality and mediation. They physically brought the different arms of law enforcement together and helped get us talking."


Neutrality and mediation--both huge problems in the reconfiguration and database management upgrading at the FBI and within agencies of the Homeland Security Agency. Turf Issues, hierarchies of data access, who’s in charge where and who might be stepping on someone else’s toes. If we have nothing else since 9-11, we have toes, tens of thousands more toes.


It’s possible that some of them need stepping on.
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See Taking My Country Personally on my personal web site.