Digitising the thin blue line

14 Apr 16

Police forces have to deal with both more complex offences and growing public expectations. This is leading to greater consideration of how technology can help.

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Police forces in England and Wales face an uphill task this parliament. Under the coalition government, crime continued to fall despite budget cuts worth 25% in real terms. Police funding may now be ring-fenced, but the emergence of complex offences, such as cybercrime and extremism, are demanding new skills of officers. Meanwhile the expectations placed on forces are growing. A total of 76% of UK citizens want more digital interactions with the police, including the ability to track and report crimes online.

These dynamics are prompting forces to rethink their business model. Having found £120m of savings and cut 12% of police officers in the previous parliament, West Midlands Police (WMP) realised current working practices would not deliver the organisation’s objectives for 2020. Partnering with consultancy firm Accenture, the force has undertaken a change programme that will transform their organisation.

The plan is composed of three pillars. The first is to manage demand by engaging ‘customers’. WMP has online contact with one in five of its citizens, and leverages these relationships by offering advice on keeping safe and sourcing information that could help criminal investigations. These initiatives are supported by a strategy of shifting communications onto less resource-intensive, and more customer-focused, platforms. Existing initiatives, which have already saved the force £5m, will soon be complemented by an online crime-reporting portal and an app to help citizens track the progress of their case. By the end of the Parliament, WMP forecasts a 25%-35% reduction in demand from current channels worth £1.4m-£1.7m annually.

The second pillar is to drive productivity. WMP is piloting a suite of apps that gives officers a map when a job emerges, setting out the relevant intelligence and the capability to help resolve jobs remotely. These functionalities may sound straightforward, but in policing, mobile technology has promised more than it has delivered. Indeed, the Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) recently found the majority of forces in England and Wales require officers to return to base in order to resolve a job.

Success will allow WMP to invest more resource in preventative policing – the plan’s third pillar. Data science is changing the way officers are interacting with data, and the force is looking to adopt the best practices from across the UK. HMIC is currently developing a predictive model of policing; the Metropolitan Police has devised an algorithm to identify individuals most at risk of committing violent crimes. If the force succeeds, the organisation will move away from the historic model of reactive policing, to one rooted in detecting and resolving nascent risks.

Embedding technology into policing practices will not be straightforward. Archaic legacy systems, questions over data security and resistance to new models of working will hamper reform. Yet the prize is much more than the £52m of net savings WMP forecasts by 2019-20. By starting with the outcomes it wants to achieve by 2020, WMP has placed the needs of citizens at the heart of its reform programme. More than any individual component, this approach is the most valuable element of WMP’s plan.

Will Mosseri-Marlio is a researcher at Reform. http://www.reform.uk/publication/the-future-of-public-services-digital-policing/

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