Meet SPDs new tech boss, hired away from Amazon, originally from Scotland: Gregory Russell.
Meet the SPD's new tech boss, hired away from Amazon and originally from Scotland: Gregory Russell. SPD

Last month, Seattle police chief Kathleen O'Toole announced the hiring of Gregory Russell, a former vice president at Amazon, to the SPD's IT department. I sat down with Russell last week to talk about his experience and goals for Seattle, including his take on disclosure of data, body cameras, drones, the mesh network, and racially biased policing. At Amazon, he used to work with the CIA, by the way. Russell struck a casual, jovial tone, frequently capping his sentences with "et cetera, et cetera," and soft bursts of laughter.

I want to start by asking: It looks like way back, you worked for a contractor that provided services for the UK government. So, in a sense, this isn't necessarily your first time in public service, is it?

It's not my first time dealing with public service, but it is my first time working in public service. My first job in Scotland was in a software company, and that company wrote software for local authorities—housing type things. In the UK, at least back then, the government would own property and rent it out to the citizens. And then based on employment status, you may have qualified for housing benefits. So it was a deduction off your rent. I built software that did that. And I built really unpopular software, too, like software to automate the poll tax. Things like that. [Laughs]

Since then, you haven't been in government?

That's right.

What brought you stateside?

I was working for a company called Jabil Circuit. They build all kinds of electronic products—Cisco products, Hewlett Packard, etcetera, anything with an electronic circuit board inside of it, they'd build that. When I left that first job in the software company, I joined Jabil and my first role was to automate the shop floor, eliminate defects. I got promoted to headquarters in St. Petersburg, Florida. So that was a big change from Scotland. [Laughs]

Is your background more on the hardware or the programming side of things?

Everything. Prior to going to management, I'd say I was really a software guy. I wrote code. And as a manager at Jabil, it was a very low-margin business, and there weren't a lot of people, so I was forced to learn the hardware side as well. I'm very comfortable at both.

You've overseen some massive projects. Can you give an example of something that a layperson can wrap their head around? What's a major project that you saw through that had some kind of transformative effect or was a big deal?

I'm trying to think of one I can share. There's a lot of confidential stuff. A lot of what I've been doing in the roles I've had is helping companies grow at a rapid pace. For example, at Jabil, we acquired nine factories from Phillips on the same day. At Amazon, it's just helping that company scale. Amazon, I think, doubled in size during the four years I was there. How do you keep pace with that scale? How do you make sure the things you want from a technology perspective aren't blocking a company? Some things were blocking growth and I made those problems go away.

In your Q&A with the police department, you said something about "I've just been shipping boxes all over the place."

I think that was really taken out of context. There was a lot of really good stuff in those brown boxes. Amazon reinvented a lot of things. My role in the company was more of a back-office guy, dealing with financial systems and HR, et cetera, et cetera. I wasn't really involved in what went inside those brown boxes. The real message I was trying to convey was, look, I spent a lot of my time working on big corporations. There's a point in time that you take a job so big, and your team is so big, that you get disconnected from the details. You're not making as tangible an impact as you could within SPD.

Amazon has some kind of relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency—there's a contract for Amazon to provide cloud storage. Were you at all involved in that?

I was, from an infrastructure perspective, but you'd need to talk to them about that. It was super-secretive and I'll respect that.

Were you at South Lake Union?

The office I was in was right across from the West Precinct.

Have you interacted much with law enforcement before? Have you had buddies who were police or anything like that?


How did you first hear about this job?

I first saw it on LinkedIn. I was looking to do something different. And I always like fix-up projects. I like applying technology to help fix things. I did some research into what the chief was trying to do, and it felt like the work I'd like to do. And I actually applied for it.

Seattle police officers pose with their new vehicles, uniforms, and body cameras.
Seattle police officers pose with their new vehicles, uniforms, and body cameras. SPD

Now that you've been at SPD for a couple weeks, just how far back in the stone age, technology-wise, is SPD?

There's a lot we could do. My initial weeks have been about learning. So I've been doing a lot of ride-alongs with the cops and watching what they're doing. I'm just trying to observe how they're using technology—is it helpful or a hindrance? Sometimes it's a mix of both. And I've got a pretty good view of how the officers interact with technology and what the crime analysts do with the information, et cetera, et cetera. But I'm really more focused on changing how the IT group here thinks about technology and pulling together a strategy where we start simple and get more sophisticated over time.

