Policing and technology

16 October 2013

As Rt Hon Damian Green MP, Minister of State for Policing and Justice, said at Reform’s conference in 2013, “Technology has transformed the way we live our lives, but it has not yet transformed the way the police do their jobs. Why is it that an officer at a social event can take a photo and upload it to the internet immediately, but when he is at work he has wait for a special camera to arrive to take the photo, travel back to the office, download it and copy it so that it is stored in three different files?…In five years’ time we need to look back and see this was the beginning of a technological revolution in policing. We could see pen and notebook replaced with voice recognition technology or manually sorting paper files replaced by automatic uploading to cloud storage.”

In light of this need for, and the challenges of, a new approach to technology in policing, Reform held a roundtable on “The candid friend: Policing and technology” with Rt Hon Damian Green MP at Conservative Party conference. The roundtable was sponsored by Airwave and was held under the Chatham House rule.

The words of Damian Green earlier this year resonated with the discussion in Manchester. Falling budgets, changing demand and rising citizen expectations mean that services must adapt to deliver more for less. In light of these long term challenges the value of technology will be widespread. Technology has the capacity to transform engagement between the public and police, enable more efficient and mobile police activity and create cashable savings by increasing the time officers can spend out on the beat. Indeed, technologies as commonplace as a smart phone or an iPad can empower front line policing by streamlining bureaucracy and enhancing mobility. Further, the full power of technology is not simply the devices but the data they collect. With greater emphasis being given to early intervention and shifting police efforts upstream of demand, data can play a key role in enabling greater preventative policing. Yet whilst technology has transformed the face of other sectors and industries, policing has only just scratched the surface of what technology can do.
The discussion raised three key barriers: the incompatibility between data systems, the security of data and traditional procurement practices. It quickly became clear that the first two of these challenges were more excuses than problems. The technology exists to deliver compatibility and people in society routinely capture and transmit incidents from everyday life. There is a problem however with procurement. Police forces have traditionally lacked the commercial flexibility, and often expertise, to get value for money out of technology. A new relationship between the technology industry and policing will be needed to drive technological solutions that work for forces at the right price for the taxpayer.

With the Police ICT Company coming into force and Police and Crime Commissioners gathering momentum in their roles, there was an evident appetite amongst PCCs to take ownership of technological transformation. In fact some were already holding their local forces to account for not going far enough to harness technology. The Police ICT Company was established to “free chief officers from in-depth involvement in ICT management and enable greater innovation so officers have access to new technology to save time and ensure better value for the taxpayer.” Combining the collective purchasing power and expertise of all 43 forces has the potential to bring not only efficiency but also greater cohesion between organisations. Police and Crime Commissioners will have a key role to play in putting this into practice.
The discussion gave cause for optimism; the technology exists to overcome cumbersome and incompatible legacy systems; commonplace technologies deployed in the right way can drive more cost-effective and responsive ways of working; and there is willingness amongst PCCs to take ownership of technological transformation and hold local forces to account when they fail to go far enough. What remains is to put this into practice. The discussion made clear that this must start with more flexible and commercially aware procurement, but also a renewed determination from forces and commissioners to deliver where their predecessors had yet to oversee the transformation required. In the face of rapidly changing demand and reduced resources, forces cannot afford to fail.

Blog by Cathy Corrie, Senior Researcher, Reform, on Policing and technology.



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