Police watchdog - ‘Forces not keeping pace with technology’

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez March 2, 2017
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) identifies a number of areas in its report where police are not keeping up with digital-related crime.

The majority of police forces are performing well, despite increasingly difficult circumstances and a rationing of police services. However, police watchdog Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) has warned that forces aren’t responding quickly enough to both the threats and opportunities offered by digital technologies.

A report out this week, which assesses the performance of the 43 police forces across the country, highlighted the ability, or lack thereof, for forces to analyse digital evidence; to use new technologies to map or predict crime; and for police officers using body worn cameras to collect evidence.

HMI Zoë Billingham, who led the inspection, said:

Over the last few years, HMIC has said consistently that police forces were managing well in increasingly difficult circumstances. Nonetheless, today, I’m raising a red flag to warn forces of the consequences of what is, to all intents and purposes, an unconscious form of rationing of police services.

Many forces deserve praise for taking steps to improve how they respond to vulnerable people. But this, whilst commendable, cannot be at the expense of other important areas of policing.

A changing threat

Police IT and the capability of the force to use technology to tackle crime has consistently been varied, given that the approach to adoption of tech has been driven by a local approach. A lack of national agenda has likely avoided similar technology disasters seen in the NHS, but it does mean that there is a big variance in capability. There are also problems around interoperability, knowledge sharing and data use.

Unsurprisingly, HMIC’s report picked up on the changing threat that polices see, as it relates to the increase in digital crime. The report notes that 82 percent of the public think online crime is a big problem and 68 percent think the same about online anti-social behaviour. However, 42 percent do not feel confident that their local police could deal with online crime.

HMIC says that it is “important that this lack of public confidence is addressed”.

The watchdog’s report reads:

Technology is increasingly an integral part of our lives. However, HMIC remains concerned that police forces are not keeping pace with how technology is transforming the lives of citizens and changing how they experience crime. Many people are affected by online crime. Last year, one in ten adults was a victim at least once of fraud and computer misuse. Offenders are also increasingly using online methods to commit crime.

Last year, 30 percent of blackmail offences, 45 percent of obscene publication offences and 11 percent of both stalking and harassment and child sexual offences were committed online in full or in part.

And the police are struggling to keep up with the ever increasing digital threat. HMIC said:

Technology also provides the police with opportunities to investigate crime and apprehend suspects. In too many cases, forces are unable to exploit digital investigative opportunities because they have insufficient capacity or capability to do so. Digital forensic capability and capacity is not keeping up with demand.

For example, at the time of HMIC’s inspection, over 16,000 digital devices were still awaiting examination. That being said, some 75 percent of devices had been waiting for less than three months to be examined (which is considered positive by the watchdog). However, HMIC also notes that some of the ways in which forces have improved wait times, such as by using overtime to tackle backlogs of work, are “not sustainable”.

One approach that appears to work well is the introduction of digital forensic kiosks, which are smaller facilities for the retrieval of forensic information that can be situated in police stations and custody suites. This saves having to send digital devices, such as mobile phones, off to a High Tech Crime Unit.

However, there is still “wide variation” in the extent to which forces have embraced this approach, according to HMIC.

Building up this digital capability internally is challenging. The report reads:

Considerable work is going on with police leaders, supported by bodies such as the College of Policing, on the capability required to retrieve and manage digital evidence, including the need to recruit and train the police workforce for the digital future. However, at the time of our inspection, there was not the evidence to suggest that the service has an established and achievable approach to ensuring that it can meet this increasing demand.

A number of forces have recognised that different approaches are needed to meet the demand presented by digital forensics. These forces are considering how best to recruit and train police workforces for the digital future, including the use of and access to digital media investigators. Digital forensics is one of the fastest-growing areas of business, and people with skills in this area are sought by a number of organisations and companies.

Areas for improvement

HMIC highlighted two areas in particular that the police force could focus on to improve their use of technology to tackle crime: analytics software and the use of body worn video cameras.

On the analytics software side, the report notes that analytical resources across the service are shrinking, and HMIC is encouraging forces to make better use of opportunities made available through new and emerging technology. It said:

Innovative analytical techniques should be used to help the service to make decisions about where to target resources. HMIC found that most forces have not yet explored fully the use of new and emerging techniques and analysis to direct operational activity at a local level.

Forces need to develop a greater awareness of the benefits available from sophisticated crime-mapping software and enhanced analysis in predicting and preventing crime within local communities. Intelligent use of such technology could improve effectiveness, release officer capacity, and is likely to be cost effective.

Equally, HMIC is keen for the police forces to accelerate their use of body worn camera and video equipment to collect evidence at the scene of an incident. Despite there being concerns about privacy, the watchdog recognises that the cameras could be valuable in collecting information during incidents.

The report notes that many forces are in the process of trials with the use of body-worn video cameras, but added that the use and availability of such equipment is still not widespread. The report notes:

Body-worn video cameras are used force-wide by 26 forces, and 7 forces use body-worn video cameras as part of a pilot. As many as 10 forces stated that they do not use body worn video cameras. HMIC’s 43-force crime file review found that the use of body worn video cameras as an investigative opportunity would have been applicable in 373 cases.

However, there was evidence that body-worn video cameras had been used for investigative opportunities in only 182 of these cases, just 49 percent of those deemed appropriate for the technology.

While forces claim to be in differing positions in terms of their ability to invest in body worn video cameras, the point that compelling evidence can be gathered by body worn video cameras cannot be ignored. The randomised controlled trial research carried out in Essex by the College of Policing in 2014 showed that issuing police officers with body-worn video cameras could be highly effective in increasing the proportion of outcomes that resulted in a criminal charge by 9 percent.