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Cops on Apps: You Have the Right to Remain Logged On

Police Department App

A police detective from Massachusetts is spreading the word at a law enforcement tech conference about a phone app he developed to help police departments harness the latest in mobile media.Fox News

The flyer bore a straightforward message: "Corporate America is using apps, why not the police?"

It was a message that benefited from a receptive audience in Chicago at the Social Media, Internet and Law Enforcement conference -- or SMILE -- where law enforcement officials from across the country and overseas are spending the next few days swapping ideas over how to harness the changing media and technology environment.

A detective from the small city of Peabody, Mass. -- don't call it "pea-BODY," it's "PEA-bitty" -- brought the flyer and his new gadget: an iPhone-Android app for police departments.

"It puts police services at your fingertips," Detective Peter Olson said of what his app can do for a city's residents.

The admitted tech-junky built the app himself, and he's been working on it for nearly a year. Users can offer a tip or report something suspicious, commend or critique an officer, and call department numbers or visit department websites without having to remember them. The app can also feature a police department's latest information and posts to social media such as Twitter and Facebook, offer a "Welcome Message" from a department's police chief, and include photos or specific contact information for department personnel.

When he first began working on the idea last summer, Olson asked two companies to estimate the cost for turning his idea into reality. They quoted him as much as $30,000 -- far too much money for a city of only 50,000 people to spend on something like that. "How are we goigng to be able to have an app?" Olson recalls thinking at the time. Then "the light bulb turned on," and he says he realized he should just start his own company to build the app.

In his company WiredBlue, he found an "opportunity" to build a "fun" and "simple" app with the features he'd want and the ability to customize them for each department, he says. A department can choose its own graphics, and if it doesn't use or want a certain feature, it doesn't have to be there. At the same time, any user can access any department that has signed up for the app.

Some police department apps do already exist, but for the most part they only let users send in tips or provide a single service, according to Olson. With such an approach, "You're going to have to download 30 apps," he says. "If you can put all those functions in one app, I think it's looking forward a lot."

The next step for Olson, though, is just trying to get his app officially launched. He expects that to happen within a month, after iPhone and Android folks give it the green light.

About a dozen police departments in cities across Olson's home state have already told him they want the app. Cities in Wisconsin and Maine have also signed on, and officials at the conference in Chicago have expressed interest.

"I'm excited about a big city getting on," says Olson, who started at the Peabody Police Department more than 11 years ago as a dispatcher.

Among those who have already expressed interest at the conference is Billy Grogan, chief of police in Dunwoody, Ga., outside Atlanta. He said he has been thinking "for some time" about developing an app to represent his department.

"I believe we have an untold number of citizens in my community who has a smartphone but does not engage with our department via our website, Facebook or Twitter," Grogan said. "I believe we can use [Olson's] product to reach that audience."

Olson says a department can have the app for about $650 a year, a "low cost" for cities to get more tips from the public and further engage with the people they serve. Grogan agrees, saying the cost "seems reasonable" and is something he'll be "investigating" when he's back home from Chicago.