Hosted by the Police ICT Company, the National Police Technology Council and Cityforum on October 26th 2017 , the third annual Digital Policing Summit gathered technology and security professionals, police policymakers and government representatives (among others) to discuss the digital challenges, changes and opportunities faced by UK police in 2017.

With a special focus on ‘Digital Policing in 2025’, speakers included host Stephen Kavanagh, Chief Constable of the Essex Police, Nick Hurd MP, Minister of State for Policing and the Fire Service, and ex-Olympian Steve Cram, as special guest.

Discussions at the day-long event ranged from oncoming policing technologies to managing public expectations of policing, and delivering a ‘fit for purpose’ police service over the next decade.

Our own Thomas Drohan was in attendance. Here, he outlines five critical issues raised by the event.

Insight #1.  Collaboration and knowledge-sharing is key (and competition can be healthy.)

In the second session of the day – “Delivering a ‘fit for purpose’ digital police service in 2025” –  the audience benefitted from rich insight into British Sport’s work to reshape its fortunes since the 1990s. This offered clear parallels with the interoperability issues faced by UK policing.

Following a particularly poor 1996 Olympics, where Great Britain ranked thirty-sixth in the medals table, British sports authorities gathered for a head-scratching session to work out how to improve their performance next time round.

The key issue was the management challenge of leading many different sports, all operating independently. Of course, cycling is different from running, which is different from swimming, but sports chiefs realised that certain themes in sports are similar and if British teams could pool their resources then all would benefit. For example, endurance is key for most sports, but the cost of altitude-training facilities is high. If teams could collaborate and split the costs of using such facilities, everyone would benefit.

This focus on the whole rather than individual parts changed the fortunes of British sport, and has huge implications for UK policing. With 43 police forces all managing operationally-independent teams, each is empowered to make different choices. Often these decisions could benefit from an awareness of shared themes, as opposed to focussing on differences in geography. Police in Devon & Cornwall have looked to other UK forces for insight into tackling human trafficking for example – although the challenges of sharing data in this way are clear.

Building competition into their collaborative approach also helped foster British Sport’s success. The speaker raised the importance of encouraging the right level of competition between forces, using league tables. There is a danger here: unhealthy competition between forces can lead teams to manipulate statistics and not report performance accurately. But healthy competition can work.

Insight #2. The ethics of data access must be addressed, fast.

Several speakers raised the dichotomy around public attitudes towards data. Today, there exists a stark contrast between the amount of personal information we give away freely to multinational corporations like Facebook and Google and the negative reaction to the police and public sector collecting the same information. This has very real implications for how police forces can use and benefit from data.

At its heart, this is a perception issue. How have the police got to a stage where we can’t have this conversation, and how do we change it? Answering this question is one way of making the world safer. Speakers’ solutions to generating positive conversations around data included better digital engagement with the public, and explaining why data collection and analysis is needed.

There also exists a reluctance from the police themselves when it comes to data handling. Many forces are nervous about giving data to private corporations, because they’re concerned about what they will do with their data and how they might profit from it. Alternative approaches are needed to build trust and more productive relationships with forces.

One opportunity is to further include academia into the conversation. Police are much more inclined to release data to third parties if it’s being used for research as opposed to commercial gain. Forces then don’t feel that profits for the project are going into private pockets. For technology providers like ourselves, the answer to this challenge is to work closely with academia, and also to educate forces about what personal data is held and what we do with it.

We can, for example, anonymise data. As technology providers, we don’t have to know that Joe Bloggs with three previous convictions was in an area – but we can still drive benefit from that insight. If this isn’t properly articulated, the interests and motivations of commercially focused third parties will still be viewed with suspicion.

Insight #3. Crime has changed, but the conversations around it remain the same.

Public attitudes towards policing were front-of-mind for many speakers at the Summit, alongside a feeling that the pace of technological change has increased the gap between the popular perception and reality of twenty first-century police work.

The changing nature of crime is a major area of misunderstanding. In popular media and online, dropping numbers of front-line staff are a key concern for the public. But this fails to acknowledge that over the past two decades, violent crime numbers fell dramatically. Today, they’re on the rise once more. Meanwhile, rates of online and ‘underground’ crimes – fraud, paedophillia, human trafficking and similar – are rising in tandem, and forces are having to adapt their teams and skills to tackle such activity.

For criminals, the risks in online crime are lower and the rewards much greater. But public awareness of this shift in the types of crime demanding police attention has yet to react to the change. Instead, numbers of police on the street drive conversations in Parliament and the papers. Reshaping public dialogue around police work is necessary, not least to protect the public from the new kinds of crime they risk falling victim to.

Insight #4. A focus on procurement.

For the most part, police procurement processes are effective at ensuring governance and preventing corruption. But in the context of fast-moving digital technology, today’s standards are dangerously slow.

One senior technology leader gave the example of the body-worn camera to illustrate this point.

After a two-year procurement process, one force equipped tens of thousands of officers with these devices. In this time, the company that supplied the cameras has developed software that enables fast analysis of the data they produce. This technology is ready to be used – but because the force has had to go back into their procurement process, it could be another 12 months before they benefit from an innovation that already exists.

In the time that due diligence takes to be completed, another supplier may enter the market with a cheaper, better alternative. The procurement process doesn’t lend itself to fast-changing, rapidly-evolving technology landscapes. Of course, a balance has to be achieved, because in all these things, the public sector must demonstrate that it’s spending public money well. Procurement will always exist as an overhead and will always be a problem to solve.

The focus for procurement should be on agility and clear briefing. Often police are missing out on innovation because they’re over-specifying a solution to what they think is the problem.

Insight #5. Digital technology adds value in unpredictable ways.

The same speaker outlined at length the other lessons his force had learned from their roll-out of body-worn cameras. This included the importance of thinking laterally when making purchase decisions.

Part of the challenge with procurement is that forces must understand and embrace the fact that the ultimate benefits of a technology can evolve, and these evolutions can be unpredictable in nature. The aforementioned force found from their implementation of body-worn cameras that the advantages of the technology haven’t been seen as much within the police as outside it.

These hidden benefits are especially clear in the Courts. Camera operation is automated; data can pass through the Crown Prosecution Service with ease, so that the CPS, defence and attorneys save time. Video evidence is obvious; it’s there and recorded. Rather than cases involving 10 or 15 witness statements and evidence, a single video is needed (after all, a video speaks a thousand words…). In turn, these tangible benefits have encouraged intangible benefits further along the chain. The force in question could also identify some increase in public confidence because engagements are recorded, and outcomes have improved.

Beneath all the Summit’s speakers’ insights was a common theme. Police must learn to understand and then take advantage of emerging digital technology more quickly, or risk continually falling victim to it. To do so, they must earn the support of communities through effective public engagement – for which digital technology is also key.

Events like the Digital Policing Summit are a great forum to discuss strategies for addressing the ever-evolving challenge of technological change.