Closing the skills gap in policing — A roundtable discussion with Policing Insight
Justice and Policing Lead
Virgin Media O2 Business
23rd August 2022
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Digital adoption in policing. Since Covid-19, it’s been crucial to ensuring police officers and staff could continue to keep communities safe. From guaranteeing they could still respond to calls from the public and managing heavy demand, to supporting vulnerable people and establishing new working practices, it’s impossible to overstate the role that technology has played.
Of course, there are differences between police forces. Some have been able to evolve and adopt technology more quickly than others. But all face a common challenge – ensuring that officers and staff have the skills and confidence to use new technology effectively.
If that challenge wasn’t clear enough, take the views of frontline police officers themselves. 76% predict the ability to use digital technologies will grow in importance over the next few years, according to Accenture.
We recently held a roundtable alongside Policing Insight to discuss the skills gap in more detail. Attended by senior officers, a police, fire and crime commissioner and members of the Police Digital Service, the conversation covered a lot of territory – but three themes stood out:
- The need to build widespread digital confidence
- The importance of instilling a culture of knowledge sharing and digital ambition
- Collaborating with private and academic partners in the most strategic and effective ways
Let me explore each one in a little more detail.
1. Building widespread digital confidence
Until recently, digital technology was seen as the reserve of specialist teams within police forces, such as cybercrime and digital forensics departments. While there will always be a need for specialised analysis, our panellists recognised the urgency of nurturing technological confidence among police forces at large, with crime becoming increasingly digital in nature.
Temporary Assistant Chief Constable at Cumbria Constabulary, Jonathan Blackwell, began by stating, “I think where we’ve gone wrong in the past is (by) creating specialisms. Actually, policing in 2022 is digital. And yes, we will always need the specialists, absolutely…(But) there is a digital element throughout everything.”
Other panellists emphasised the need for a continuous programme of training. Chief Superintendent at Thames Valley Police, Katy Barrow-Grint, explained, “This world moves so quickly, (so) you’ve got to have that ability to take time to understand the developments and then be able to share them and train (people) properly.”
She talked about how her force had set up a Crime Academy, which is providing training throughout the year and “look(ing) at all sorts of things from cryptocurrency, digital stalking (and) cloud data”, which was proving successful.
But skills programmes need to be available for senior officers, too. Chief Superintendent at Greater Manchester Police, Phil Davies, commented that he “did not see any kind of co-ordinated professional development for senior police officers (on) how to run an IT project.” As a result, what “often gets missed” is “a really clear understanding of how the data works and having a clear information management strategy.”
Director of Business Engagement at the Police Digital Service, David Jackson, also highlighted the need to draw on police officers’ personal experiences of technology. “When we talk about training in policing, I think one of the things that (we) should be looking at is how do we actually harness the natural education that we’ve taught ourselves? How does that translate into a policing context?”
Then there’s the question of the technology itself. Former Detective Inspector, Richard Horton, talked about his “worry” that clunky systems were undermining digital confidence and effectiveness. Addressing this is “critical” if police forces are to “progress properly”.
It was clear that while formal training programmes hold some answer, a more holistic approach to building digital confidence is necessary – one that also considers people’s natural digital abilities as well as the quality of the technology at their disposal.
2. A culture of knowledge sharing
The conversation also focused on how police forces could nurture a broader culture of knowledge sharing and the role this could play in closing the skills gap.
For Katy Barrow-Grint, the transmission of knowledge is crucial to driving ambition and innovation. And she talked about two methods she had used to engage police officers.
The “Going Equipped” magazine, published by the College of Policing, contains “a digital article in each edition”, ranging from the dark net to the Internet of Things, with the aim to help officers “understand things they will have heard (about), but perhaps don’t know what they actually mean.” And she’s using Twitter chats to discuss digital transformation and investigation, resulting in strong engagement and provocative debate.
Jonathan Blackwell agreed with the need to create “networks” facilitating knowledge exchange. “I do agree with Katie that kind of network (is necessary)”, so that people can observe “what’s happening elsewhere in the country” and “implement (similar projects) adequately.”
And Phil Davies highlighted the move towards Office 365 as being crucial in enabling interesting and strategic discussion. “We’re now part of a wider community where we’re talking to other forces about how we get the most out of technology – and those conversations are hugely valuable. These kinds of environments are going to get us to where we need to be.”
3. Working with partners in the most effective way possible
The conversation then turned to working with private companies and academic institutions in the most strategic way possible in order to close skills gaps and maximise impact.
At this point, I talked about how forces should expect more from their suppliers. “It’s really important that there’s active and open engagement and that (police forces) hold them accountable for delivery. Strategic collaboration based on trust and honesty…will share the burden and optimise the value you’re getting from suppliers as well.”
Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner for Northamptonshire, Stephen Mold, followed this up by emphasising how partners should be seen as “problem solvers” and not simply as service providers. “We’re only going to solve problems through partnerships, and it’ll be a mixture of suppliers, local universities and academic bodies.” He went on to describe how, in Northamptonshire, major banks “nick our digital investigators like there’s no tomorrow…so, actually, how do we work in partnership with them rather than compete?”
Katy Barrow-Grint also discussed strengthening relationships with academic institutions to address areas where skills are lacking. “We have a good working relationship with Oxford University and do a lot of work with them, but we haven’t explored the digital piece. There are loads of opportunities, but as with everything, it’s (a question) of time and capacity.”
If that time can be found, then there’s real potential for police forces harnessing digital expertise and deliver change which empowers frontline officers and cuts crime.
Looking to the future
The nature of crime is constantly evolving. And while keeping up with the pace of change is challenging, there are steps that police forces can take to close the skills gap.
By investing in formal training programmes, and continuously updating them, they can ensure frontline officers have the know how to approach digital situations confidently. Knowledge exchange networks can help create a culture of constant digital innovation and ambition, while investment in partnerships can equip police forces with expertise to solve complex problems.
Of course, underpinning all of this is the need for first-class digital infrastructure – the connectivity networks enabling staff to communicate with each other instantly and securely. By working with the right technological suppliers, police forces can ensure they have the right systems in place to support continued digital transformation and upskilling.
The rise of digital platforms has created complexity for police forces. Yet as this roundtable showed, there is clear potential to empower police officers, reduce crime and enhance public confidence.
Let’s grasp those opportunities together and build a safer society.
With thanks to our roundtable attendees:
- Chief Superintendent, Thames Valley Police, Katy Barrow-Grint
- Former Police Sergeant, Lancashire Constabulary, Richard Horton
- Chief Superintendent, Director of Information, Greater Manchester Police, Phil Davies
- Assistant Chief Constable, Cumbria Constabulary, Jonathan Blackwell
- Director of Business Engagement, Police Digital Service, David Jackson
- Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner, Northamptonshire, Stephen Mold
- Head of Public Sector, Virgin Media O2 Business, Martin McFadyen