I always start by thinking about the kind of mental model I want to have. I'm not a mission statement guy. They don't mean anything to me, they feel generic. One of the things I learned at Amazon is to use what I call tenets. I've got about seven or so that I've identified for this group:

1. We are obsessed with public safety and we are never the reason for lowering the bar.

2. We innovate on behalf of the public and the SPD, using technology to generate new insights, reduce environmental risk and eliminate avoidable work.

3. We enable transparency, but never at the expense of privacy.

4. Our solutions are sophisticated, yet simple to use.

5. We are truth-seekers that value precision and factual data. I am a very metric driven person. If you can't measure it, it doesn't really mean anything.

6. We assume we are broken, and we fix it before our customer does. The scale of what I'm dealing with at SPD is miniscule compared to Amazon, but the impact of making a mistake is way higher. It's public safety. So you've always got to be checking your stuff and making sure it's working flawlessly.

7. We build loosely coupled, highly available platforms.

Then I'm looking at the big strategic things we need to go after. There's a lot of work we have to do in terms of how we handle digital evidence, you know, the body-cam video and things like that. But there are three generic themes that I'm driving. One is simplification—how do simplify how officers are dealing with tech? The next theme is how to enable the department to react faster—so can we listen in to a 911 feed and identify it as a statistical anomaly. And [the next is to] look at "How do we start to predict crime?"—that's where we have to start playing with data scientists and machine learning and things like that.

Can you talk about some of the technology that SPD is using right now?

So we're under the DOJ, the court decree. We're doing things right now to comply with that, so we installed a system called IAPro which collects use of force data. Then we have a number of other third parties were using... we're using Versaterm, a computer dispatch system. SeaStat is really just an output of existing tools, it just tells us what happened—how many of a certain crime, over a certain period, at a certain location kind of thing.

Our systems are tightly bound, which is generally a bad thing. It's hard for me to change system A without affecting system B. I want the ability to change one system without caring about changing any other system. I want us to think about using a more loosely coupled architecture.

For example, how do we redact video at scale? That's a scalability challenge. If we think about it from a loosely coupled perspective, I want to be able to switch out one body camera for another body camera and not have to deal with switching out the back end, et cetera et cetera.

Have you been involved in the decision to hire Tim Clemans? Have you met him yet?

Yeah, Tim and I have been working together on the redaction stuff. Well, he's actually doing all the work. [Laughs]

Are you going to be his boss?


What do you want him to do?

Redaction. I want him to figure out how to handle that scale problem. I want to be at a point where I can say, look, it's going go take no more than X hours from the point of taking the video to publishing the video. I think he's pretty close to having the ability to identify faces and redact the face. But it's a fairly slow process, and he's trying to speed that up. The challenge the department will have is how do you balance being cost-effective with that? I don't think the facial detection is foolproof right now—there's a defect rate.

Russell wanted to show me this facial redaction software he was playing around with. The camera tracked and redacted his face, but it couldnt track my face to the edge of the frame.
Russell wanted to show me this facial redaction software he's "playing around" with. The camera tracked and redacted his face, but it couldn't track my face to the edge of the frame. Ansel Herz

How big is your staff right now?

About 50. Bigger than I thought. [Laughs]

Has the culture been different here versus Amazon? What's been the difference?

Yeah. At Amazon you typically keep going until you're told to stop, and you keep going anyway until you're told to stop again. Here it's quite a bit more overhead. It's the government, right, so things move quite a bit slower. I'm going to have to deal with that. [Laughs]

Have you had to tell anyone, "C'mon! Speed it up!"

We have been going through some RFPs, and I did make an eight-hour process probably a two-hour process. Let's focus on the important stuff.

Have you seen over the past number of years what has happened with drones and the SPD, and the potentially problematic capabilities of the mesh network?

Yeah, I've heard the stories.

What have you learned from seeing how the department dealt with those issues?

I think it's more of a privacy issue than a technology issue. I'm still learning, frankly, what is the right level of privacy. What we can and cannot share. I'm, by nature, a very transparent person—I'd rather put it all out and let people make a decision on it. That's not always appropriate. I think the most important thing I'd learn from the drone and the mesh network is, sometimes, just the fact that the police own the mesh network makes people nervous.

