It will come as no surprise to those working in front line policing and, indeed, the general public resident across England and Wales that police officers are often spending less than half of their time on the beat, writes Jamie Wilson. However, in recent headline stories, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary, Zoë Billingham, is reported as saying that, despite ongoing spending cuts and officer numbers falling by almost 17,000, it wasn’t “inevitable” the neighbourhood policing presence should be eroded.
With such a drop in policing numbers and budget pressures placed on forces in England and Wales, it’s hard not to disagree with Zoë Billingham. There will always be value in having a police presence that’s visible within the communities which they serve, delivering reassurance as well as a deterrent.
That said, it has also been argued as to whether ‘Bobbies on the Beat’ is the best way for officers to spend the majority of their time, given the changing nature of the crimes forces are dealing with in today’s world.
Why are police officers tied to their desks?
The key question to answer is what keeps uniformed officers tied to their desks for the majority of their shift? In my experience, when visiting constabularies and speaking to senior officers it appears to be outdated, cumbersome, time-consuming and often manual processes such as filling in forms and writing e-mail evidence requests, etc that takes up a lot of man hours. What’s more, the officers doing this work are frustrated. After all, they didn’t sign-up to ‘The Job’ to spend most of their time completing administration duties.
It makes perfect sense that, if these tasks can be automated and/or streamlined, this would free-up vast numbers of man hours, which could then be translated to beat policing or other proactive policing measures. It’s here that technology may have an answer.
In the ‘State of Policing 2015: The Annual Assessment of Policing in England and Wales’ published by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) only last month, the use and availability of the right technology is a frequently recurring theme, with the report highlighting that many of the systems being used today are outdated and inefficient.
The detailed report goes on to reveal that: “In HMIC’s inspections during the reporting period, we continued to find too many instances where forces had failed to keep up with technological developments.”
In one example, the document highlights the police Control Room (albeit these environments are predominantly staffed by civilians), stating that: “The inability in some forces to undertake even relatively simple tasks, such as telephone call handlers directly booking appointments between officers and victims, undermines the efficiency of policing.”
The fact is that the need to better embrace new technologies is very much understood by police chiefs. What’s more, the pressure from the Government for them to act is strong, with the Home Secretary Theresa May pushing the agenda earlier this year at a Police ICT Company event. The latter is an organisation set-up to support law enforcement agencies in making the best use of technology to deliver efficient and effective policing across England and Wales.
The challenge is knowing that you have to do something and knowing what to do and in what order.
What’s the best technology?
There’s a vast array of technologies on the market today that address a diverse range of front line and back office policing challenges, but if we want to focus on how to make sure officers are back on the beat then it’s important to look at those that can help to alleviate the administrative burden.
The problem with the processes and systems in widespread use today is that they haven’t evolved – or are simply unable to evolve – with the rapid changes in modern policing.
One of the biggest challenges in recent years has been in relation to digital policing and, more specifically, digital evidence management. Whether it’s a major incident or a minor misdemeanour, forces can be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of newer forms of evidence, whether it’s in the form of pictures, video and/or audio captured on a smart phone, social media posts, text messages or e-mails, as well as footage from officers’ body-worn cameras.
Of course, on top of all that they still have the likes of CCTV footage on DVD, physical items, calls to the Control Room, radio comms and witness statements, etc to process.
Co-ordinating and cataloguing all of this information in a meaningful and timely way so that it’s accessible and useable for investigators to act upon, and collating the necessary information for submission as evidence, arguably requires the organisational skills of a professional librarian, not a fully-trained police officer! Is it any wonder, then, that the soles of today’s officers’ shoes rarely wear thin?
Lessons from Stateside
Looking across the Atlantic, Ed Davis, the former Boston Police Commissioner, has recently talked about the challenges facing investigators in the US when it comes to collecting, analysing and sharing evidence. It would seem that the issues facing forces here in England and Wales are the same the world over.
Technology has been specifically developed for police forces around the world to address this very issue. It enables evidence in all its forms to be captured (and not in the traditional ‘silo’ fashion), automatically catalogued, assigned to the correct case file and securely stored in such a way that it’s readily searchable and retrievable for officers with the appropriate clearance to access.
The ability for all forces, particularly those in England and Wales, to be able to use the same systems and technology is vital, and points to another issue raised within the HMIC report. “However, in too many respects, forces continue to purchase different equipment and applications, with the consequence that there’s only limited ability for one force’s systems to link effectively to another’s.”
With so much cross-force collaboration, it makes sense for forces to try and standardise on platforms and technologies that are either the same or can easily talk to one another. Hopefully, as the Police ICT Company spreads its wings this will become a reality.
Police forces are risk averse organisations. Rightly so, given their remit to protect society. However, change doesn’t need to be all-encompassing nor undertaken all at once.
Tackling one challenge at a time can reap huge rewards. From my own perspective, I can think of no better place to start than removing the barriers to our bobbies being on the beat.
Jamie Wilson is Public Safety Marketing Manager (EMEA) at NICE Systems