Police use of mobile technology increases

The government has pumped £80m into mobile devices for police forces, and officers can expect an increasing proportion of their workload to be dependent on them.

The government has pumped £80m into mobile devices for police forces, and officers can expect an increasing proportion of their workload to be dependent on them.

There is a raft of problems for police forces to iron out, but the clear benefits and relatively low cost mean it is one initiative that is not likely to disappear.

"Officers who are joining now are going to have to use these," says Jim Hitch, an inspector at Bedfordshire Police. "They can start now, or they can play catch up. But in five to 10 years time, they will have to use them. At some point there will be no option."

Officers use Blackberries and other devices to access systems like the Police National Computer, enabling them to make checks on people and fill in paperwork without having to return to the office. Bedfordshire Police found a trial of the devices cut the amount of time officers spend at the station by 20%, meaning they had more time for "on the beat" policing.

Mobile technology has been rolled out to most police forces in the UK. Problems faced by forces include interoperability with highly secure police systems, and some rural forces have to contend with less-than-perfect mobile network coverage. The biggest obstacle though is a cultural one - convincing 15% to 20% of each force that mobility is a good idea.

"It is an ongoing management issue," says Hitch. "The trouble is that the people you need to get to don't come to you for advice. So we have been targeting people, approaching officers whose devices have not been used. It is a question of winning hearts and minds, rather than waving a big stick and making people do it."

The devices cost around £270 per officer per year, but save time and money by freeing up control room operators, who no longer need to run system checks because officers can do it themselves.

The National Police Improvement Agency says it is looking at the potential role of mobile technology in general emergency response. Police, fire and ambulance crews already co-ordinate using the Airwave radio network, and Gary Cairns, mobile information programme manager at the NPIA, says its Future Communication Programme is looking at possible further uses for mobile devices.

Former shadow home secretary David Davies said at a roundtable on the issue, organised by Blackberry manufacturer RIM, that a Conservative government would be likely to continue to support the use of mobile technology in policing. "We are looking at cuts in public spending, but if anyone can make a business case showing a particular device or strategy will save money in the long term, it would have a very good chance of being taken up. Personally I think there is a good business case here."

But IT departments in individual forces might not get to be that involved - there is plenty of scope for innovative new uses of the devices, but much of the application building will be done by third party companies. Hitch said, "We are a small force, so we are relying on third parties to create applications. They are experienced at it, and there is a financial imperative for them to do it well."

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