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The Future of Policing: Bridging the Digital Divide
Sharad Rathi Policing Sector Lead, UK | July 2, 2021
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The role of digital tools in the context of law enforcement agencies have undergone a massive transformation over the past decade. Even though their mandate remains the same, the nature of criminal activities coupled with changed expectations from citizens has made law enforcement much trickier to implement. It's no longer a back-office function but an area that directly affects operational effectiveness.

It doesn't help that the term “digital transformation” is used very loosely for organizations, especially law enforcement agencies. It is crucial to make sense of what going digital means, and how it can transform policing to always be one step ahead of criminals and law-breakers. This blog attempts to contextualize and explain digital transformation in policing and highlight why it is a core operational issue and demands the chief officer's attention and full sponsorship.

A Brief History of Technology-Enabled Policing

The technology available to law enforcement officers may have changed. But their functions continue to remain the same— to maintain law and order, instill a sense of security amongst state subjects, and build and retain a capable and committed workforce. Their key vision, as detailed in the National Policing Digital Strategy 2020-2030 , includes the following objectives:

  • Seamless citizen experience
  • Empower the private sector
  • Enabling officers and staff through digital
  • Embedding a whole public systems approach
  • Addressing harm

Technology had already made its way to frontline officers in the 1980s. The prevalence of radio systems (with their limited range and heavy weight) was used to disseminate information but were limited in their reach and versatility. This meant that many officers had to rely on their intuition to make the right decisions.

The new millennium saw widespread adoption of personal computers by the police forces. This allowed officers greater access to information and enabled them to make better decisions. But the lack of mobility continued to remain a problem. As devices became smaller and more powerful, mobility was no longer an issue.

The onset of the pandemic accelerated our collective dependence on digital systems. Crime is no longer solely limited to analogue methods. Law enforcement agencies are now acutely aware of the criticality of having bespoke technology solutions to aid them in maintaining law and order. Technology is no longer a back-office function but an important pillar in driving operational excellence.

Imminent Changes

Today, there is a heavier emphasis on a more proactive and preventative form of policing that requires greater vigilance and initiative. The entire ecosystem must be built on a digital platform that leverages the power of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and Internet-of-things (IoT) technologies to deal with crime.

The future of policing will involve a complex network of interconnected digital systems where algorithms would dominate basic activities such as dispatching, taking testimonials, and addressing complaints etc.

The National Policing Digital Strategy 2020-2030 addresses these concerns as a serious matter concerning national security. The only question that remains is if law enforcement agencies are positioned to make the move to digital tools.

The Road to Digital

The sheer number of solutions that are available for law enforcement are always a barrier to effective technology adoption. A few key themes to evaluate these solutions are:

  1. Proactive Policing/Advanced Analytics

    To capitalize on the abundance of data available through multiple channels, law enforcement agencies must invest in sophisticated analytics tools that allows them to identify threats at a nascent stage. These analytics tools will unlock several advantages such as proactive planning, trend analysis, and better (and more informed decision-making). Ethics is the big part here that needs to be managed cautiously, determining what needs to be captured, stored, and for how long.

  2. Ecosystem of Solutions

    Compartmentalization within law enforcement must be replaced with a scalable, highly interconnected network of systems that work together to provide solutions. Developing such a digital platform with interoperability and integration both within the police force and its partner organizations will bring windfall gains in the realm of operational efficiency.

  3. Automation/Robotics- Enabling Officers through Connected Technology

    Robotics will play a huge role in taking over a bulk of the back-office functions. Policing is a complex and sensitive function, and the impact of serious error would be significant. It is therefore essential that robotics only take over low-value repetitive tasks while leaving the key decision-making aspects to their human colleagues.

    Robotics also have the capacity to serve as virtual assistants to field officers and enable more effective patrolling/incident resolution. Needless to say, their success depends on an ecosystem of fully connected systems that are interoperable.

  4. Seamless Citizen Experience through Digital Engagement

    Winning and retaining the trust of the public is a key priority that can be achieved by building a highly user-centric, multi-channel digital engagement strategy. A constant presence across social media platforms and a user-friendly digital platform are non-negotiable in achieving this objective.

    In a post-pandemic world, effective policing would mean that citizens are able to register grievances through video-conferencing and artificial intelligence-powered chat-bots, etc. Virtual patrolling will also become a mainstay as surveillance systems will be supplanted with artificial intelligence-enabled automation capabilities to enable the police to be omnipresent in their respective boroughs.

Challenges

Overhauling existing surveillance systems and embedding them with newer forms of technology have their own challenges that might detract from the larger objective of modernization. Great caution must be exercised not to fall into these traps:

  1. Skill gap: Harnessing the benefits of a full-scale digital transformation exercise would require an entirely different set of skills and behavioral changes. The existing “skill vacuum” is filled partially by the pervasion of technology in our daily lives (in the form of smartphones etc.); the remaining gap must be filled by visible leadership and formal training.

  2. Planning/procurement: Plans must be long-term (>5 years), and budgeting must account for any and all overheads accordingly. Procurement must follow a similar approach and call for a more flexible approach to prevent bottlenecks.
  3. Avoiding instant gratification: The temptation to opt for short-term solutions or “hotfixes” must be avoided at all costs as it is highly likely to deter long-term efforts in building digital capabilities.

Buy vs build:  This depends on various factors such as functions in discussion, business criticality, cost,

and time-to-market, and others. Overall, considering the varied nature of technologies and the pace at which they are changing, it is impossible to keep pace in each area.  It's best to concentrate on the core service and seek external expertise for the rest, so that forces can not only keep pace with the change but stay ahead of it.

Conclusion

In the face of mounting pressures from many sides, law enforcement agencies across UK must plan their approach towards digital transformation with great care. Giving in to myths and adopting practices for short-term gains can cause significant commercial and reputational damage that might take years to recover from.

The changes that are currently sweeping modern-day law enforcement are exponential. This calls for visible senior business sponsorship and concerted efforts towards modernizing existing systems to realize the benefits of this digital transformation.