Police officer Vidal Rivera navigates his cruiser through the streets of North Camden, New Jersey, where he just finished chatting with a group of preschoolers planting flowers with their teacher. "When I grew up here," the 27-year-old Rivera says, "this was one of the roughest neighborhoods in the city." 

Five years after an overhaul of the Camden police department, the city's murder rate dropped to a 30-year low in 2018. Among the changes implemented during that period: the adoption of a software tool made by the New York City-based tech startup Mark43. Founded by three college students in 2013, Mark43 builds software that is giving police departments in major cities around the country a much-needed upgrade. The company is armed with $78 million in funding from investors including General Catalyst, Spark Capital, and Bezos Expeditions, the investing arm of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

On Thursday, the company is announcing its newest customers, the Louisiana State Police and Pennsylvania's Lehigh County departments. The additions bring Mark43's total number of client agencies to more than 70, including major departments in Boston, Washington, D.C., San Antonio, and Seattle. The digital platform promises to simplify some of the most basic aspects of police work--such as dispatching officers, filing reports, and analyzing crime patterns--while also delivering safer outcomes for everyone, mostly by using information that police already have.

Police software is an industry dominated by decades-old incumbents. That can make it challenging for new entrants--but it also presents an opportunity to innovate. "It's an old and stodgy world," says co-founder Matt Polega. "Early on, we had some early adopters that saw a bunch of college kids getting into it and taking a different approach, and they decided to roll the dice on us." 

From college project to VC-backed company

Mark43's approach includes a thoughtful reimagining of how to display crucial information. The software helps surface data for responding officers that previously might have been buried in incident reports, color-codes the information, and presents it in a way that's easy to digest. 

Inside Rivera's cruiser, a map on the laptop monitor shows the locations of the other Camden officers on duty. Rivera clicks through several screens and views information related to ongoing calls--previous incidents at the addresses in question as well details about the residents, like whether they have mental health issues or known allergies.

For police officers, who spend much of their shifts filling out reports after incidents, creating small efficiencies can add significant value at scale. The intuitive onscreen layout, plus features like autocompletion, save seconds at a time but can amount to hours over the course of a day. When the Washington, D.C., police department adopted Mark43's software in 2015, it soon reported that incident reporting time was reduced by 80 percent. The time saved amounted to 238,000 hours per year--the equivalent of adding 110 officers to the force.

Polega and fellow co-founders Scott Crouch and Florian Mayr met while classmates at Harvard. For a project in a final-semester engineering course, they worked with the police department in Springfield, Massachusetts, building software that tracked gang activity by analyzing communication logs and social media posts. It soon transformed into a business venture, and the trio spent their senior week celebrating not only graduation but also the closing of a $2 million seed round.

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Unlike companies in many industries, police departments are quick to help one another if they find something that makes their jobs easier. That helped word spread about Mark43's new product. In 2014, Washington, D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department reached out with a request. Most reporting software, it said, was dated, clunky, and not built for officers on the go. Would Mark43 want to work with it to build a new solution? 

The startup built an entirely new product, which it launched with the Metro Police the following year. Its newfound credibility soon helped it rack up new clients. 

Eric Smith, a lieutenant with the Richmond, California, police department, notes that officers previously had to call their colleagues back at the station to get the info they needed. Now, Smith says, they can get it almost instantly from the field, adding that training takes less than five hours. "If you can figure out how to order something online," he says, "you can figure out how to make a report in Mark43."

While Mark43 has rivals in decades-old platforms like Omnigo, Niche, and SmartCOP, the company is betting its usability will give it an advantage to win more share in the estimated $11.6 billion global police software market. Still, it has a ways to go: Omnigo, for example, has more than 600 client agencies. Mark43's contracts with police departments are based on the size of the agency and generally range from six to seven figures annually, like the $5 million, five-year deal it signed with the San Antonio Police Department last year.

Eventually, the co-founders hope to incorporate artificial intelligence that aids additional aspects of police work, like parsing witness statements and other evidence, or studying work patterns to suggest desk time for officers that recently have dealt with a high number of stressful incidents. But for now, the 180-person company is focusing on honing its more fundamental products. 

"Everybody wants to build the really sexy, really fun business intelligence stuff," says Polega. "But all of those tier-two things are useful only if the tier one--which is basically all your data collection--can actually get the job done right."