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Police IT: it's always darkest before the dawn

Niall Blake-Knox, Communications and Policy Analyst

Wednesday 8 March 2017

For years now, police IT transformation has over promised and under delivered, consuming vast resource along the way. The problems are well known: 43 independent customers with incompatible, bespoke and expensive-to-maintain systems.

The potential benefits: intelligent, connected systems making data available to officers in the field, other forces and other criminal justice system (CJS) partners. It sounds great, but remains elusive.

However, this could be about to change. Since the start of 2017, the Police ICT Company has held its second annual summit, the Home Affairs Select Committee has a specified digital strand to its sweeping ‘policing for the future’ inquiry and the Government Digital Service launched their ‘Government Transformation Strategy’. More than ever, policing is looking to IT solutions to manage demand, drive efficiencies and deliver a more effective service. But with intelligence, command and control, analysis, and a range of other IT-led or dependent functions, where should the police and IT providers start and where can they find help?

Agile working is the top priority


An in-depth report into the state of police technology in the UK by Leeds Business School, who surveyed police forces’ heads of IT, found that agile working (remote access to police systems) is the number one technological priority for forces across the UK, with 93% ranking it as a high or very high priority. 

This doesn't come as a surprise. Shrinking budgets and rising demand means forces urgently need more efficient ways of working. A study cited by the College of Policing and the Police Foundation found that officers spend on average 22% of shift time filling out forms. Paperwork isn’t a nuisance - it’s become a liability. Some forces have begun to fight back. Greater Manchester Police saved thousands of hours a month after they rolled out smartphones (they also learned some hard lessons around server capacity at the same time…).

The police need to be able to better communicate with their CJS partners


The Prisons and Courts Bill and the ‘Government Transformation Strategy’ make clear that digitisation of the entire CJS is a priority. Because police systems hold vast quantities of data and evidence needed in trials, this has major implications for policing. The Leeds survey found 73% of IT heads viewed technology allowing them to communicate with CJS partners as a high/very high priority, yet 64% stated that this technology was out of date. 

Squaring this circle is likely to be a priority, particularly for police and crime commissioners keen to take on responsibility for other parts of their local CJS.

Body worn video could transform policing


There’s no doubt that body worn video (BWV) has the potential to transform many aspects of policing - how officers and the public behave, how use of force is accounted for, and investigations and training. Public awareness of BWV has been heightened by its presence (and absence) during high profile firearm and Taser related incidents. A recent Justice Gap survey found that 90% of the public view BWV as essential and a poll by the Police Federation found public support for more Taser-trained officers increased if accompanied by BWV. This footage is increasingly expected (three quarters of all forces have access to it) and as the quantities of footage stored increase so does the requirement for robust storage and processing power. So how do the police do this?

At the moment, it’s the old-fashioned way. Essex Police has 275 different servers - one server for every ten officers. Of those, 80% are more than eight years old. Many other forces will be similar and with capital spending under pressure from austerity what is the solution?

Cloud computing could turn the tide


Cloud computing is most likely to come to forces’ aid, providing agile working, interoperability, greater transparency and public engagement. It has recently become more available and more affordable yet forces are behind the rest of the public sector in adopting it. Only 13% of forces have high or very high reliance on cloud software, 64% have a low/very low reliance on it and 60% of forces don’t even see it as a priority.

Given that agile working is their number one priority, this reluctance to embrace the cloud remains a barrier. Forces understand the outcomes they want to deliver, but seem unwilling to invest in capabilities which would deliver them. Changing this mindset will be a priority for IT providers seeking to partner with policing.

Forces need innovative help from IT providers


With the rise in BWV and expected increase in the public providing their own evidence, forces will soon be dealing with much larger volumes of data. If they can’t analyse the data, however, these new sources of rich information will go largely untapped. While 80% of forces said they had a high/very high reliance on the ability to gain insight from information sources (which include digital evidence), the technology required to process it automatically was up to date in only 37% of forces.

The results of this gap in capability were reflected by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in recent criticisms of forces’ ability to analyse the information they already have. Forces need innovative help from IT providers to analyse, not just capture and store, evidence.

The police IT landscape is an alphabet soup


Police IT transformation, more than anything else, needs leadership, strategic collaboration and strong partnerships with IT providers. The ideas and technology required to deliver what is needed in many areas already exists, but an overly complex governance environment is making public-private cooperation more difficult. The police IT landscape is an alphabet soup of agencies, committees, companies and boards seasoned heavily with localism. It takes skill, knowledge and persistence to navigate. But police leaders now know that transformation will not come from on high - they must work together to deliver it themselves and they want partners to help them.

"Police leaders now know that transformation will not come from on high - they must work together to deliver it themselves and they want partners to help them"

The UK's only consultancy dedicated to crime and justice.

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