Policing in the digital age

The digital revolution is profoundly changing our society, bringing challenges as well as opportunities for police forces, who need to reflect the attitudes of the communities they serve.

Almost every investigation  includes digital media – from mobile phone downloads, to images, video, CCTV footage, GPS mapping data, and more. While digital footprints can help solve crime, they also create a challenge: all this data needs to be collated and managed in line with legislation, such as GDPR. Currently, many of these processes are still managed manually and with paper.

The workload is spiralling so much that police officers are having to spend more and more time at their desks. So much so that big dividends can be achieved if we can reduce the paperwork burden. According to our research, just a 1% reduction in admin tasks for a police force equals 15 extra police officers on the street.

THE DIGITAL DIVIDEND

The good news is that, just as digital technology is increasing the amount of evidence officers have to process, it’s also enabling leaner and more agile ways to build IT systems, and for officers to work. In the last decade or so, body-worn cameras have become stan-dard issue in police forces across the world.

I was involved in the trial and subsequent roll-out of 22,000 cameras in the Metro-politan Police Service and saw first-hand some of the technology’s key benefits. For example, complaints against officers have fallen by around 40%. Indeed, there was one instance during the camera pilot where two officers were accused of a serious assault on a suspect they were transporting back to the station. In the past this would have resulted in the officers being suspended from work, along with a costly professional standards review. But when we watched the footage, it was immediately clear there was no case to answer – saving a huge amount of time, money and stress for the officers.

The force has also worked closely with community groups to consult with them on the use of cameras, especially around stop and search. When the cameras were first deployed, around 40% of stop and search incidents were recorded. Today that’s close to 100%. This is a huge gain in terms of transparency and the Met has rightly received a lot of praise from community groups for this. Another area where we see huge potential is cloud computing. The cloud makes limitless storage and computer processing power available. It has been widely adopted by businesses to run their applications, process ever increasing amounts of data and store information. Initially, public sector organisations were reluctant to use cloud systems: the theory being that sensitive data – such as citizens’ identifica-tion details, medical records and evidence in the case of the police – is best held on an organisation’s premises. We believe this view is now discredited. There are three main reasons for this. First, is security.

The big cloud players such as Microsoft and Amazon have large teams of experienced security experts dedicated to nullifying threats and it’s a resource that police forces cannot match. Second, with the large volume of data that organisations create and hold, it’s not practical, or affordable, to build and manage the data centres to keep up with demand. And third, software organisations are offering access to applications over the cloud – instantly. This software-as-a-service model (SaaS) is a huge advantage over previous methods of handling data. Take Digital Evidence Management Systems (DEMS). These applications provide a single, secure place to create case files and take in a wide range of evidence such as video, CCTV and mobile phone footage. In the past, creating a DEMS for a police force would have been a huge project, requiring the integration of a number of associated systems. But, today, we offer this capa-bility over the cloud, with Axon Evidence.

The system is used by hundreds of forces across the world and has been refined to provide all the key workflows teams need to manage digital evidence. Each police officer has their own licence and can easily upload their own body-worn camera footage. There is never any loss of intelligence, because all pieces of evidence – historical as well as current – are in one place, replacing the need for multiple systems. The system has been developed in conjunction with prosecutors and, in the UK, police forces can now directly share case files with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and other parties in the criminal justice chain over email. The time savings from Axon Evidence come from a range of workflow improvements. But, by avoiding the need to create DVDs across all the UK forces using the system, a major time and ef-ficiency gain has been achieved.

For example, the Metropolitan Police now shares the equivalent of 5,500 DVDs’ worth of media (via secure Axon Evidence files) with the CPS every month. At a conservative estimate of five min-utes to create each DVD, that’s a time saving of almost 460 hours.  Axon Evidence also includes smart tools like the AI-based Axon Redaction. This automatically finds common objects that typically need to be redacted in video footage, such as faces, number plates and screens. It can crunch through the job of redact-ing footage in minutes as opposed to hours when a person searches footage frame-by-frame. 

THIS IS JUST THE BEGINNING

  We’re excited about the future of digital technology to help drive further efficiencies in policing. One area we’re working on is the creation of crime reports. Today, this is a highly manual process involving officers collecting wit-ness accounts and then typing up their notes when they get back to the station.With Axon Records we’re using voice transcription and AI, to use the footage from officers’ body-worn cameras to automatically transcribe statements. We believe that, by using such tech-nology, we may be able to give officers as much as two thirds of their time back (that they currently spend on admin) to spend on the beat. We are also launching the Axon Body 3 camera. This will enable video to be streamed from the field and allow commanders to see the location of their officers on a map. When an incident is ongoing, the incoming chatter from radios can be difficult for operators to efficiently process. But, with live streaming from incidents, situational awareness is hugely improved as control teams can see what is happening, giving them the insight to take more informed decisions.

DIALOGUE IS NEEDED

In this article we have mentioned AI and, of late, there has been discussion of the use of facial recognition by police forces. Such developments can be concerning to citizens and privacy groups. We believe it’s important to always work with communities and gain their support when it comes to rolling out new technology. And, as technologies and innovations such as machine learning, Big Data, AI and AR rapidly evolve, we’re taking steps to ensure that technology doesn’t push beyond acceptable boundaries for communities. That’s why we’ve created the tech industry’s first AI ethics board, including academics, focus groups and criminal justice partners to investigate how best to make use of digital advances – without compromising privacy.

Our goal is to help police forces maximise resources, enable officers to spend more time on the street and less on paperwork, while ensuring that technology helps to build, not break, the bonds of trust with communities. The right software can provide a smooth digital infrastructure and facilitate menial tasks, freeing police officers to do the work they’re best at and no machine will ever be able to do, which is working in the community, building relationships and keeping us safe.