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A new hope for police IT?

IT in the UK's police forces is lagging behind – but at last, there may be cause for optimism

The latest annual Police ICT Summit in January 2017 provided a reminder of the huge potential that new technology has to improve this critical public service – and also of the distance policing still has to go to turn that potential into reality.

But the event unquestionably brought grounds for optimism that genuine progress on police IT is now in prospect.

Speakers at the summit identified four drivers for positive change in police ICT.

First, modern technology has the potential to transform most sectors of the economy, but policing the difference it makes can literally be a matter of life and death.

Timely analysis of information enables officers to respond to calls appropriately, identify hidden connections between separate events and build a rich picture of the people they deal with, whether victims of crime or offenders. All of this enables the police to better prevent crime, protect the vulnerable and bring the guilty to justice.

Second, the police increasingly recognise they need to work hand-in-hand with other public services to respond to incidents effectively and identify and protect the vulnerable. This includes being able to share voice and data communications with fire and ambulance services at an incident. But it also means sharing information – appropriately safeguarded – with social services, the NHS and schools, which can reap huge dividends in terms of public protection. But, to do so on a meaningful scale, information systems must be able to talk to each other.

The third factor is the extent to which, as our lives have moved online, so has crime. Fraud, bullying, sexual exploitation and terrorism are all now as prevalent online as in the real world. Clearly, the police need modern tools to tackle these modern menaces.

Obsolete IT systems

The final driver for police IT improvement comes from the public. We are used to interacting digitally with commercial companies and, increasingly, public services – particularly through social media, often while on the move. Effective digital public engagement by the police not only improves public satisfaction and saves police resources, it improves operational effectiveness. Social media can be a rich source of information about trends and events affecting demand on the service, but only if the police have the ability to analyse this data in a timely manner.

TV sometimes paints a picture of a police service with almost unlimited access to computer data. The reality falls far short, with too many police forces running unconnected, often obsolete systems, with limited ability to communicate with each other or with officers out on the street, let alone in other agencies.

If the public realised just how bad police IT works today, their anger would be intense
Sir Tom Winsor, chief inspector of constabulary

The chief constable leading the service’s Digital Policing Board, Steve Kavanagh of Essex Police, told the summit his IT ran on a staggering 275 different servers. That equates to one server for every 10 of his officers. Kavanagh added that 80% of his servers were more than eight years old. And there is no reason to think Essex is any different to other forces.

The fragmentation of the police service into 43 territorial forces of widely differing size – reflecting a desire to keep the service locally accountable – has hit efforts to pursue a unified approach. Too many forces have procured their own IT systems or formed small local clusters.

As Sir Tom Winsor, chief inspector of constabulary, told the summit: “Things cannot go on this way. If the public realised just how bad police IT works today, their anger would be intense.”

Signs of progress

The good news is there are signs of progress. The Police ICT Company, established only two years ago, has found its place in the policing universe, working alongside the National Police Technology Council and the Digital Policing Board to take forward a series of programmes to deliver capabilities best provided at scale, while working with individual forces to ensure truly local services are procured well and, wherever possible, connect to their neighbours.

And Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) – the budget-holders and strategic decision-makers for police forces – increasingly recognise the importance of IT in transforming the service. The Vision for Policing in 2025 – developed jointly by PCCs and chief constables – puts digital policing and IT-enabled transformation front and centre of its portrait of modern policing.

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We have had warm words on police IT improvements before, but these too often came from the centre. Since 2010, the government has explicitly given up on trying to run a centralised police service and consciously devolved power down to forces.

This, perhaps, has finally made the service’s leaders realise no one else is going to create better IT for them, and if they really want it, they will have to deliver it themselves. This clear long-term commitment to improvement from the service’s strategic and operational leaders suggests that for police IT, there may finally be blue light at the end of the tunnel.

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