Journalist Mark Say discusses how officers, empowered by mobile technology, are creating greater public confidence on the streets
One of the repeated criticisms of the police is that they spend too much time behind their desks and not enough on the streets. This is tied up with arguments over the extent of record-keeping and red tape, which are likely to rumble on, but police forces can see signs of relief in a new generation of mobile technology that enables officers to do more of their work on the beat.
Britain’s largest force, the Metropolitan Police, highlighted the potential earlier this year when it flagged up the importance of mobility as part of its Total Technology strategy – the vision on which its £200 million, three year IT investment is based. London’s deputy mayor for policing and crime, Stephen Greenhalgh, spoke of the importance of police officers having information on the go and spending more time on the beat. The strategy includes a pilot to equip 15,000 frontline officers with tablet devices, followed by force-wide deployment and the provision of up to 1,000 video kits to be worn on officers’ bodies.
This is an indication of how mobile technology is becoming increasingly important in policing. Forces have used voice radio for decades and been eager to use data on the move as digital radio has become available; but now they can see the potential in using new devices to give officers access to a range of systems.
Supporting sound judgements
Mobility enables officers to remotely access data and obtain more complete information, which can make them more effective on the beat. If they can draw on any intelligence about the scene of an incident, anyone involved or trouble in the area, they are going to be better prepared and more likely to make sound judgments in tense situations. Mobile access to intelligence systems can help officers in being more proactive, identifying potential problems and taking action in advance. Just having the information to arrive on a scene before trouble begins, or to contact a third party who can peacefully intervene, can do a lot for the cause of effective policing. The technology also helps to save officers from having to return to the station to record and retrieve information, giving them more time in their communities. This is a more efficient use of their time, an increasingly important factor as police services are not immune to the squeeze on public spending. It also raises their visibility, shows they are part of the community and encourages public confidence in the force.
Forces other than the Met have been investing in mobile technology. Last year Bedfordshire Police set up a pilot scheme as part of its plan to save £7.5 million, without making frontline cuts. Officers used tablet computers to take witness statements and complete paperwork. They could also access their emails, the force intranet and all the programs residing on their desktop computers. There has been a stream of tenders for mobile data terminals and platforms, from police forces including Essex, Lincolnshire and Thames Valley.
While the detail of the technology varies, there are common priorities in the investment decisions. The prime factor is data security, as much of the information used in policing immediately becomes less useful or can be turned against the police if it falls into the wrong hands. It can also help to improve operational agility, make police officers more efficient and reduce costs.
Research by public sector IT specialist Kable highlights the issue. In May and June of 2014 it surveyed 200 public sector officials, mostly from IT departments, on how they saw the issues around mobile technology. When asked to rank the importance of various factors from 1-10, the respondents from criminal justice organisations gave security accreditations an average score of 9.3 – higher than for other parts of the public sector. The need to contain costs is also highly important, with pricing and value for money rated the second highest issue with a score of 8.5. The IT infrastructure and service management capability and that for networking and telecoms also score highly at 8.3 and 8.0 respectively, reflecting the need to support more agile operations in communities. Significant numbers of respondents also emphasised the need to enable flexible working and to support business transformation, with ratings of 7.4 and 7.1 respectively.
Kable has also shown that police forces spend 7% of their budgets on mobile connectivity against a UK public sector average of 2% and predicted the figure will continue to increase. Managing director of public sector IT analyst firm Kable, Stephen Roberts, says they have more to gain than other public services by taking technology closer to the public. “Efficient use of staff and visible policing are important but there are enormous gains when information can be gathered and processed at the point of crime prevention and investigation,” he says. “Investment in a body-mounted camera, for instance, is trivial if it cannot capture clues and quash costly complaints.”
The practical benefits from mobile technology are clear: it can help police collect better quality evidence, provide them with intelligence when dealing with an incident, and save a lot of the time now spent in returning to the station to maintain their records. But the longer term potential is equally important. If the technology gives officers more time on the beat it will convince more people that they are serving their communities, and do something to build bridges with groups who are alienated and suspicious. This can lay the ground for more positive relationships with communities.
Policing works best when it has public consent, and mobile technology can play a part in strengthening that consent.
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