The Bichard Report into failures that led to Ian Huntley being in a position to murder schoolgirls Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, has pushed the need for a national police intelligence network to the top of the political agenda.
After years of wavering and false starts the Home Office has committed itself to rolling out an interim intelligence system across England and Wales by spring 2005 and to starting work on a fully-fledged intelligence sharing system.
A national intelligence system is needed as a matter of urgency, but police forces in England and Wales are lagging years behind Scottish forces, which began work on creating a national intelligence system four years ago.
The Scottish Intelligence Database (Sid), built at a cost of £11m, covers six of Scotland's police forces, representing about 17,000 officers and 7,000 civilians. It will be extended to cover all eight forces by the end of the year.
The Home Office and successive home secretaries were heavily criticised by Bichard for failing to take the lead in developing an intelligence system for the whole of the UK. Plans for such a system were, in fact, laid down in the National Strategy for Police Information Systems in 1994, but they were dropped in 2000, just as police chiefs were agreeing a National Intelligence Model designed to place intelligence at the heart of policing.
The Police IT Organisation (Pito) is confident that the Bichard inquiry has created a new political momentum for establishing a national intelligence system that will sweep away the indecision of the past.
"Bichard gives us clarity about what we need to achieve in business terms," said Chris Earnshaw, Pito chairman. "We are working closely with the Home Office and police forces in England, Wales and Scotland. We are looking to provide a framework of interoperability [with existing police systems] so that we do not re-invent the wheel."
But the technical and political challenge facing Pito is immense. Creating a national intelligence system will mean integrating a patchwork of intelligence systems across 43 police forces. They range from highly sophisticated, state-of-the-art free-text retrieval databases to computerised card indexes. Each force stores intelligence in different ways and in different formats.
Persuading the forces to agree common data standards may be equally difficult. Pito has no power to compel forces to adopt particular technologies. Each chief constable acts independently and is free to set his or her own priorities.
John Burbeck, head of criminal justice for the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), highlighted the scale of the task the government faces to link police and criminal justice systems, at a meeting of IT directors and MPs in parliament last week.
"To misquote the old saying, if I were going to start with police IT and integrate it, I would not want to start here, I would want to start over," he said.
The English and Welsh forces could have much to learn from the British Transport Police, which has implemented a system to share intelligence among 2,250 transport police officers across the country and with police forces. It uses free text retrieval to search intelligence, crime reports and witness statements, whatever format they have been stored in. British Transport Police is sharing intelligence with seven forces, with more expected to follow.
Many interested parties are questioning why the system already in use in Scotland cannot be rolled out to the rest of the UK. Although Pito has yet to flesh out its plans for a national intelligence system for England and Wales, the early indications are that it favours developing a separate system.
Dubbed Intelligence Management Prioritisation Analysis Co-ordination and Tasking (Impact), the system will build on existing projects, which are also in their early stages.
They include the Cross Regional Information Sharing Project (Crisp), under way at Northumbria and Dyfed Powis police. This will allow the forces to share data through a web browser without having to replace legacy computer systems.
As a stop gap, Pito plans to roll out PLX, a system designed to flag up when forces have intelligence about individuals that may be of interest to other forces, by the end of 2005, 13 years after a similar system was introduced in Scotland.
Jim Brookes, consultant for Socitm and former head of information strategy at Avon and Somerset police, is among those who believe Pito could be making an expensive mistake. He tried to get Acpo, Pito and the Home Office to follow the Scottish path some years ago. Brookes felt that the Scottish system could be used to link forces together in regional hubs.
"Pito and Acpo were already working on their own systems and they did not see the value of changing them. There was a 'not invented here' syndrome. There were some genuine concerns about interoperability but a regional-based system, in my view, would have worked," he told Computer Weekly.
Andy Gosling, deputy project manager for Sid at the Scottish Police Information Strategy, is understandably reluctant to get involved in the politics. But he said there was nothing technically to prevent Sid being scaled up for England and Wales.
"We do not have any doubt that it could be scaled to a UK national system. It is quite basic in its overheads. It is a web-based system. All the processing is done at the centre and pages are pulled down from a central database. It is no more difficult than logging on to the internet," he said.
Pito said last week that the real issue is that Sid cannot easily interface with the legacy systems used by forces in England and Wales - a claim disputed by ABN, the company that developed the system.
Pito plans to begin a feasibility study of its alternative solution, Impact, this year but it is unlikely to be ready before 2007. A lot is riding on Pito making the right decision.
Scottish system: blueprint for UK?
The roll-out of a national intelligence system to all eight police forces in Scotland will be completed by the end of the year. The systems has already gone live in six forces
Development work on the Scottish Intelligence Database (Sid) began four years ago when the Association of Chief Police Officers for Scotland concluded there was no real alternative to sharing intelligence data across the country. The Scottish police forces agreed a common model for recording intelligence and defined an agreed specification for the system, which took four years to develop.
Although early discussions focused on developing interfaces to link with legacy systems, the forces decided to start again with a new common intelligence system. ABM won the contract in 2001.
The system is based on an Oracle database running on Sun servers. Data is held on two mirrored sites managed by the Scottish Criminal Records Office.
Forces can access the central intelligence database from an internet browser. Sid was developed at a cost of £11m, which includes £5.8m for Scotland's criminal justice extranet.
Transport police pioneer data sharing
British Transport Police began work on its own intelligence sharing system, to allow its 2,250 police officers to share intelligence data among 84 police stations across the UK, in summer 2001.
The system, developed by Memex, went live by the end of the year and provided senior officers with the first accurate picture of crime trends, problem areas and the most troublesome offenders.
The system has a powerful free text retrieval search capability which has allowed the force to use it as a platform for sharing intelligence with other forces, no matter what data formats they use.
"We have entered into data-sharing agreements with seven forces. We exchange 13 months' worth of data with the forces and take daily updates," said detective inspector John McBride. "As long as the force provides data in CSV or XML format we can search it.
"Where we have access to police geographical data, we can do one key search on suspects and names. If we had a robbery at Slough and the perpetrator had a gold tooth and a red puffer jacket, we can search for people who match that in the Thames Valley," he said.
Because the system is flexible, British Transport Police has been able to add other data from witness statements, which contain a wealth of information, to the database and is in the process of adding crime reports and command and control information.