Senior police officers have raised fears over the loss of access to real-time information from a European Union wide crime database with the looming prospect of a no-deal Brexit.
Currently police officers in Scotland and throughout the UK have access to the Schengen Information System II (SIS II), which provides alerts from other Member States on fugitives wanted for extradition, missing people, potential witnesses, serious organised criminals and terrorists.
If a negotiated settlement between the UK Government and the EU cannot be reached, the system could be off-limits to police forces across Britain, which will have a major impact on policing, according to senior officers who gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament this week.
Detective Chief Superintendent Patrick Campbell, Police Scotland, told MSPs at the Justice Sub-Committee on policing: “That is a significant loss and, again, we are carrying out contingency planning on that. However, making better use of Interpol notices and diffusions will result in slower and more bureaucratic processes. Whatever we have, it will be suboptimal.”
The UK Government is seeking a continued agreement with the EU, but the EU has maintained that it is not legally possible for non-Schengen third countries to cooperate through the SIS II system. Accordingly, the data could cease to be available to forces across Britain from December 31.
Deputy Chief Constable Will Kerr added: “It is a single system that holds all member states’ data and all the alerts, and there is a single point of access for us. It is an expedient, real-time alert system that is massively beneficial to policing.
“The SIS is incredibly important and is used daily to benefit our ability to police Scotland and keep the people of Scotland safe.”
Alternative arrangements such as a “Swedish alternative” proposed by the EU – and also information sharing through Interpol – were discussed during the parliamentary hearing, however officers insisted any fallback mechanisms will be – compared to SIS II – “slower and will involve reduced connectivity across EU states”.
DCS Campbell added: “The draft text from the EU made it very clear that it would not be legally possible for non- Schengen third countries to co-operate with the EU through this mechanism. There is no legal precedent for that. There are a number of areas that are being looked at at this time.
“The challenge here is about replacing something that we use daily to get quick information for front-line policing. What we are moving towards is a far slower and more bureaucratic process.”
DCC Kerr said: “SIS II is about sharing real-time data. Crime in 2020 has a very fluid dynamic both in real time and in the cyber environment. Those real-time alerts give a significant amount of benefit and expedition to police investigations; there are well over 60 million nominal based alerts in that system.
“The Interpol system is very good, but it is just not as good. As you will know, Interpol has 197 member states. Either a red notice will be put out to all member states or there will be a diffusion, which is more geographically limited, but putting something out to 197 member states will not be as good as having a system that is run centrally and to which we all have access.”
SIS II allows UK law enforcement agencies to create these alerts themselves and to share them with their EU counterparts – in real time. The UK shares substantial information on wanted or missing persons. In 2017, of all alerts circulated on SIS II, approximately 20 per cent were circulated by the UK and over 5,000 hit reports on UK alerts from EU partners were received.
Furthermore, each time a Police National Computer check is carried out on a person/vehicle/object a SIS II check is automatically carried out simultaneously. Alerts for discreet checks have yielded great benefits for Police Scotland and other EU law enforcement agencies.
It allows them to track individuals’ movements throughout Europe if they are travelling. When an alert is triggered, information on the individual and/or the vehicle they are travelling in, and with whom, is relayed to the officer who has created the alert. This can support an investigation covertly, providing vital information for officers. For example, during a human trafficking investigation, agencies in all the countries involved can track the movements of both offenders and potential victims.