Digital knowledge must be integral part of Dutch police training

Research reveals gaps in digital knowledge among Netherlands police, with calls for a training ‘roadmap’ to get officers up to speed to tackle cyber crime

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Dutch police need a roadmap to keep officers up to date with the latest digital developments, according to the independent Cybersafety Research Group of the NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences in Leeuwarden, Netherlands.

Researchers said the organisation needs to map out what digital knowledge it expects from its staff, and they emphasised the importance of digital as an integrated part of daily police practice, rather than something that happens alongside regular police work.

Cyber crime and crime with a digital component are now so prevalent that the police can no longer leave these matters to cyber specialists, said the researchers. Digital crime is rising and developing rapidly, and many police officers come across it on an almost daily basis, but their knowledge of such crimes can soon become outdated.

“In order to maintain and strengthen our connection with the digitised society, we have to continually brush up our knowledge of digitisation,” said Thijs van Valkengoed, co-researcher who works in cyber crime and digital investigation liaison with the police. “That is why we have asked the Cybersafety Research Group at NHL Stenden to investigate where the need for knowledge development is greatest, where we currently stand in terms of knowledge level and what is needed to raise this to the next level.”

The research focuses on police officers’ knowledge of digital aspects of their work. The aim was to help police function optimally in a digitised society. The researchers from NHL Stenden sought to answer the question: “What is the police officer’s level of knowledge on digital aspects of police work and how can a possible knowledge deficit be combated?”

This was split into different police functions: intake and service, police officers in uniform, basic team investigation, district investigation and regional investigation.

The researchers looked at how the intake and processing of digital crime and crime with a digital component is organised within the Netherlands police force. They saw that, in practice, the police mainly work according to an incident-oriented approach and to a lesser extent according to a problem-oriented or programmatic approach.

They also looked at what knowledge the five function groups of police officers should have about digital aspects of police work. The knowledge that police officers have in practice with regard to these digital aspects was mapped – without passing judgement on the adequacy of this knowledge.

Testing police knowledge

In order to test police officers’ knowledge levels, it was essential to set a standard. “Such a knowledge standard indicates what digital knowledge police officers need to have in order to effectively carry out police work in a digitised society,” said researcher and project leader Jurjen Jansen of the Cybersafety Research Group.

“The knowledge required differs per job group. The first step in the research was therefore to develop knowledge standards for each group. Earlier research suggests that the police are struggling with a knowledge deficit when it comes to digital aspects of police work.

“However, what specific knowledge is lacking and where in the police organisation the knowledge deficit occurs has not been investigated so far. That is why we are offering insight into this knowledge gap with this research.”

To map what knowledge police officers have in practice, 402 officers and detectives filled in a questionnaire. The results showed that improvements are needed in both breadth and depth. Further analysis showed that the differences are not age-related. This means that the knowledge deficit will not be solved automatically when older police officers leave and new, younger officers join.

Education and experience with cyber cases did seem to correlate positively with police officers’ knowledge levels. “It was also striking that detectives have more digital knowledge than officers from other job groups, such as policemen on the street or police staff who record reports,” said Jansen.

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According to the research, police knowledge in the field of digital crime appeared to be low, as did the recognition of punishable behaviour. This must be addressed in training and courses, said the researchers.

The researchers also looked at police behaviour at and around a crime scene. There was a striking lack of knowledge of the risks of destroying or contaminating digital traces and a lack of knowledge of basic procedures for securing digital data carriers. Low scores were also given to the aspect of prioritising which data carriers are important to secure first.

On the other hand, aspects relating to actions at a crime scene and the production of evidence scored high. Virtually all interviewees indicated they would call in a specialist if they found unknown data carriers, and this was seen as a very important action.

Police officers scored high across the board for general digital terms, but not so in specific areas. For example, knowledge of interception scored high, but knowledge of the use of digital tools was low.

Only two in five officers were familiar with the web apps of the Dutch Police Academy. They also scored low on the theme of gathering information on the internet, although respondents again scored relatively high on the “tools” for searching for this information.

Online communication with citizens also scored low, because the participating police officers did not know which internet applications citizens use and which they themselves can use to get in touch with citizens.

Targeting the knowledge deficit

Now that the study has mapped out where the knowledge deficit manifests itself within the police, the force can set to work in a targeted manner. “I would like to strive for an integral plan for a sustainable development of the knowledge level on digital aspects for our police officers in all parts of our organisation,” said Van Valkengoed.

According to the researchers, a promising strategy to increase knowledge levels is learning by doing – by applying knowledge directly in practice. It is important to facilitate this – teaching material must be made available, supervision must be organised and there must be room to gain practical experience and to reflect on it.

According to Van Valkengoed, police officers do not need to have all the necessary knowledge ready at all times. “One of the recommendations from the study is that we should better organise access to this knowledge,” he said. “You want to get the right knowledge to police officers at the right time.”

The concept of “performance support by design” offers opportunities for this. Think, for instance, of a computer program that triggers questions about digital components as soon as police officers enter a digital term in a report.

The development of a “roadmap” for training police officers is also one of the recommendations, but it should be noted that the knowledge standards developed are temporary in nature, said Jansen. “In that sense, the results of this study are an interim assessment,” he added. “The digital knowledge required for police work is constantly changing. Police work in a digitised society therefore requires the ability to move with the times.”

The question this raises is what that “adaptability” should look like in practice. “Partly on the basis of this study, we will take additional steps in that direction,” said Van Valkengoed. “For us, in any case, it is clear that there is no digital police work separate from regular police work. Everything that happens digitally and online is interwoven with the daily work of police officers. After all, the online and offline worlds are increasingly merging.”

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