British Police Haven't Solved Tech Problems

Police languish with old BlackBerrys and no easy way to coordinate tech efforts while the government's promised central crime-fighting organization is no where in sight.
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Police in the U.K. need to do a better job of embracing modern technology or they won't be able to fulfill their primary role: that of crime prevention, rather than detection.

That was the message delivered Monday by the new top regulator for police in the country, Tom Winsor. If British Bobbies are to heed the founding principles of their profession, articulated by Sir Robert Peel in 1829, including that "crime is the primary purpose of policing, and that purpose should never be forgotten or diluted," they must overhaul their infrastructure, including use of smartphones and other tech, said Winsor.

Winsor last year proposed in an independent report that police should use "modern management practices ... in line with practices elsewhere in the public sector and the wider economy." He opined, "It is remarkable that the technology available to the police, particularly in their interaction with other parts of the criminal justice system, is as rudimentary and as primitive as it is. It hemorrhages efficiency."

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Winsor is a lawyer and former regulator of the British railway sector with zero background in policing. His appointment last year as Chief Inspector of Constabulary -- in practical terms, head of the organization responsible for best practice in the field -- was not welcomed by many rank-and-file officers for that reason. Nevertheless, he said he's been told of the "screaming frustrations" of police officers as they struggle with outdated and antiquated systems. Winsor's vision: a smartphone-like device that will let the beat officer to literally hold the intelligence in his local force's data banks "in his hand".

He might face an uphill battle. Modernization has been suggested before, with the previous government funding a number of trials of devices such as BlackBerry handhelds. But the projects never took off. "On one visit, a constable handed me the PDA device he had been given two years ago, [and] since then half of its functionality has been removed," said Winsor. "I had not seen one of these in ten years. It was next to useless," he said.

The piecemeal nature of British police tech provision is a problem as well, according to Winsor. The country has no national structure but is composed of a set of 43 loosely federated local forces, as well as other special types of police. As a result, "Forces have in the recent past specified and acquired technology separately or in collaboration with a few -- but usually very few -- others," said Winsor, and this needs to change: "There is a need now to join them up in a coherent, efficient and effective single system which respects local accountability but acquires, maintains and develops all the benefits of a networked system… Technology is one of the principal areas in which the efficiency of the police can be improved, and its current fragmented state must be improved markedly and urgently."

Two years ago, Home Secretary Theresa May told ACPO conference attendees they were wasting £1.2 billion ($1.9 billion) every year on bad IT due to uncoordinated networks and procurement. Her solution: a new national British police technology company that would produce unified systems that would drive down information technology bills and bring in the kind of efficiency Winsor wants.

But two years on, no such organization yet exists, and according to Parliament it's not likely to any time soon, with no date yet fixed for its launch and no details of how it will operate. In the meantime the Home Office has run up a bill of £356,000 ($552,000) on infrastructure as well as £1.8 million ($2.8 million) for lawyers' and consultants' advice.

However, the Home Office denied the project was going nowhere, telling The Independent, "The [proposed Police] ICT company will buy computer technology more cheaply and to ensure systems work across forces. Our changes will mean the police can focus on crime-fighting."

Also on Monday, a British think-tank grabbed headlines by only half joking that a network of updated Tardis boxes, made famous by the Doctor Who sci-fi TV show, might be an improvement over current police tech. The boxes would provide "technologically-enabled contact points, featuring two-way audio-visual technology so that members of the public could communicate directly with police staff [which] could be used to report crime, provide witness statements, discuss concerns and priorities, and access information," said the group.

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