What is the potential of emerging technologies in policing?
Justice and Policing Lead
Virgin Media O2 Business
22nd February 2023
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Tech has fundamentally changed the face of policing in recent years.
On one hand, police forces are faced with many types of digitally-enabled or digitally-dependent crime, including new variants of fraud and cybercrime. But in another sense, advances have also opened a myriad of new opportunities for more effective, efficient policing.
The pandemic accelerated digital transformation in policing — just as it has across the public sector. According to research conducted here at Virgin Media O2 Business, alongside the Centre of Economics and Business Research (Cebr), the pandemic accelerated digital progress in justice organisations by more than five years. And we know that 54% of police forces have been working on their digital transformation plans in the wake of the pandemic.
The potential for utilising digital, data and technology in policing are vast, but they are potentially hindered by the limited infrastructure. Those forces which have not prioritised transition to modern, cloud-based systems will be disadvantaged. The capacity of legacy technology is a limiting factor, too.
We recently partnered with Policing Insight to further explore the challenges and opportunities that technology presents for police forces across the UK.
The panel, of which I was a participant, put forward a number of compelling points. Amid the wide-ranging discussion, some key themes stood out:
- Finding the right solutions to ensure meaningful outcomes
- Balancing budgetary constraints with the capacity to innovate
- Cultural buy-in
1. Finding the right solutions to ensure meaningful outcomes
“On body-worn video, I’m constantly having to go to the three suppliers (we work with) and tell them to stop developing what they think we need, and having the tail wag the dog,” one panellist remarked.
“They come to us, and they say they’ve got this wonderful camera that can see in the dark and have a telescoping lens and it’ll do facial recognition. All of that’s great – but we’re not ready for that yet. What we need is what we’ve got to be really, really good.
“What I’m trying to do is to tell the suppliers where we need them to take the technology so that it actually does what we need, rather than what they think we want.”
Many of the panellists concurred with this assessment – that it is a fallacy to assume the most advanced technology available necessarily results in the most effective policing.
Others agreed that efficient, smart procurement often needs to take a nuanced approach to acquiring tech – and that the best solution isn’t necessarily the shiniest, newest one.
Another participant – my colleague, Ant Morse, Head of Innovation and Account Engagement at Virgin Media O2 Business – framed the problem succinctly when they said: “Innovation that doesn’t solve a problem is a gadget.”
2. Balancing budgetary constraints with the capacity to innovate
Another key theme was the difficult balancing act police forces must strike between investing in technology whilst managing limited budgets and expectations.
“We’re not blue-chip companies – we don’t have that spending power. However, the private sector delivers innovative technologies to the public – that the public then expect the police to have.”
The scale of the investment needed was demonstrated by one expert, who referred to the £90million per year outlay by UK forces on body-worn cameras alone.
“When you think of all the other tech, this is big money,” he said.
As with all public sector organisations and agencies, there are also significant budgetary constraints and considerations to make. Spending decisions carry even more weight when it is public money being spent.
This highlights the importance of finding the right partners with a proven track record to fully transition to modern ways of working.
Although there are solutions in play – as Ant Morse said, “The other point is co-creation (of tech) – bringing in the partners and developers.
“A lot of successful innovations… aren’t even evolutions, they are tweaks to products and services. This massively reduces the risk exposure to public spending. It de-risks it for the particular organisation… it spreads the risk and costs.”
3. Cultural buy-in
Common to all organisations undergoing digital transformation is the challenge of earning buy-in from staff members and stakeholders across large organisations – particularly those which employ a broad cross-section of ages and demographic profiles.
This can be particularly challenging in public sector organisations where low-tech working is still the norm, for any number of reasons. This is certainly the case in Policing, where there are additional complexities.
One participant argued: “We need to recognise that the majority of our blue-light frontline officers who answer calls for service are relatively young and have grown up expecting tech and expecting live feeds.
“So, when they come into the organisation, they realise we’re still using pens and paper, they almost frown a little bit. That drives a lot of frustration. It can become a little bit damaging. Managing expectation from staff is one thing – managing expectation from the public is another.”
One potential solution offered by the panel was to take steps to unlock the maximum benefit from the existing tech held by police forces.
One participant said: “Innovation can also mean getting maximum benefits out of the technology police forces already have – or even using that tech in a different way to solve some of those policing problems,” another said. “That definitely helps the cultural buy-in.”
The discussion also highlighted cultural shifts. One member added: “We’re in a period of change now… policing is now recognising there are a lot of benefits to be made by technology advancements. I think if you go back even as recent as five years, I don’t think we were as keen to adopt technology changes as we are now.”
Others highlighted the need to address cultural aversions to risk when it comes to implementing new tech. “There are cultural issues when you look at emerging technologies around our willingness to fail… it’s normal not to want to be seen as failing” one panellist said.
“We need to ensure we provide trust of being successful, to ensure we’re doing always doing the ‘right thing’- to make sure we’re keeping people safe and then we have the challenge of maximising public money.
“Everything has to be a success, because we’ve invested a lot of time, effort and money into it. So it can’t fail,” another person added.
The nature of policing means that the challenges it faces are directly related to the ever-changing society it operates within.
To be successful in the 21st century and beyond – police forces not only need to embrace emerging tech to the best of their ability, but they also need to keep one eye on the challenges posed by new tech.
Something the panel unanimously agreed upon was the need for greater cooperation and collective problem-solving between forces across the country and private organisations supplying technology. As Ant Morse concluded, “all of us are smarter than any one of us.”
With thanks to our roundtable attendees:
- Richard Bailey – Policing Insight (moderator)
- Russell Holloway – Deputy Head of Digital Policing, British Transport Police
- Ant Morse – Head of Innovation and Account Engagement, Virgin Media O2 Business
- Ian Cocklin – Staff Officer to the NPCC Lead on body worn cameras, Devon and Cornwall Police
- Paul Court – Head of Digital Transformation, Merseyside Police
- Jonathan Malcolm – Digital Data and Technology (DDaT) portfolio coordinator, National Police Chiefs’ Council