Analytics and algorithms: the future of policing?

14 April 2016

The Chancellor may have protected police funding in last November’s Spending Review, but forces in England and Wales face a daunting set of challenges this parliament. The growth in complex and high-harm crime is placing new demands on officers. At the same time, expectations are rising. Much like their experiences of shopping or banking, citizens now want immediate, online and mobile contact with the police.

Few doubt digitisation can be an agent of reform – be it through driving efficiencies, helping to tackle cybercrime or forging a new relationship between officers and citizens. Yet the police are not renowned for digital adoption. A recent HMIC report found IT capability is “weak and ageing”. Tactical procurement practices are partly to blame – forces have tended to purchase tools in isolation, as kit, rather than as an enabler of better outcomes. The resultant estate is complex and difficult to unpick.

For chief constables still working out what a digitally-enabled police force might look like, West Midlands Police (WMP) – who faced one of the steepest budgetary challenges in the last Parliament – offers some direction. Realising the level of savings required was not plausible without radical reform, WMP partnered with Accenture to design a new operating model capable of securing the force’s objectives in 2020. Crucially, Accenture’s fees are dependent on delivering the outcomes against which WMP are held to account.

Technology sits at the heart of this change programme. To manage demand, the force is transforming the channels through which citizens communicate with the police. Time- and resource-intensive phone calls are being replaced with apps, an online crime tracking portal and a web-chat function. These initiatives have already saved the force £5 million, and by 2019-20 between £1.4 million and £1.7 million of further efficiency savings are expected.

A concerted effort is also being made to improve the productivity of officers on patrol. The majority of forces in England and Wales do not have the technology that allows officers to complete tasks without returning to a station. WMP’s suite of apps – which is currently in its final pilot phase – gives officers the ability to resolve jobs remotely, reducing time spent in transit. Having secured officers’ buy-in, WMP plans to expand its app capability as the appetite for functionality grows.

These efforts will help WMP move a step closer to realising Peel’s first principle of law enforcement – that the basic mission of the police is crime prevention. Forces across the world are already harnessing the power of big data: predictive models of police demand, systems that identify when officers are most at risk of having negative interactions with the public, and programmes highlighting those most likely to commit violent crimes are just three examples. WMP’s goal is to build a platform that allows analysts to combine data sets from across the public sector. It is an approach that could fundamentally change the way the police interacts with data.

The real innovation here is not channel management, the use of apps or data analytics. Rather it is the recognition that outcomes are king, and technological innovations are only ever a means to delivering objectives. With a programme that is more valuable than the sum of its parts, WMP looks set to meet tomorrow’s policing challenges.

William Mosseri-Marlio, Researcher, Reform

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