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Top Amazon Exec to be SPD’s New Chief Information Officer

RussellThe Seattle Police Department has recruited a top Amazon executive to boost the department’s technological prowess and find new ways to fight crime through data analysis.

Greg Russell, an Amazon vice president who oversaw the company’s corporate applications, enterprise data warehouse and IT, will start work at the police department on March 17 as its chief information officer.

SPD’s public affairs office interviewed Russell on Friday to discuss his views on technology, ask why he wants to work in law enforcement — and see if he liked RoboCop.

Russell, 46, was born and raised in Scotland. He first came to the U.S. in 1995 to work for Jabil Circuit in Florida. He later ended up in California working for Cisco Systems and then took a job at Amazon as its chief information officer in 2011. He lives on Bainbridge Island.

At SPD, he’ll work on data analytics, finding new ways to track and potentially predict crime by sorting through vast amounts of crime data. He’ll also be in charge of IT for the department and will work on other challenges such as the body worn video pilot project.

Taking the job at SPD is a way to give something back to his adoptive county, Russell said, noting he became a U.S. citizen last March.

Russell said he enjoyed working with highly talented Amazon employees. “But, really, (at Amazon) what I’m doing is helping ship brown boxes across the universe,” he said. “I wanted the opportunity to give something back.”

Here are excerpts from the conversation, with edits for clarity:

Q: How does Seattle’s weather compare to Scotland’s?

A: “It’s very similar. But you get a summer here. In Scotland you can’t be guaranteed of a summer. I like the change in seasons. I don’t think it rains that much. Maybe it’s because I’m Scottish.”

Q: Outside of work, do you have hobbies?

“Yes, I play guitar badly, electric and acoustic. I like to read, I’ve got a couple of dogs, and I like to cook.”

Q: I understand Amazon is big on robots. Do you see robots in SPD’s future?

A: “Maybe,” Russell said laughing. “That’s a good idea, actually.”

Q: Have you seen Robocop?

A: “I did actually. It’s a good movie,” he said, adding on a more serious note, “I think technology should enhance what the police force is doing. It doesn’t replace what they’re doing. You won’t ever replace the brain power of detectives figuring out what happened. But, how do you use technology to eliminate the inefficiencies? That’s what we’re looking at.”

Q: What drew you away from Amazon? Law enforcement is quite a change.

A: “Prior to Amazon, I worked in manufacturing. So, I worked for companies that built (electronics) which helped drive technology forward. A cynic would say I spent a lot of time building things that end up in a toxic waste dump somewhere. It’s not that satisfying, really. Amazon was a fabulous company to be at. I learned so much. That’s the smartest team I’ve ever worked with. It grew me as an individual. But, really, what I’m doing is helping ship brown boxes across the universe. Is that useful to the world? I wanted the opportunity to give something back.

“This is a huge opportunity to simplify law enforcement. So take away all the inefficiencies that detectives and police officers have to deal with so they can get to the real thing, which is solving crime. Eliminate the nonsense. It feels like a good opportunity to kind of reinvent how you do law enforcement. Chief (Kathleen) O’Toole has been adamant that she wants to set the bar for technology. For me, that’s exciting.”

Q: Privacy concerns are big in Seattle. How do you see the balance between technology and privacy?

A: “You have to understand what information you can’t share … But beyond that, the more transparent you can be with information, the better. If you can show the public that you’re sharing the good news and the bad news, you become more trustworthy … My understanding is that we have a lot of data, we just can’t really make it available. It’s not that we don’t want to. It’s just that we don’t know how to.

“What’s important for me to understand is what we can and cannot share based on privacy. I don’t quite understand that yet. So that would be number one, to understand what I cannot share. And then the rest of it, I think if you can just make it available through a public-facing web site and tell people where it is, that’s step one.”

Q: Is there reason to worry about the big brother aspect of technology and data mining?

A: “There will always be worries about what you’re going to do with the information. If you’re are transparent with how you’re going to use the information ,and you make sure people can actually see it, I think most people will accept that.”

Q: For you, what does transparency mean?

A: “Transparency to me means you’re being brutally honest with the information. You’re not trying to sway it one way or the other. The data is the data. You’re just making it available.”