In an ideal world we would see a huge recruitment drive in the police so that we can solve more crime. But it’s time to stop asking for the impossible – the funding is simply not available to provide the numbers of officers on the streets that most would like to see. This is an outdated reaction to modern policing issues. Crime does not happen exclusively on the streets; many criminal networks rely on tech, be that computers or phones to operate. And the police reaction needs to stay in step with that.
Think about the recent rise in violent crime. London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has consistently said that more officers are needed to reduce the rate of this crime. But if you consider that a lot of drivers for knife crime find basis in criminal gangs or county lines operations, and that these are rarely random attacks by law abiding citizens, you might consider that putting officers on every street corner in London won’t actually provide any means to tackle this. In actual fact, putting more officers on the streets can increase tensions.
Instead, if you can link criminal activity to gangs through data then you have a sense of how to find out how members are involved, where they live, where they go to school. You can’t do that by putting police officers on the street. We need a data driven approach.
Reactionary or intelligence led policing
Data is not currently built into the DNA of policing. A data or intelligence-led police force are also enabled to adopt a more predictive approach when it comes to the prevention and cessation of criminal activity – rather than a purely reactive one – with tools now available that can identify trends and patterns in data, which could help police recognise criminal behavior, before the crime itself actually happens.
There needs to be a shift in the perception that data is only the responsibility of Police Analysts, it needs to be utilised at every level within forces, as Stephen Kavanagh QPM, Ex Chief Constable of Essex Police and National Lead for Digital Policing Portfolio, has said, “What we need is properly informed officers. If you look back at Sir Robert Peel’s Nine Principles of Policing, policing has always been about the prevention of crime – using experience, legislation and intelligence to intercede before something happens or before it becomes a critical issue for the community. In emerging issues such as county lines drug dealing the warning signs to involvement and coercion will have existed in data systems for some time, whether that’s police data, education or social services. The public expects that we are using that data, but the reality it is that the police are still too reactionary.”
Examining the genetic code of police data
There are a number of deep and ingrained reasons why data is not currently built into the DNA of policing. Although we need to accept that putting more officers on the streets is an outdated concept, we have to recognise the impact austerity and a huge drop in PCSOs has had on intelligence. Stephen saw this first hand at Essex Police, “The PCSOs used to hold an enormous amount of information about who was living where, who they were seeing and when they might be getting drawn into criminal behaviours. At Essex we went from 400 to just 100 PCSOs, because we had to focus on investigating crimes that already happened. That’s a fundamental problem with British policing today – we have lost both a crucial source of community intelligence, the ability to intervene early and as a result we will continue to be reactionary until we can find another way to fill this gap.”
While it’s accepted that policing will continue to suffer from a lack of on-the-ground intelligence, the news is not all bad. In technological terms the police are now better resourced than ever. They have the technology that will take available data and analyse it, creating connections and lines of inquiry, fast. But the problem is that these resources are not being used fully. To be effective this data needs to be historic and all encompassing. Before we had the ability to analyse huge data sets quickly, Investigators would ask only for data collected on the day of the incident, but that’s useless in terms of tracking criminal activity that took place before the crime, which often paints a complete picture of what happened.
Culturally, there is still a fear of data sharing, and that includes between force departments, as well as between forces, this is also an issue between agencies and the wider public sector. There needs to more central leadership and championing of the benefits of intelligence-led policing from the Home Office, as well as a huge improvement in transparency and the way this is communicated to the public.
But as Stephen says, senior policing figures need to question why data sharing is not happening, “It’s a dereliction of duty to the public if you hold data and don’t use it to the best of your ability in order to safeguard and inform effective policing. If you are not doing everything in your power to use data that is utterly wrong and the police needs to question why that’s happening. We need to get over risk aversion and legislation such as GDPR. The Home Office needs to set a more strategic vision for how data sharing works.”
However, it would be unfair to lay blame at the door of police, who are functioning with legacy systems and siloed data as Stephen explains, “The reality is that investigative information lives in different data sets and servers, in different parts of the force, in excel spreadsheets and on force desktops. Policing doesn’t just need a technology strategy, it needs a data driven strategy.”
There is a heightening need for this today as data generated by new sources from the web and increasing levels of cybercrime all mean that the volume and variety of data involved in an investigation make it harder to solve.
Getting over the difficulties stopping intelligence-led policing
While we all agree that there is a great need for the Home Office to provide leadership on developing the framework to allow the police to use their data for greater effect, there are some practical steps that can be taken today. We need to make sure we are getting on with the task in hand of modern policing, rather than looking for reasons not to do something as Stephen says, “Policing always focuses on the 10% where things are tricky, or where challenges might exist rather than the 90% of making something happen and getting on with it.”
Taking a strategic approach to technology and data within forces can make a real difference as Stephen explains, “Where there are good examples of forces trialing tech such as facial recognition, it’s not coordinated across the force. So, the perception of the tech becomes negative. To get over the challenges of legacy systems the police needs to make sure it is buying software licenses efficiently, and scaling use so every department uses it and sees the benefit. That also makes it more effective for industry to bring the best solutions to the police.
“There is so much potential for data to make a demonstrable difference to current policing challenges, but we need to be supported by a supplier ecosystem that provides us with the best tech to even begin to match the technical expertise of criminals today. This might be a hard pill for policing to swallow, but we need the tech industry as much as they need us.”
We must continue to build data into policing, so that we can intelligently solve crime, but also take down those with criminal intent before any impact on the public is felt. If Sir Robert Peel was around today I’m sure he would agree with that sentiment.