Policing in the digital era: developing a force for the challenges of the 21st century

14 April 2016

Crime is changing. Traditional crimes – burglary, robbery, and violence against the person – are no longer centre stage, having fallen drastically in the 21st century. Their decline is complex, but one driver is the criminal gains readily available elsewhere: in the online world. As Lynne Owens, Director General of the UK’s National Crime Agency, has argued: “The chances of being a victim of burglary, vehicle crime or street robbery are far lower than ever before. There is now a much greater likelihood of you becoming a victim from within your own home, through your computer.” This also means that the traditional boundaries and demarcations of policing responsibility are fast losing relevance.

Technology is one of the principal weapons that can enable a step-change in the fight against these modernised offences. With cybercrime placing new demands on forces, the ‘bobby on the beat’ is currently ill-equipped. The tools, skills and know-how required to capture the perpetrator of a sophisticated online scam need to at least match the sophistication of the technology that enables the crime in the first place. Rising to this challenge will be essential if police forces are going to continue to safeguard citizens who are spending more and more of their lives online.

Hence, whilst the digital world may present significant opportunities for criminals, it also opens new doors for the police. Some forces are already seeing great success from embracing these new opportunities.

West Midlands Police now uses Twitter extensively to connect with their ‘customers’, which is important in a world where eight in 10 of their citizens want to report and track crime online. It was also announced recently that the Metropolitan Police had activated a Twitter Alerts system, notifying followers with “urgent, tactical communication” in the event of a major incident. By deploying an already popular channel, forces are providing more effective community policing in a whole new way.

Furthermore, with technology central to everyday life now, the widespread use of secure policing apps is the next logical step for police operations. West Midlands Police are leading the way in this respect, having implemented a whole suite of apps, providing officers with maps, relevant intelligence, and even the ability to resolve tasks remotely.

The impact on digital technologies extends far beyond the virtual world. At Accenture we’ve seen this through our work on a pilot project with the Metropolitan Police to use data analysis to track violent gangs in London. By applying predictive algorithms to an existing data set built up by the force over four years, Accenture was able to identify individuals who went on to commit a serious violent crime. In much the same way, social media analysis tools can search for content that provides strong indications of criminality and prompt preventative action.

Whilst having the right technology is key, relevant skills are equally important. For most police forces in the UK, the skilled use of online software and advanced intelligence gathering techniques are only now starting to figure in recruitment criteria. Forces work with other agencies that possess the relevant skills and know-how to bridge this gap, and there’s likely to be greater interest in working with commercial providers to support more digitally-driven policing in the future.

Ultimately the intention to keep the public safe and secure remains unchanged from the spirit that informed 19th century policing. 21st century technology is simply creating new ways to fulfil that mission in order to tackle the challenges of a rapidly evolving world.

Allan Fairley, UK Police and Justice Managing Director, Accenture




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