Government can ill afford not to invest in police technology

Written by Calum Steele on 27 March 2019 in Opinion

Calum Steele of the Scottish Police Federation explains why investment and legislative changes are sorely needed to help support officers’ use of technology

Credit: Andrew Milligan/PA Archive/PA Images

In the mid-1990s, I was able to sit in a police car in Inverness and power up the on-board computer. Connected to the Northern Constabulary network by mobile phone, I had access to the Police National Computer, the Scottish Criminal Records database, as well as the force’s own incident logging and criminal intelligence system.

A compact QWERTY keyboard and screen of comparable size to that on the biggest of today’s smartphones and I truly had the future at my fingertips. Now, the technology was far from perfect – system crashes were common, and even the thriving Highland metropolis of Inverness was let down by unreliable mobile phone capability – but what I had in my police car for about six months in the mid-90s offered the chance of being truly revolutionary.

Fast forward 25 years and, in many areas, the police service in Scotland hasn’t as much stood still while the technological world has raced past it, it has actually gone backwards.

Such is the modern world that hardly a day goes by without a news story appearing somewhere narrating a tale of exploitation, or worse, where a particularly horrific crime was researched, facilitated, or commissioned either wholly or partially online.

Such is also the modern world that in the seconds, minutes, days, or months afterwards, some experts somewhere (and usually more than one) pontificate that the police or courts either lack the powers, skills, or technology to be able to prevent or detect the perpetrators. The need to score a quick political point, although invariably embarrassingly devoid of understanding, and cynically blind to the impact of the critics’ own wider role in political decision making, adds a new angle to tomorrow’s story.

The reaction to the reaction, a new one for subsequent days, and before we know it, an apparent boiling cauldron of pressure is created for the police to ‘do something’ in response – ‘do something’ being the maxim of the fool who fails to appreciate that by opening his mouth, he really is removing all doubt!

Cue the consultants selling ‘professional’ insight to the police service offering ‘solutions’ to the blight that has recently seen them occupy column inches in less than favourable terms.

Now it would be fair to say that 26-plus years in the police service has left me a smidgen cynical. That cynicism being derived from practical experiences where technology has been promised as the fix to all our ills, and sadly bearing the scars of crushed dreams, and the service is left with a carbuncle that neither does what it promised, or takes twice as long to do what was needed than before, at a price it can ill afford.

"The criminal of today has access to technology comparable to that used by secretive government agencies. The police are in pursuit but considerable investment and legislative freedom are required to make any meaningful impact."

My cynicism might belie my unwavering belief that technology has delivered almost unquantifiable benefits to the police service. I am fortunate enough to have attended global events and fairs where the biggest and best are on show. These companies understand their market, they understand the vulnerabilities, they understand the interconnected world, and crucially, they understand the limitations of what they offer.

Most of us neither appreciate nor care that these benefits come to those tracking down the vast criminal enterprises that are bigger and more successful than any government could ever admit to, and even fewer about how their products do so.

Gone are the days of the routine occurrence of police officers finding phone boxes to be passed confidential information – as the service had to worry about those who would painstakingly tune their analogue radio to try to listen to the barely audible crackle of its radio transmissions.

Gone, too, are the days of hoping the officer needing help was able to tell you where they were whilst probably fighting for their lives, as geolocation now means we know where they are, even if they don’t.

But many of the technological advances in policing have happened to the police service and not because of it.

No technical panacea
The argument that criminals are not bound by borders, therefore neither should the police be, is overly simplistic. Whilst no one could possibly disagree with the basic premise, its inherent simplicity creates its own problems.

Government cannot create laws to apply to only sections of society. The powers you need to tackle the activities of criminals are naturally riled against when the realisation they could be applied to any, dawns. We need only look at the use of surveillance, undoubtedly considered by the masses as for tackling organised crime, and how that has crept into use for checking what some put in their bins, to appreciate these reservations might not entirely be misplaced.

And so it is with borders. If governments are limited by what they can do domestically, they are virtually powerless to legislate effectively to cover or investigate criminal activity in other countries. Criminals care not a jot which country they happen to break the laws in, but police and law enforcement agencies always have to operate within legal parameters, wherever they may be.

There can be no doubt that much of the criticism directed at the woeful state of the police IT infrastructure is entirely merited. Sadly, the legislative framework upon which so much hangs is even more outdated than the floppy disc. It is invariably where the technology meets the law (or often the lawmakers), that costs spiral and functionality falters. There is no technical panacea for the law enforcement community and the digital capabilities required for crime fighting in the 21st century are as complex as the myriad of audit, compliance, and reporting expectations that they inevitably create.

The criminal of today has access to telephony and technology that is at least comparable to that used by secretive government agencies. The police are in pursuit but considerable investment and legislative freedom are required to make any meaningful impact. At this time, it has neither.

So while we watch the unedifying spectacle of politicians and bureaucrats spin big numbers, without context or comparison on how their actions are leading to transformation within the police service, you could forgive the officer on the ground for feeling a tad battle weary. The solution doesn’t lie solely in kit, it certainly doesn’t lie in legislation but neither kit nor the obligations of legislation can be delivered without cold, hard cash.

And this is really the nub of the issue.

Government will no doubt argue that it simply can’t afford to invest in police technology to the levels the service demands. I say it can’t afford not to.

Meanwhile, tonight police officers in Inverness will head out on patrol with the knowledge that two decades ago, the service had its future in its hands, and rather than having the courage to blaze a trail, it decided to turn it into a museum piece.

About the author

Calum Steele (pictured above) is general secretary of the Scottish Police Federation 

This article originally appeared on PublicTechnology sister publication Holyrood

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