Michael Berkow joins the Verizon First Responder Advisory Council (VFRAC)

Verizon Frontline recently introduced Director Michael Berkow, former director of the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service (CGIS), and an experienced police executive with extensive knowledge of both the domestic and international arenas, as the newest member of the Verizon First Responder Advisory Council (VFRAC). We sat down with Mr. Berkow, who brings more than 30 years of public safety industry experience to this new role. 

Interviewer: Hi Director Berkow, thank you for speaking with us today. Would you take a minute to introduce yourself?

Director Berkow: Sure, thank you very much for the opportunity. The simple answer about who I am is I have 30 years as a police officer and federal agent. The more detailed answer is that I've been very fortunate to have an amazing career both internationally and in the United States. I've been privileged to serve as the chief of police in four different cities. I also had -- what in my opinion -- is the best job in the federal government. I was the director of a federal law enforcement agency, the Coast Guard Investigative Service (CGIS), which is a very unique Federal investigative service.

Michael Berkow served as the Chief of Police in Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department; Irvine, CA, South Pasadena, CA, and Coachella, CA, as well as serving as a Deputy Chief for the Los Angeles Police Department. He also has vast law enforcement experience serving in Somalia, Haiti, Jamaica, Kenya, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Tanzania, Uganda, and Yemen.

Interviewer: We're very excited to welcome you as the newest member of the Verizon First Responder Advisory Council (VFRAC). What made you interested in joining the council and what do you hope to help accomplish?

Director Berkow: So first of all, my previous boss from the LAPD, Chief Bill Bratton, talked to me about the council and invited me to join. Anything that Chief Bratton is involved in is bound to be interesting, rewarding and exciting. So, that's a very distinct plus.

Secondly, I've had a long history in emergency management and in emergency communications. I started my career in Rochester, New York in the late 70’s. And at the time they had one of the first integrated 911 centers in the country. And so I grew up as a young police officer immersed in what later became the mainstream approach to 911.

I also, as a chief of police, have found myself running dispatch centers ranging from a one-person dispatch center, which I found unacceptable so I actually ended up contracting out that dispatch center, to a PSAP which supported 20 or more fire departments and two ambulance services serving a large County in Georgia.

Additionally, the Coast Guard has a significant number of dispatch centers and command centers across the country and I was fairly heavily involved with that during my tenure as the Director of the Coast Guard Investigative Service. We were trying to figure out better ways to handle dispatch for our bases that were scattered all across the United States.

And, so my hope would be that I could provide some guidance for Verizon on how to interact with the Coast Guard. I'm attuned to some of these issues and have been interested in them for quite some time and hope that I can bring some of that experience and perspective to the Verizon First Responder Advisory Council.

I’d like to extend a big welcome on behalf of Verizon Frontline and the VFRAC. What was your most memorable experience as Director of CGIS?

Director Berkow:
CGIS is an amazing organization. It's completely unique with a unique mission. If I were to single out one case in my tenure with the Coast Guard, I think it would have to be what we learned after responding to the murder of a Coast Guard officer during a drug interdiction off the coast of California. This was the first murder of a Coast Guard officer in the line of duty since the 1920s. It was a challenge for the organization, a challenge for the justice system, and frankly, an operational challenge for me.

According to the DOJ press release, the two men were convicted of federal charges by the Department of Justice in 2014.

Interviewer: How long had you been with CGIS when this happened?

Director Berkow:
I had been in my job as the director of the Coast Guard Investigative Service for just two weeks and I was 3,000 miles away. The murder of Senior Chief Horn occurred in the middle of the night off the coast of California and I'm in Washington D.C.

I had agents that we were trying to deploy from San Diego, L.A., and Oakland - from all across the state in a real-time environment to arrest the individuals, to collect critical pieces of evidence, to interview the witnesses.

  • We had a Coast Guard Cutter coming into Port Hueneme
  • We had suspect vehicles and trailers at a boat launch site in Santa Barbara.
  • We had a Mexican panga with the suspects aboard fleeing southbound through the ocean while being pursued by other Coast Guard vessels
  • I had a 130 out of Sacramento, California overhead filming the incident
  • And at a Coast Guard helicopter out of San Diego doing intervention

The technology demands were incredible and frankly at that point in time in 2012, we weren't prepared for that. So, part of my job as the leader was to figure out how to fill that gap knowing during the event, that we were likely going to be in more of these situations.

The Coast Guard, because of the unique nature of its mission, is constantly looking at new ways to communicate from remote, isolated, extreme environments. And so that was a great example for me of where communication technology would play a critical role.

Director Berkow led the Coast Guard Investigative Service for nearly a decade, leading more than 450 special agents who operated out of 40 offices, both within the United States and overseas.

Interviewer: How did you ensure effective team communication while director of CGIS and how do you believe that experience will translate to your new role on the VFRAC?

Director Berkow:
At CGIS you're dealing with a workforce that is scattered literally around the country and in some cases around the world. We had agents working at Interpol, in France, and agents in Guam and the distant Pacific. So it was really a challenge to communicate and I, frankly, worked very hard to over communicate as much as I possibly could. It was challenging to communicate with agents who are working on cases in very remote and extreme environments.

How did you solve that?

Director Berkow:
We experimented with a bunch of different technologies and methods to try to better communicate on tactical operations. And we found very few solutions that could actually meet our demands, especially for the kinds of locations we were working in, like on ships at sea or in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

My agents had to go out on ships to sea to conduct investigations. We would sometimes have to direct ships to come close enough to shore to get helicopters to fly out and drop my agents off.

In addition to that, a core challenge of those investigators was capturing interviews on scene. The technology that was available then has thankfully advanced over time.

Verizon established the Verizon First Responder Council in 2019 to learn from the country's most respected public safety leaders.

