Policing and crime in the digital age

London Essays – Issue 2: Technology

Policing and crime in the digital age

We live in a digital era where the use of smartphones and tablets is ubiquitous. Technology is transforming our lives, making them better connected, quicker and safer. Yet when police officers arrive at work they too often step back in time. Policing has largely failed to keep pace with technological advance.

By Stephen Greenhalgh

Exploiting new technology is not about turning our back on the past. The founder of the Metropolitan Police Service, Sir Robert Peel, established his police service on two basic principles. First he argued that the principal duty of the police is not simply to detect crime, but prevent it. Second, he stressed that the police had to draw their legitimacy from the public they served. These principles are just as valid today as they were 180 years ago. But technology can help the police become a more effective, preventative and trusted service.

Digital dixons

For many, the golden era of British policing was embodied in the form of the ultimate bobby on the beat – the fictitious 1960s and 70s TV constable, Dixon of Dock Green, who patrolled a small beat armed only with a truncheon and a whistle to attract attention. Dixon was rooted in his neighbourhood and was able to fight crime as well as prevent it, because he knew his community and it trusted and respected him. But this model of policing went into decline during the 20 odd years that Dixon of Dock Green ran on our screens. And it was technology in the form of the panda car and the police radio that undermined.

But if we get it right, the new technology can enhance preventative community policing rather than detract from it. We can create a new generation of ‘Digital Dixons’. By equipping officers with tablets and smartphones supported by bespoke apps, we can give them the ability to file crime reports and take witness statements on the move, saving time and money, and improving the service to the public.

We can also use technology to map local crime, and ensure that officers focus on crime-hotspots, so allowing them to prevent crime happening in the first place. Four pilots of predictive analytics are running in the Met using four different software platforms and we will be looking to roll out one these across all of London in the summer.

Mapping technology and GPS could also allow us to record the location of Stop and Searches, meaning that we can assess their use by the police, make information more publicly available and better hold the police to account for the decisions they are making.

The Met is also running a pilot of body worn cameras – the largest trial in the world – and we now want all front-line officers to wear these cameras in the future.

Digital ring of steel

The Met is also using cameras in other innovative ways. While the police have used CCTV for many years, advancements in technology now mean we have the opportunity to reimagine its place in the crime fighting toolkit. Computers can now identify suspicious patterns of movement and behaviour, for review by police officers. Facial and number plate recognition technology has improved dramatically, making it much easier for the police to identify criminals, and witnesses. I have seen first-hand the work that the NYPD and Microsoft have done to develop New York’s Domain Awareness System. This aggregates and analyses huge amounts of public safety data in real time.

The technology also has a prevention benefit, and we know that communities value the ability of CCTV to deter a whole range of criminality, including anti-social behaviour which, although falling, still impacts on the quality of life for too many people.

So we want to see the Met make full use of this new surveillance technology, with a digital ring of steel around our city and our crime hot-spots. We have already made good progress. To take just one example, Transport for London have given the police access to the cameras that circle the Congestion Zone – a network of 1,300 cameras, all equipped with number-plate reading technology. But there is more to do.

Across London the number, type and cost of CCTV varies remarkably. For example, in my old borough of Hammersmith & Fulham, the Council built up an extensive network of 800 CCTV cameras. Properly integrated into the police systems, officers are able to move the cameras around themselves and to go back to any point in time to view footage in real time. Through smart commissioning, the council have built their own network, meaning that the cameras cost virtually nothing to run, with the network actually generating money as local businesses rent bandwidth from the network.

Other areas, though have networks of aging cameras, not properly connected to the cops and costing hundreds of thousands of pounds in subscription and maintenance fees. We need to ensure that the borough CCTV systems are up-to-date and that they are available for police use.

Digital security centre

The impact of technological progress does not, unfortunately, only run in one direction. Where innovation takes place it is often followed by criminals seeking to exploit it. Recent Cambridge University research showed that London’s analogue crooks are going digital: 64 per cent of cyber criminals had convictions for non-cyber offences such as theft, false representation, shoplifting, battery and assault. But our response to this new type of crime has not always been as good as it should have been.

