Blog: Dial 999 for police technology

20 September 2018

Technology lead Simon Kempton

Technology lead Simon Kempton

Police Federation technology lead Simon Kempton examines the technological problems that are affecting officers' ability to do their jobs.

The most Rolls Royce radio in the world is no good if nobody can hear you…that’s what came to mind this week as Lancashire Police reported problems at their new £25m police HQ.

Officers were unable to hear messages coming through on their radios and the glitch is apparently down to signal boosters fitted at the building.

Apparently the radios work perfectly when they are plugged directly into the system. But how useful is that when the vast majority of officers using them are out and about on the streets?

The issue highlights the near-farcical state of the police service’s relationship with technology, of which radios are just one component.

Now a new report from consultancy giants Deloitte has unveiled police leaders’ concerns about the service’s capacity to harness technology effectively - as well as its ‘readiness’ to deal with technology-enabled crimes. In fact, they ranked their readiness to deal with such crimes as just two out of 10, whereas the challenge in fighting them was rated as nine out of ten. And they only gave three out of 10 for their ability to implement new technologies.

As I have been saying for a long time, the criminals have got better technology than we have, and they know it. They are running around, building county lines drug dealing networks and child abuse rings with new generation smartphones, while we are struggling with ineffective and outdated technology which is simply not fit for purpose in this digital world.

Cybercrime is a field which has seen huge increases of volume over recent years – the latest data shows more than 4 million crimes are being committed annually, including computer misuse and fraud. Yet this an area where criminals seem to be perpetually ahead of the police, with new scams and cyber-attacks being announced almost daily.

The current Airwave radio network, which covers all emergency services across the UK, is due to be replaced with ESN (Emergency Services Network) as part of a £1.3 billion spend by the Home Office on replacing old IT systems.

But this programme is at least 15 months behind schedule, as detailed in a recent National Audit Office report on forces’ financial sustainability, requiring the Government to continue spending £330million a year from the total police budget to run the old Airwave system until at least 2020.

Meanwhile already-stretched police forces are having to plough more cash into propping up their old Airwave equipment and extend its shelf life while they wait for ESN, which they are already also having to pay for.

There is also supposed to be a pot of money for forces, the Police Transformation Fund (PTF), which the Home Office brought in to encourage them to transform their services to meet future challenges.

But in truth, this approach has led to a piecemeal approach. To date, £220million has been awarded to 98 PTF projects but there is no overall strategic vision or accountability. Applying for the money is also complicated and there are inconsistencies in the way it is awarded.

Individual forces have gone ahead and bought systems which are then found to be flawed, for example, they are incompatible with other forces’ systems and ‘do not talk’ to each other. Not only is this a shocking waste of public money, but makes the job even harder for officers who are frustrated by their shoddy equipment.

I would like to see a new rule where no Police & Crime Commissioner or Chief Constable is allowed to buy “off the shelf” tech systems unless they have been tested by operational police officers first.

There are also issues with forces’ capability to interrogate seized computers and mobile phones, a vital tool in today’s climate. And forces are struggling to download the footage from Body Worn Video cameras because of a chronic underinvestment in software and training.

I could go on about other aspects of IT and technology policing failures but the harsh reality is simply this: there is no point ploughing millions and billions into increasingly expensive and complicated equipment without an overall strategic vision – and the means to implement it.

We need computer and technology systems which are 21st century-ready and compatible for all 43 forces to use together. No wonder criminals seem to be always one step ahead of us.

We need to stop ignoring the inconvenient truth and get savvy about technology now. Lives depend on it.