Interviewer: One of the roles of the VFRAC is to provide feedback back to Verizon on how things are actually working in the field. How have you evaluated communication systems and equipment and what are some of the key things agencies should look for?

Director Berkow: I find that there's nothing better than giving it to the men and women who are in the field doing the job, having them use it in a real world experience. If it works they will tell you that quickly. If it doesn't, they won't use it. And if you find yourself having to order your people to use a particular piece of technology, that should tell you it's not working.

When Michael Berkow began his career he served in a variety of assignments ranging from patrol and narcotic investigation to the chief’s staff. He also served as the co-commander of a joint police-FBI investigative task force. Director Berkow served as Director of the effort to rebuild the Somalia National Police Force and was the first director for the Haitian National Police Project, an effort to create the first civilian police force in Haiti’s history. In addition, Mr. Berkow has served as a member of the board of directors for the Police Executive Research Forum and was the 1999 recipient of a prestigious Eisenhower Exchange Fellowship to study the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Interviewer: You've held a variety of positions in public safety. How did those experiences shape your perspective on the role of technology and emergency response?

Director Berkow:
Technology has saved hundreds of hours of agents' time and effort and made it much easier for us to collaborate with prosecutors. Technology makes a difference in the quality of an investigation.

But the technology has to work and it has to work in realistic conditions. At LAPD, when I was assigned to investigate all officer involved shootings, I invested a significant amount of money in new crime scene scanning technology and found myself on the bleeding edge of technology, not the cutting edge of technology with very expensive equipment that really was not capable of doing what we needed it to do.

How did you communicate that input on how to make that technology better?

Director Berkow:
We had conversations with the inventors of the product and we explained, ‘Hey, this is a great conceptual idea - in the lab it's wonderful but in the field it's not working. I need something I can roll up to a crime scene in South Los Angeles and set up and use and have it function.’

A demo is great but those are in controlled environments and so, for me, it's all about, how does it work in the field?

I can tell you when we started the field test for the app about recording in the phone it exploded because the agents found it so easy to use they didn't want to wait to be added to the test group and we got way ahead of ourselves in expanding the use of the product.

That's a great point. That brings us to another question: how were decisions made --did it primarily come from a company approaching you or is it a need you identified or did you take insight from your teams in the field?

Director Berkow:
I have a practice when I take over an organization or a new command. I send a series of questions to everybody in the command and say you can answer these or not. It's up to you and the questions I ask are:

  • Tell me three things you love about working here
  • Tell me three things you hate about working here
  • And tell me the one thing you would change immediately if you were king or queen for a day

What I find is when you go through hundreds of those answers, you quickly identify themes and often those themes are needs in the field--a need for a better interviewing tool, a need for a better record management system, a need for a better communication system. And so that provides me with a compass direction of where I need to be looking as a leader. Then I would engage with companies, researchers, whoever and start to look at it.

I applaud you for doing that - that's a great example of leadership. After you identified a problem, how do you start your research and what kind of sources do you trust?

Director Berkow:
You always have to be open to new ideas and I have found myself constantly benchmarking myself against other similar services. So when I was a chief of police, I would always take the opportunity to look at other high-performing police departments. Hey, what are they doing in Philadelphia or New York or Dallas or wherever? You're trying to have a sense of what's going on and see and identify those people that are really doing something new, different and effective.

And clearly doing the research. It’s important to go out to look at where we are moving with technology - especially with cell phone digital exploitation. It was only 10 years ago as we really started to get into using cell phones for investigations.

Verizon Frontline just launched an innovation program where we are soliciting ideas for technology to support the first responder community. I'd love to get your thoughts on the importance of closing that feedback loop in order to evolve the technology.

Director Berkow:
I think that's a great program. Gaining that kind of feedback from the field is critical as I think there are lots of areas where we're seeing real unintended consequences from technology.

I remember in 2004 when I was at LAPD, maybe one in three shootings had some visual depiction of the shooting from a surveillance digital camera. But today, it’s overwhelming for the vast majority of cases. You have multiple source videos - from surveillance cameras, drones, body worn cameras, etc, - so, how do you collect all that information, process it and then put it together in a meaningful package? How do you begin to audit when you get to an incident scene and there is 10 hours of raw footage to review? And how do you put together the post-incident report with so much information?

What do you think could help fix these obstacles?

Director Berkow:
I think that the idea of a Frontline support for this is a phenomenal idea and could really be a value to the field. I hope as a VFRAC member, I can help with that.

Thank you. We want true feedback from the field, even if it's something we might not like hearing, because it will help us to better serve the first responder community. I know we're almost at time; it's been fantastic getting to know you. We appreciate you taking the time to speak with us. Is there anything you'd like to say to our Verizon Frontline followers?

Director Berkow:
I'm thrilled to be part of this and if I can from my 40 odd years of experience in this business bring a perspective to the VFRAC and to Verizon, I'm excited to do that.

And if there are members of my profession out there that have ideas or thoughts or concerns, I would love to hear from them and have them reach out to say this is the need I have today and allow me to be a voice for them.

In 2019, the Verizon First Responder Advisory Council, which is made up of highly respected and accomplished leaders like Director Michael Berkow, was formed. These accomplished leaders represent all facets of the public safety community, including emergency management, fire, public health and law enforcement. We appreciate all the work that you do.

  • Director Michael Berkow, Verizon First Responder Advisory Council, former Director of the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service

    Director Michael Berkow, Verizon First Responder Advisory Council, former Director of the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service

The author of this content, Jamie Italiano, works for Verizon. Jamie Italiano has volunteered alongside the Verizon Frontline Crisis Response team and is Digital Marketing Content Manager for Verizon Business Group.

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