Pointing the finger – towards a future for biometrics in Scottish policing
Not all suspects tell the truth, and identifying individuals suspected of crimes prior to arrest relies on being able to cross-check information they give about themselves.
Advances in technology now make it practical for police officers to search fingerprints in the field by running on-the-spot checks against UK Home Office biometrics databases. There are several scenarios where this information can be invaluable. As well as cases where an individual is suspected of an offence or their identity is in doubt, biometrics can help identify an unconscious or unresponsive individual or quickly identify a deceased person.
These capabilities feature in Motorola Solutions’ Pronto policing platform that lets officers send digitally-acquired prints to a biometrics gateway for cross-referencing against relevant criminal records and immigration databases.
In Pronto, prints are captured by a compact biometric reader that attaches directly via USB to the officer’s smartphone. In the event of a match, an officer receives positive notification with an associated reference number on their phone in less than a minute, enabling them to perform further national and local checks on an individual. With 20 UK forces already making use of this functionality within Pronto – and more expected on board soon – the efficiency gains in terms of time saved for busy officers are significant.
“Biometric searches are often used in serious road traffic incidents to identify persons at the scene,” says Motorola Solutions’ Ian Williams. “This has resulted in medical teams being able to identify patient records more quickly, or in some cases get next of kin to the hospital. There have been occasions where a deceased person has been found in suspicious circumstances and early identification has led to witnesses and suspects being located more quickly.”
He adds: “For persons suspected of minor crimes whose identity cannot be verified by other means, biometrics searches can lead to a reduction in arrests where a non-custody disposal can be used instead. Conversely, biometrics can be instrumental in the identification and arrest of suspects for multiple offences.”
Within a Scottish policing context, officers already have the ability via Pronto to run checks that return a photo as the result of an individual’s personal information being searched against the Police Scotland Criminal History System (CHS). This enables officers to conduct on-scene identity confirmation of persons with an existing criminal record or pending case, and thus often negating the need for arrest.
On 16 November 2022 a new statutory Code of Practice – prepared by the Scottish Biometrics Commissioner and approved by the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Ministers – takes legal effect. In a world first, this national code on the use of biometrics for policing and criminal justice purposes will assist Police Scotland and others in making future decisions on investment in biometric enabled technologies in Scotland against a framework of appropriate legal safeguards.
In contrast with England and Wales, there is currently no specific legal basis in Scotland for the police to capture fingerprint data without consent from persons who have not been arrested. However this situation is about to change with the advent of the new code, explains Scottish Biometrics Commissioner Dr Brian Plastow. A former police Chief Superintendent and Lead Inspector with Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland, he has extensive practical experience in the use of biometric technologies for criminal justice and policing purposes.
“With the statutory safeguards in Scotland provided by the new Code of Practice, there are clearly opportunities for Scotland to consider new mobile biometric data solutions to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of policing operations,” says Dr Plastow. “These have the potential to be particularly valuable where such solutions also deliver human rights safeguards for citizens – such as removing the need for them to be formally arrested and taken into custody.”
The use of biometrics in a mobile policing environment can best be described as a process of continuous development. As technology evolves, it is essential that an ongoing conversation takes place with communities to ensure their engagement and support. For example, work is currently ongoing with the Home Office to prove the concept of a mobile ‘10-print plus palm’ capture solution. A portable device has the potential to duplicate the functionality of bulky dedicated machines currently installed in custody suites, compliant with current biometric industry standards and meeting – or bettering – the fingerprint quality of current solutions.
“Where a person has been dealt with via a non-custody disposal such as a summons, currently the officer must invite them back to the police station following conviction to have their prints taken,” adds Ian Williams. “A mobile 10-print capture solution will enable the CRO database to be updated for those convicted at Court who have never been in custody. These new technologies can realise greater efficiencies for the police, as well as more convenience for the individual concerned.”
Motorola Solutions is a sponsor at Digital Justice & Policing on October 13 at the University of Strathclyde’s Technology & Innovation Centre