London’s small businesses are particularly vulnerable to cyber-crime such as fraud, hacking or the theft of personal data and intellectual property. Many have no protective measures against these emerging threats and evidence from the Federation of Small Businesses shows that over half rely on data stored in the cloud – which can be vulnerable without the right measures in place – and too few understand the risks of relying on unsecured mobile phones to do the bulk of their business.

That is why we have set up a security centre which will support a digital response to the digital crime challenge. The London Digital Security Centre will be the go to resource providing the latest industry guidance for all sizes of business, but providing particular support to SMEs. It exists to provide small business across London with confidence in trading successfully in a digital environment and ensuring that they are safe in managing customer information and data to better protect their business.

Backed up by the 500 cops in the Met’s FALCON cyber-crime division, with its mission to reduce the harm caused by fraud and cyber criminals in London, we now have a real opportunity to start to get on top of a category of crime that, for too long, has been ignored.

Digital courts

Technology has the opportunity, then, to radically improve the way the police do their jobs to prevent crime and bring offenders to justice. However, if this technological revolution stops at the courtroom door then we will continue to miss the opportunities that the advances afford us.

At the moment London’s criminal justice system does not have performance of which it can be particularly proud. The average court case takes longer in London than anywhere else – 165 days compared to 160 – and, despite efforts, this has remained resolutely stuck. Justice delayed is justice denied, and so I have set the agencies the task of reducing these delays. Technology can help.

If parts of policing too often feel they belong to a different decade then the courtroom too often feels like it belongs to a different century. We have only just moved to digital transfers of files and the introduction of Wi-Fi in courts. There is so much further to go.

True digital justice will see video-links allowing police officers to give evidence from their stations without having to come to court. It will allow witnesses to appear remotely, improving the experience for them and ending the trauma of having to appear at the same courts as offenders. These offenders themselves could give evidence from prison, if they are on remand, or even a police station, saving thousands of pounds in transport and security costs. The presentation of evidence electronically should become standard in simple cases. Virtual case papers – single forms that are easily accessible by all parts of the system requiring information to be inputted just once – must become the norm.

Digital citizens

As Sir Robert Peel understood, the police can’t do their job with the support and engagement of the public. That’s why we need to ensure that technology, rather than distancing the police from their public, brings them closer together. There are a number of ways this can be achieved. First, we can use technology to make it easier for citizens to report a crime. The Mayor committed in his last manifesto to rolling out an app allowing people to report crimes, with pictures and video, to the police. We have decided to start this process by focusing on Hate Crime, a significantly underreported crime type, and have committed to launching a service this year that will enable Londoners to report hate crime and also be directed to support services.

Second, technology can help strengthen public engagement in day to day police work. The Dutch police have developed an app and online tool, an app, Burgernet, which lets officers put out geographically specific crime information, at certain times, to citizens, and allows those same citizens to communicate with the cops, passing information to them in real-time. Working like Neighbourhood Watch in your pocket, systems such as this can allow a much more dynamic relationship between police and communities. We are currently looking at how we can take a similar approach in relation to Neighbourhood Watch programmes, enabling them to become even more active members of the policing family.

Third, the digital revolution offers us the opportunity to enhance public accountability over policing and over the Mayor. Over the past year we have been putting more and more police data on line, so that the public can see for themselves how London’s police and criminal justice services are performing. We have, in particular, rolled out a series of dashboards – online tools showing the latest performance information – covering a wide range of data, from crime statistics, through Taser and firearms use, to neighbourhood confidence levels. These dashboards give the public more information than they have ever had before.

It is now time to deliver an end-to-end criminal justice system built on the same cutting-edge technology that has improved every other part of our lives. The white heat of technology continues to burn; it is now time that it fuelled the fight against crime.