UK: Mobile Policing

Last Updated: 16 October 2013
Article by James Lawson

Most Read Contributor in UK, August 2017

60% of UK mobile phone owners now own a smartphone. Smartphones are all-in-one devices, connecting people on the move with messages, calls, emails, photos, and video capabilities. Through harnessing the use of the internet, the public and police can interact and exchange data at any time and from almost any location. Policing apps have started to emerge and The National Policing Improvement Agency has invested in equipping front-line officers with smart mobile devices. However, police forces still have considerable scope to make better use of mobile technology in expanding interaction with citizens and improving service delivery.

Mobile can support collaboration with the public. Apps can shift policing from a one-way service delivery to a symbiotic model. GPS-enabled devices using geospatial data allow people to tag issues and make requests on the move – enriching investigations. Mobile also enables the analysis of movements and locations over time to support neighbourhood responses. For example, aggregated phone data identifying the build-up of crowds can be used in public order policing and at major public events.

There has already been significant progress in this area. In New York, they've taken the first steps with its NYC 311 and NYPD apps. With these apps, citizens can report non-emergency service requests, such as broken pavements and potholes. On NYPD they can report tips, see who is 'Wanted' and catch up on the latest bulletins. At home, tools like Facewatch enable the public to identify people the police would like to speak to, with images searchable by postcode. A large city developed a dedicated app for smart phones to provide access to information such as the closest police station, Officer details, meetings, student safety zones and an 'around me' feature that plots news, appeals, and wanted cases nearby. Whilst being the first generation (with mixed reviews), these initiatives have shown what can be achieved and have paved the way for future collaboration.

Police forces can also go further with using mobile internally. Response teams and investigators would particularly benefit. Whilst smart mobile devices have been purchased, the National Audit Office commented that "too little consideration was given [to] how they would be used. Currently they seem to be used primarily for email and calendar access - while useful this is hardly revolutionary."

One of the largest UK police forces is currently developing its mobile capabilities internally. Its PDA solution hopes to allow officers access to databases on the move - these include a Police National Computer (for name and vehicle checks), Voters database, and Mobile Phone Register. It also should provide electronic forms to support activity such as Fixed Penalty Notices and some reports. This is significant progress, and should be emulated, but could be developed even further.

Mobile devices might support almost all stages of policing from initial tasking to final investigation. They could be used to improve scheduling, provide command and control bases with live updates on the locations of all police resources as well as supporting automated deployments of officers. As the officers approach a scene, updates could be given to the customer where appropriate. The same mobile device could then be used to access information held centrally (e.g. legal and procedural guidance), and officers' documents. Checklists, workflows and 'next best actions' tailored to the specific scenarios can support best practice. This would ensure procedures are followed, reduce errors, increase compliance and make policing services more personalised. When interviewing witnesses and gathering initial evidence, the mobile device could be used to take live notes, make recordings, identify electronic signatures, and capture basic media. This data could then immediately be synchronised, distributed, and escalated as needed.

Following this vision to its logical conclusion, a truly mobile police force could bring great benefits. By reducing bureaucracy, the reliance on manual paper-based processes and multiple computing systems would be minimised. It would reduce the need for re-keying, taking notes, and writing them up again on different systems – an inefficient use of time. It could improve access to and the quality of information, enabling officers to make more informed decisions.

Given that officers may resort to their unsecured personal devices for some of these functions already, a 'bring your own device' approach is worth considering. Officers could use their own smart phones, with an app providing a secure (encrypted to government standards) space that can be destroyed remotely. Alternatively, rather than providing officers with costly and out-dated tough laptops and tablets, commercially focused alternatives tablets could be used instead. Ownership and management could be maintained by the force itself. These are cheaper, more intuitive for the user, and can be procured competitively.

In summary, mobile can support collaboration with the public. It can also improve internal service delivery and transparency. There is ample scope for better and more effective application of mobile technology in police forces to deliver more for less.

Read the latest in our Actionable Insights for Police and Crime Commissioners series - In the spirit of 1829: Harnessing digital, social and mobile technologies to fulfil 'peelian principles'

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