Are drones something that the SPD wants to use? Amazon, obviously, is pursuing them.

I don't know, to be honest with you. I do want to build a technology platform that enables the department to react faster, but I want the department to react faster to, you know, protect the public. The reaction to drones would probably be pretty bad right now, if we did it.

Does the SPD want to turn the mesh network back on at some point?

We should not be the organization that owns that mesh network. That should be owned by the city. We own it right now, but we're not the right team. So we'll move that way. We're not using it. It's offline. The fire department can use it, too—so it doesn't make sense for us to own it.

Does the department have relationships with certain proprietary software makers that are too expensive, or aren't productive?

I think software companies tend to take advantage of the government. They'll come in with a solution that you could build yourself with a few lines of code. Now, that's not always the case. Coming from Amazon, we tend to build software because we can't find software that handles our scale. So I probably am more biased to want to build my own stuff. But I think there's always a good thing that if you have some highly complicated, regulated type stuff... it probably makes sense to use a third-party package. My internal focus will be on building technology that helps predict what might happen and eliminate avoidable work.

In other words, SPD is going to be doing more in-house development.

For sure. Absolutely.

Do you have a vision of what the officer of the future looks like? Is he or she going to be carrying around an iPad Mini, or a tablet or something?

Mobile is the way to go. We need tablets or whatever. And the officer should be able to do as much as humanly possible on one device. I do want an ability where they've got one device that gives them access to the back-end systems—you can use it to get into the in-car video, to take photographs, et cetera, et cetera. Whether it's an iPad or an Android probably depends on the officer. A tablet probably isn't a good solution for an officer on a bike.

We currently have a few at the West Precinct—we've given folks some tablets, some have Android smartphones. And they can access our records system, CAD system. My intention would be to give all the officers a mobile device and build upon it over time.

When might we be seeing that?

I'd like to get it done next year, personally. I like to go really fast on things. I'm not sure how fast I can go here. [Laughs]

Have you been running into blockages?

No, I have not.

Have you witnessed any crimes, or had something take you by surprise on a ride-along?

My appreciation for what the police force does is so much higher now that I'm part of the department. Because I'm actually seeing what gets done. The kind of teamwork I'm seeing among the officers out in the field is incredible. Those guys really have each other's backs. It was a really cool experience to watch them do what they do.

What did you see?

It was a fairly intense situation. The other officers were just making sure the officer I was with, you know, "Do you need backup?", et cetera, et cetera. It seems like they genuinely care about each other.

What happened?

Not sure I can tell you. [Laughs] You gotta excuse me, I spent 20 years in the corporate world trying to pretend I don't exist. [Laughs]

What are your thoughts about the consent decree? What are you doing that will address the concerns that the Department of Justice had around excessive force and a perceived pattern of racial bias?

That's where IAPro ties in. That's where we collect examples of excessive force of various types. We really want an early-intervention system where we can see those patterns. If a specific officer has an abnormally high use of force, or you know, abnormally high rate of pulling over people of a certain race or gender, we want a system that will tell us that. That will drive back into whether we have the right kinds of training programs in place. I want to make sure the department is outcome-focused. So it's not about we arrest 100 people. It's about, "Yeah, we arrested 100 of the right people. And we did it in the right way."

Are you going to be working with the Office of Professional Accountability on their systems? When I last interviewed Pierce Murphy, he was saying he wanted to do online auto-publishing of the OPA reports as they were finished. Then that finally happened. But in my view, it's not very user-friendly.

No, it's not. We'll probably partner with a local company, that I can't talk about here, to build that platform of pushing out all the data in a way that's user-friendly. I'd build it and design it for three user types: For your hardcore developer, I'd want to make sure there's the right level of APIs so they can build applications; the second one is for more casual developers; and the third one is for the non-technical person, which should be a brain-dead-simple UI to navigate through. For example, if you know the case number, you should be able to click on something that shows you the video. You shouldn't have to go hunting and pecking for it. If we can actually figure out how to build things out in the cloud that are available to the public to use, then I think that's the best. Then we're working off the same sheet of paper.

Edward Snowden: hero or traitor?

I don't know yet. I haven't really thought about it, to be honest with you. [Laughs]

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.