We are lucky to live in a protected society in the UK, one that is long established, respected and that continuously strives to improve the way it keeps citizens safe. However, with the recent report by the Public Accounts Select Committee concluding that the police are taking longer to charge suspects, fewer arrests are being made and the numbers of patrol officers has been stripped – it’s undeniable that the police are under significant strain. On top of this, we are fighting against growth in the use of technology, by criminals, within high profile crimes such as ‘county lines’ drug dealing.
Whilst technology advances can provide law enforcement with new solutions to prevent criminal activity, it can also cause problems. Digital based crime is increasing and as a result there is now abundant evidence; from CCTV footage to Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) information, text message and social media data. Evidence has now gone digital, and like every other organisation or industry sector, the police must get a grip on the vast tide of criminal data, and find a way to use it to their advantage.
Cleansing case data is a necessary start – allowing officers and police analysts to sort the relevant from the irrelevant. The data must then be analysed by the investigation team in order to provide lines of enquiry and evidential outputs. In most cases this is where case data stops. But, crime does not always stay within police boundary lines. Perpetrators of county lines crime operate from major cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, London and Birmingham and expand their drug networks to other areas of the country, bringing violence, exploitation and abuse to rural communities. In order to tackle this effectively there is a growing requirement to ensure that data is accessible, readable and has long term integrity across police boundaries.
In 2016, the NPCC released The Policing Vision 2025, which set out its plans and suggestions for improving law enforcement over the next ten years. With this vision, it aims to influence decision making for police forces, particularly around transformation.
In this latest document, it reported that policing needed a more ‘agile’ approach to data and information sharing between forces claiming that, “Police forces and their partners will work together in a consistent manner to enable joined up business delivery around policing support services and community safety.”
The wider tech sector is already innovating to help companies adapt to the vast amounts of data that need to be shared securely between companies, and also be in line with the EU’s recent GDPR legislation. Amazon, Google, Microsoft, IBM, Salesforce, and Oracle recently stated their commitment to advancing healthcare interoperability and health data exchange through artificial intelligence (AI) and the cloud. Why shouldn’t we see the same level of dedication for the other public services?
This sentiment was also echoed in a recent user survey by Police ICT which claimed that the police felt themselves that they needed to “improving data sharing and integration to establish joint technological solutions and enabling the transfer of learning between agencies and forces so we can work more effectively together to embed evidence based practice.”
Whilst the police are now managing to become more agile on their own turf when it comes to analysing data with the use of data cleansing tools, we have seen less collaboration between neighbouring forces to build a bigger picture of the criminal activity but also to build it quickly.
The 2025 strategy sets out that law enforcement must work “with partners to foster a culture shift around the delivery of public protection, away from a single organisation mentality towards budgeting and service provision based on a whole-system approach.”
Reasons to be agile
There are many reasons a more agile approach is necessary. One of the most pressing requirements for this is down to the shifting nature of crime. The digital age has seen a growth in online criminal activity, which is unique in the fact that its connectivity means that a crime or case can take place across multiple regions at once, with perpetrators across many boundaries. Alongside this, some criminals are exploiting advances in technology, more quickly than law enforcement is able to bring in new techniques to deal with it.
Criminals have become wise to this, particularly the way the police track them through this data. For example, with county lines crime the perpetrators use burner phones to accept orders and reach out to ‘employees’, all in order to avoid detection in their own jurisdiction.
As they are using older models of phone, with no access to modern apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, and because they are operating across several counties, it means that with each of these crimes there are hundreds of pages of telco data to sift through both when tracking the criminals down to arrest and then subsequently when building the evidence for the case when it is passed to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). If police forces were more readily able to instantaneously share data across borders, there’s a greater chance of recognising the patterns of the criminals to catch them, and to build a robust case when it comes to prosecution.
It’s clear that having a more joined up approach across borders would help with this, however there a few updates in technology that would need to be addressed before this could be fixed.
There are still obstacles to sharing data across forces
The outmoded and often incompatible IT systems within the police are currently the biggest challenge for sharing intelligence across force borders.
A CoPaCC Police ICT survey released in 2018 stated that systems are not “joined up within forces and with other agencies, such as the DVLA, social services, and CPS.” A lack of interoperability between systems is a real barrier between cross border information sharing as there can be a large amount of red tape to get through in order to share files across different siloed systems.
Outdated modes of data analysis are also a barrier to this. Using manual practices on data intensive cases, when there isn’t the resource to bring in a police analyst, can result in hundreds of man-hours to process.
How the police force can improve these complicated processes?
As a starting point forces should continue to take advice and work with partners, such as the Police ICT Company, on technology best practice to build an evidence base of ‘what works’, while addressing sources of demand, and developing and encouraging uptake of existing and emerging technologies.
But police forces should also ensure that they are considering technology as the solution as much as they are the problem. There are solutions that could help the police to be more integrated force-to-force, such as cloud-based technologies that allow a more collaborative and secure approach to intelligence sharing.
To then combine this with a tool that can quickly cleanse and analyse the data, as well as recognise and flag patterns in a case, means investigations are built quicker, with better evidence, resulting in higher numbers of positive outcomes when the case gets to trial.
Just as technology is enabling criminals, it must too connect and enable police forces. We cannot allow the technology of law-breakers to be more advanced than that of the police. We need to follow the guidelines of the policing vision 2025 to improve agility, and if police forces join up at a regional and national level, could even exceed the expectations.