Technology must be embedded into frontline policing

Written by Sarah Timmis on 13 March 2018 in Opinion

Sarah Timmis of think tank Reform discusses how digital can have a transformational impact for the emergency services

West Yorkshire Police is rolling out these mobile fingerprint scanners Credit: Peter Byrne/PA Wire/PA Images

Smartphones put the world in our hands. Their size and connectivity has transformed the way we approach everyday interactions. It’s high time they empowered our police service. 

With ever-changing demand, police forces should take the opportunity to go digital.

Rising pressure and limited resources mean innovations on the frontline are imperative. The volume of emergency calls has risen by 11% in the last year, and there are 14% fewer police officers than in 2009. There is also growing non-crime demand, such as mental health and alcohol-related issues, that increasingly fall on police officers to bridge gaps in local services. 

Police need sophisticated methods to manage this pressure.

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Government recognises this. Policing and fire service minister Nick Hurd has challenged police forces to embrace technology, describing it as “absolutely essential” for modern policing. The new Emergency Services Network, which plans to transfer communications between emergency services to a commercial 4G network, has just had its first successful pilot, a significant milestone for the project. A quiet revolution is occurring.

Change is also coming from below. Police forces across the country are beginning to weave technology into the fabric of their work. Greater Manchester Police has provided mobile devices to 80% of its staff, increasing time spent on the frontline equivalent to 1,000 eight-hour shifts each year. 

Armed with a smartphone, frontline officers can access information instantly, and improve the speed and effectiveness of their response. According to Neil Roberts, chief information officer at Surrey and Sussex Police Forces and chair of the National Police Technology Council, smartphones are such a useful tool on the frontline that for “the vast majority [of police officers], you couldn’t prize it from their dead hands”. 

But this is not the norm across the country. 

Giles York, Sussex Police chief constable, reported last year that some officers believe leaving mobile devices in “a box unopened is worthy of a badge of honour”. Strong leadership to explain the advantages of using what can be disruptive technology and co-design with police officers and staff are crucial to getting full support of the officers and staff expected to use these devices.

From this base, police forces can begin to implement truly transformational technology.

Biometric technologies have recently enabled smart devices to record fingerprints, allowing police to instantly identify individuals. The rise of the internet of things (IoT), which uses real-time monitoring systems to continuously update data, can enhance service. 

In San Diego, digitised lampposts, enabled by IoT, have been used to recognise gunshots, and immediately alert police of incidents and their precise location. The emergence of advanced analytics has enabled the development of sophisticated tools to predict crime, shown to be around 10 times more effective than random patrolling. 

True disruption can only happen in collaboration with other services. 

In West Yorkshire, Fire and Rescue Services have invested in drones so that real-time feedback could be provided to all emergency service colleagues. Information on the vulnerability of residents in housing estates could help police tailor their responses to different groups when responding to major incidents. This type of information can be provided through smartphone technology but needs the digital infrastructure, such as secure cloud storage, to provide information.

Technology must be embedded into practice on the frontline. The first step is for smartphones to become ‘business as usual’ across the country. This will lead to the adoption other technologies that can further empower police officers to deliver first-rate services fit for the digital age.

About the author

Sarah Timmis is a researcher at think tank Reform. She tweets as @SarahTimmis

Reform's new report - Frontline online: smarter blue light services - is available here

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