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‘Police forces’ investment in and adoption of new technology is complete and utter mess’, say MPs

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez October 28, 2018
MPs on the Home Affairs Select Committee heard that forces are failing in the adoption of technology not because of funding, but because of a lack of coordination and leadership.

In a damning report on the future of policing, MPs on the Home Affairs Select Committee have criticised forces’ digital capabilities, claiming that the problem could well be “systemic”.

The Committee has recommended that the police establish a prestigious digital exploitation centre for serious crime - possibly with regional branches - to be able to better attract and retain talent, alongside the likes of GCHQ.

The centre would have the purchasing power to invest in “innovative methods of digital forensics and analysis”, from which all forces could then benefit.

The Committee is urgently calling on the government and the police service to take steps to cost such a model, in time to account for the required funding in the next Comprehensive Spending Review. The report notes:

We have serious concerns about the police service’s digital capabilities, including the skills base of officers and staff and the technological solutions available to them.

We were impressed by the digital and data exploitation capabilities available to counter-terrorism policing, but we note comments by Lynne Owens, Director General of the NCA, regarding the inequitable provision of resources available to other threats, including serious organised crime.

Previous chapters have outlined our concerns about digital capabilities in other fields, including child sexual abuse and online fraud, and we fear this may be a systemic problem throughout the police service.

Many policing witnesses told the Committee that acquiring colleagues with strong cyber and digital skills is a challenge. The Met Police, for example, said that being able to tackle crime that takes place in a non-physical environment “requires a totally new skill set for our officers and staff”.

The Police Superintendents Association of England Wales also told the Committee that “there is a need to redefine policing’s relationship with the private sector, so that it becomes one that is agile, flexible, enabling the sharing of skills, knowledge and technology”.

Chief Constable Sara Thornton - who is chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) - also said that the area of policing in which she is “least confident” is the force’s response to cyber dependent and cyber-related crime. She said that the NPCC and National Crime Agency were making a joint bid to the Police Transformation Fund for cyber units in forces, “regionally coordinated as part of the NCA area”. However, she admitted that this is still very much a work in progress.

It’s not all about investment

Interestingly, despite the Committee highlighting the lack of investment in policing being linked to a number of other problems across the forces, it argues that investment is not the only problem when it comes to technology. The Committee said:

“Police forces’ investment in and adoption of new technology is, quite frankly, a complete and utter mess. There are enormous opportunities for policing, including greater use of artificial intelligence and the exploitation of data, but the service is often failing to take advantage of them.

“We believe that the biggest failing in this area is not the level of funding, but rather the complete lack of coordination and leadership on upgrading technology over very many years. This is badly letting down police officers, who are struggling to do their jobs effectively with out-of-date technology. It is astonishing that, in 2018, police forces are still struggling to get crucial real-time information from each other, and that officers are facing frustration and delays on a daily basis.

“The National Enabling Programme and the ongoing reforms to the Police National Database, though welcome, are woefully unambitious, and will not solve the problem. Criminals don’t recognise police force boundaries, and neither should the data that is gathered on them. The Home Office must make it a clear and stated aim to unify all police databases and communications systems according to a clear timetable, with all new force-level contracts negotiated accordingly, so they can fit into a national framework or contract in future.”

The Committee is calling for stronger national leadership from the Home Office on technology use and adoption, and it states that Ministers need to take “ultimately responsibility” for the failure of this “crucial public service to properly upgrade its technology to deal with the threats of the 21st Century”.

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