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Q&A: Ex-police commissioner Bill Bratton launches 'Facebook for cops'

Q&A: Ex-police commissioner Bill Bratton launches 'Facebook for cops'

Posting in Technology

Bratton, the ex-police commissioner for New York City and Boston, creates a social network for cops.

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You might want to file this idea in the "why didn't I think of it" folder: a secure social network for cops. Police officers, like firemen and physicians, form pretty strong communities that have naturally occurring bonds. They are also protective of their methods and regulations. So a private social network tailored for them makes a lot of sense. It also has the potential to make a lot of money.

And the company that might cash in on it is Bratton Technologies, a startup founded by three men, David Riker, Jack Weiss, and Bill Bratton, the former Chief of Police for Los Angeles Police Department, and the former Police Commissioner for New York City as well as the city of Boston. During his 40-year career, Bratton has been an outspoken supporter of collaboration among officers and various departments and so this network, called BlueLine, is his hope to ensure collaboration happens.

Riker explained that the police industry in the United States has become extremely decentralized and that BlueLine may finally get the cross-discussion that simply does not exist. (Apparently communication between the sheriff's department and the local police in the same area is very rare.)

BlueLine takes advantage of the best of what Facebook and LinkedIn have already proven. It officially launched during the International Association of Police Chief's annual conference just three weeks ago in Philadelphia. The site now has 3,000 members and plans to increase that number by 1,000 per day.

Should BlueLine reach its intended success the team at Bratton Technologies sees huge potential in recreating the format for other verticals, like firemen, lawyers, or any profession that forms a community and requires a step up from a simple listserv.

We reached Chief Bratton on the phone to talk about BlueLine and his experiences in the startup world.

A protected space for cops makes so much sense that one wonders why it hadn't been done sooner. What was your motivation to finally do it?

The genesis for the idea was really looking at Facebook and LinkedIn as we were developing the idea of creating a technology company with my two partners, David Riker and Jack Weiss. It was very surprising to me how many cops were active on Facebook and LinkedIn, given how private they tend to be about their personal lives. It was a revelation.

Why?

My experience with cops is they are very guarded about what they share both professionally and personally. They're always concerned about exposing their families to any type of exposure. The three of us quickly focused on the idea that maybe we could create a professional network site that could attract police with the knowledge that they were operating in a secure, professional environment ... that the only other people on the site were other cops.

I think I know cops after 40 years in the business. So I had the ability to point David and his technical team toward a lot of cops who could help them understand the cop psyche.

How did that research and insight impact the development of the site?

Well, we spent a lot of time on the design. What should it look like? And how can we make it attractive to cops from the moment they log in? The first thing we were told is it has to be free. Secondly, that the thing that drives all of us crazy with social media is pop-up ads where you have to wait for up to 30-60 seconds for an ad to run before you can get access to what you want to do. So we have no pop-up ads on BlueLine. There will be an opportunity when you get on the site to directly find groups that you want to join, and individuals that you might want to interact with. As we're continuing to expand we continue to seek feedback from them so we can make it a useful, engaging and informative experience.

Your partner David Riker mentioned that many of the posts so far have involved police requesting information about certain types of policing or methods. For instance he showed me a post about campus policing and rules surrounding that. What else is popular on the site?

One thing we want to make clear is that this is not about exchanging photos of their most recent vacation. This is a professional network to be used to expand their professional knowledge and network and contacts.

And this is what separates it from Facebook. The video conferencing is one of the most popular features. It is easy and very convenient. A dozen people at the same time can discuss an issue in real time.

What other sorts of discussions are happening?

Well it's not unlike the sorts of conversations that I've engaged in for 20 years as chief of police with my colleagues -- for example, what just happened at LAX.

You're referring to the shooting that killed a TSA agent.

That might be the sort of thing where the chiefs in that region, of which there were about a dozen, could quickly connect with each other. [Officers can also share photos of gang tattoos on the site and get information from other officers in other parts of the country regarding a specific tattoo.]

But to be clear, this site is not to be used to discuss details of investigations. It can, however, be used to facilitate investigations by putting people together for general conversation and discussion.

How do you control that, to make sure the community is remaining within the limits?

It's largely self-policed. These are police professionals that are motivated to be mindful if any groups get off base. We're not looking for an entity that goes on rants. We're also not engaged in monitoring the various groups.

How are you protecting the site from hackers?

The encryption capabilities are several times that provided on, say, Facebook. The servers we are using are all CJIN-qualified, that's the Criminal Justice and Information Network.

We also validate who comes on to the site. People can use department email addresses as a form of verification. If they don't have one, then there are other verification levels that are necessary before you can get on to the site. The reality is that nothing is totally secure, but it's about as secure as you can expect.

What are the next steps for Bratton Technologies and BlueLine?

The first step is to get enough users on the site to attract potential investors in the next investment round. The second is to expand the number of companies advertising on the site.

What companies are you attracting already?

Clothing companies, automobile companies, gun companies. BlueLine is a way for such companies to reach thousands of officers and hopefully eventually thousands of police departments. This audience no longer reads a lot of print magazines and responds to traditional mailings. These are people used to the virtual world.

To have such a captive and specialized audience appears to be a slam dunk for attracting advertisers.

I hope you're correct. We certainly think we have a slam dunk idea. The response has been very strong. We just have to come up with creative ways to reach the 800,000 police officers and get them on the site.

Many of the 11,000 vendors who sell to police markets are interested in the site. It's a very cost-effective way to reach a large police audience made up of executive police officers, the skill set officers, like the swat officers, the gang officers. A number of companies shave already come on to the site to advertise.

We now recognize that these are ideas and tools that are not only viable for the law enforcement market but also viable for other professions, such as doctors. If we can perfect this system for law enforcement with its features, part of its scalability, part of its attraction to investors, the idea is that it eventually can grow into other professional environments. Think about this: The internal combustion engine works well whether it's in a Lincoln or a Volkswagen. And similarly this idea can work well within the police profession, the legal profession, the medical profession.

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure