Interview: Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley

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Interview: Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner Mark Rowley

Kathleen Hall

Assistant commissioner at the Metropolitan Police Mark Rowley is tasked with reviewing the force’s technology operations ahead of swingeing cuts due to come in this April. He talks to Computer Weekly about how IT can help the force work smarter with less.

Until this year the Met had been ring-fenced from cuts, with so many high-profile events happening in 2012. Mark Rowley’s task now is to look at how technology can improve operations against a backdrop of £500m cuts coming into force, and a new Crime Plan due to be published in April 2013. 

“We have come up with a very ambitious plan of change to stay at 32,000 officers while seeing a big reduction in overall police staff," says Rowley. Management ratios and properties will also see a significant reduction."We are doing everything we can to keep frontline as large as possible but as well-equipped as possible.

“The challenge looking forward – and the commissioner is really clear – is that everything has to be around crime-fighting. That might seem really obvious, but sometimes it gets lost. So we are looking at how technology can line up to be able to support that,” he says.

“Part of that is getting more data to the front line, and providing better equipment to that.”

Technology is currently too expensive and not up to standard. “We’ve got to go from having fairly patchy equipment at the front line to being more cutting-edge. We have to make that more effective because we are going to be a smaller organisation in the future," he says.

“Our main systems are old and there is a lot of replacement that needs to be done, there is no doubt about that. But the aim shouldn’t be replacing systems – the aim is kit that helps officers fight crime, and if behind that sit systems that require them to help do it, then so be it.

The challenge looking forward, and the commissioner is really clear, is that everything has to be around crime-fighting. That might seem really obvious, but sometimes it gets lost. So we are looking at how technology can line up to be able to support that

“That is why the commissioner has asked me to lead the programme, I’m not responsible for IT, but to make sure there is an operational leadership – so I am pushing for the effect on the ground.

“I’m less interested in the systems side. I’m not running the tech function, that wouldn’t be clever. But I am trying to make sure that it aligns with what the police need,” he says.

Big IT projects at the Metropolitan Police

The Met constitutes one-quarter of British policing, with 50,000 officers and staff. So the question for any operational deployment is whether it can be done on a large scale, says Rowley.

The force is in the process of procuring for a command and control system, which is crucial to all police response operations.  

“There aren’t many systems tested in a scale comparable to the Met. You wouldn’t want to buy a system tested anything smaller than a tenth of the organisation. In terms of mobility and all the infrastructure required, it is huge,” he says.

The system must also be aligned to what the Met is trying to achieve with mobility. ”We don’t want to just procure a slightly better version of the system that we already have. We want something that sets up to working in a very different and modern way,” says.

“What we don’t want to do is slip into the trap the public sector has sometimes of going for one massive solution, so in five years’ time we’ll have a system that solves all our ills. History is not littered with successes of large projects such as that,” he says.

An iterative approach to deployments will be key areas the Met is looking at in its strategy, he says. “Frankly the commissioner wouldn’t be impressed if said we’ve got a great plan, but nothing is going to get better for four years until we unveil it, because meanwhile that is four years crime-fighting that hasn’t been helped by better technology. So we need to work out what we need to do, step by step, to get there.

Blackberry is very accredited and Apple hasn’t been accredited for some time, and I think there might be some movement on that soon. To rule out one of the market leaders providing user-friendly devices is unhelpful. Frankly, we should be able to give officers the best kit whether it’s a BlackBerry, Samsung or Apple. And it is sometimes frustrating operationally being restricted by too much security

New technology

A greater use of smartphone devices is a key area for getting frontline police officers to do more, with plans to roll out 30,000 devices. “Of course we have a massive amount of sensitive data, so security for us is very significant. I do feel, though, that has become too much of a block for innovation and because some of our material requires a high level of security, there is a tendency to make everything that secure, which becomes dysfunctional for the operations,” he says.

“Blackberry is very accredited and Apple hasn’t been accredited for some time, and I think there might be some movement on that soon. To rule out one of the market leaders providing user-friendly devices is unhelpful. Frankly, we should be able to give officers the best kit, whether it’s a BlackBerry, Samsung or Apple. And it is sometimes frustrating operationally being restricted by too much by security."

But despite much of its frontline equipment being out of date, Rowley believes there are areas in which the police are at the leading edge of innovation.

“Covert surveillance is an area we are at the cutting edge. We take a couple of hundred firearms off the streets of London each year, based on covert operations using clever tools to help us deliver. The success of that involves the use of specialist hardware and software.”

Digital forensics is another area the force is looking to move into. “We are exploring with a university building equipment and software to help us scan material to spot minute samples of blood and other fluids. The samples we can get DNA from are so small, and involve going over with a microscope, which takes hundreds of hours. With the right lighting and tools, you could develop technology to spot those things automatically,” he says.

The increasing use of smartphone devices is something that also has the potential to make police more effective at doing their jobs.  “One thing that is interesting, and we are not quite there yet, is facial recognition. My take on what I’ve seen is its good for high quality face-on images, but the chaos of different angles makes it very patchy. There is real potential there if we could make it sufficiently effective on a large amount of information through an officer’s mobile, and they have a body camera on and smart device.”

Such an approach would increase the arrest to stop ratio and improve community relations, as innocent people being stopped would not feel unfairly singled out. “The more intelligently we use it, the better it is for community and police relations. So that’s a double win.”

Retaining digital information

There has been controversy over the police’s retention of digital materials, as an ever increasing number of crimes are involving digital evidence. 

“Very few cases 15 years ago involved digital materials, just a small proportion of fraud and paedophile matters where computers were involved. Now it involves an increasing amount of criminal evidence, with people taking photos on cameras, and posting information on Facebook. We had a gang member who was deported recently and one of the important bits of evidence was posing on his Facebook page with a gun. Some of these people are incredibly wicked, but not always that bright!”

“The challenge is trying not to treat digital information any differently from other information. But obviously there are privacy rules around that,” Rowley says.

Cracking encrypted data and retrieving deleted information is another area the police have to be increasingly good at, he says. “And we have some fantastic experts.”

“If we look at our ability now, we can download information from a victim’s phone - if someone has been harassed that way. It spans from the simple end of digital forensics – all the way to having experts that can physically put back together hard drives.”

Future of the Department of Information

With the departure of Ailsa Beaton, director of information at the Metropolitan Police Service this year, the leadership at the Department of Information (DoI) is also being reviewed under the April strategy.

“Ailsa is working at the Home Office, so as we are developing the Crime Plan strategy she has moved on to a new challenge. We have a new interim director coming in.

“We have had some help with external review in terms of where we are with the ICT strategy, and way the DoI is configured.

Does he expect Beaton’s role to be replaced with the review?  “The whole organisation and the technology function and how they are configured historically, are part of the recommendations going forward. Part of that work is designing what the DoI of the future looks like. So in terms of what the senior structure looks like, we are still open-minded at this stage.

“We have a lot of work to do over the next two years. We have some big outsourced contracts coming up for renewal or review in two years’ time. The amount of re-sourcing to be done creates risk in the work to do but also the opportunity in meeting new requirements,” Mark Rowley adds.


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