Buy it Yourself

When I joined the police a crime report was an A4 sized document, printed in landscape and had about 4 self carbonating copies behind it. I’m pretty sure all forces were on ‘paper’ at this point in history but the variety of formats, layouts and style will all have been different. 43 forces all had a different idea about what a crime report should look like and be.

The same principle applied to everything. Missing from home reports, report forms, RTA forms custody records and more. Every force did it differently. The same could be found in terminology. One force would call a crime a crime book, some a crime report, others abbreviated to an ROC and many just by the form number. We call offences different things too. Taking a conveyance without consent has always been TWOC to me but some forces refer to it as UTMV (unlawful taking of a motor vehicle) or TADA (take and drive away). Even within forces there could be differences in the way policing was conducted between separate divisions. This is still evident now, not so much in my experience, but still there. My team of officers was referred to as a group. Yet across the force other divisions referred to themselves as a block or even a scale.

There was never really a joined up approach on a national scale for policing. Of course there were the basics like mutual aid arrangements but as far as working together went and everyone dancing to the same tune… well quite frankly.. it didn’t.

When I joined the police the only computers I saw were in the custody office. They had two of them. One was the PNC terminal and one was the local CRO (criminal records office). The control room was entirely paper based and the nick did not have any computers at all.

Slowly but surely computers started to trickle in. They had been in the private sector for years and were quite advanced (at least in the sense of mid 90’s technology). IMG_0540Ours on the other hand looked like they had been used by Noah! Slow, clunky, Windows for Workgroups, 15″ CRT monitors that needed a forklift truck to move and floppy discs were the order of the day.

We eventually got software to manage the incidents in the control room. We could see the list of jobs in the nick which was helpful. We also got email access. Some three years later there were many cops who hadn’t touched the email system. This was exacerbated further by an ingrained culture that written reports and faxes were the only means of communication.

The take up of technology by the police has been woefully slow. I joined my current force in 2005. On arrival, nobody, NOBODY, had access to the internet! When I mentioned it I was met with much teeth sucking and shaking of heads like a plumber providing an estimate. A colleague I worked with had transferred to a Scottish force at the same time as me. I sent him an email, based on the standard format of police emails, to see how he was getting on. The emails bounced. I later made contact by other methods and established that email hadn’t even been rolled out in his new force. In 2006!

We have caught up… a little. Our access to technology at the station has improved massively. The machines are better, faster and more capable but even now they are eons behind the cutting edge. My machine runs Windows 7 and IE8. If I want Flash to show a website properly I need IT to install it. Many websites do not present as they should in IE8 because it’s out of date. Compared to my 3/4 year old MacBook Pro at home it is, quite frankly, totally outclassed.

That said we all know how a bang up to the minute computer can be out of date within 6 months. Technology has exploded and moves very quickly. Only those with bottomless pits of cash can keep up. Something the police have never had and are quite honestly, never likely to have.

But as we have used technology across the country we have replicated all the same issues we had with paper forms and procedures. 43 forces have all pulled in different directions. My computer at work will be entirely different to a colleagues in the Met or Cornwall. It may have a different operating system and will definitely have different software. Custody and crime recording software around the country varies dramatically. Whether hardware or software, each force has sourced its own solutions at local level, even to the point of “bespoke” packages.

Some forces are now starting to use the same software. It’s a start. I can remember ringing an out of force custody suite to ask for a copy of the custody record of a transferred prisoner. They should have sent one but forgot. The Sgt apologised. He couldn’t send a patrol 180 miles to deliver it. I established we used the same system. “Email it to me” I said. “I don’t know how to do that” came the reply. I talked him through it step by step and the problem was solved. Easy. This wouldn’t have been possible on different systems. Yet there are problems with systems that get used by a number of forces. They all want different things from it. So national user groups get set up where changes are put forward and adopted or rejected. This can put blockers in the way of actually getting things done.

In summary, the police could have saved millions of £’s nationally many years ago if they had got their heads together and collaborated properly on IT hardware and software requisition. Bulk purchasing and a whole bunch of systems that actually talk to one another without fixes, patches and workarounds.

The curve of information technology is rising rapidly. Increasing numbers of people are conducting their lives online in digital spaces. So are the criminals. The police cannot afford to be playing catchup. The device you are reading this blog on be it a desktop PC, a laptop, tablet or phone is likely to be far more advanced than anything your local cop has official access to.

Mobile technology is the big thing for policing. Giving officers the ability to update systems and conduct checks from where they are. This in essence negating the need to go back to the station and therefore remain on patrol, out and about and within their communities. Sounds good but what will we get with ever diminishing budgets? The best device for the job or the one we can afford?

Some forces are already moving toward this and have some systems in place. Maybe not forcewide and to everyone but it’s a start right? PCC’s have recently applied to the Home Office to access an innovation fund to get mobile technology moving in their force. Another good step? Maybe not.

By offering out funds to indivudual forces is the Home Office likely to replicate all the same issues? Forces will probably go their own way. In some cases they already are. This will lead to a plethora of devices on different platforms with different software that don’t talk to one another. The net result is no progress at all.

There is a new police technology company to be set up. Its been talked about for some time and is not new for those who can remember PITO. It’s role and remit seems to fit what was needed years ago but I don’t think it’s operational yet. It may solve all our problems; it may not. In the meantime we cannot afford to wait. This is engenders a back to front approach to solving the problems. PCCs will spend the cash and try to create a local solution that leaves us exactly where we are now.

I’m a bit old school. If the police want me to arrest people then they need to provide me with the tools to do it. If they want me to use a radio to talk to the control room they need to provide it. They can’t ask me to provide it myself. Having said that I currently drive all over the county to deliver training using my own car and I’m recompensed with a mileage rate. With my social media use I utilise my own phone and my own data connection. Why? Because it works, doesn’t impact on my personal limits, makes my life easier, allows me to get on with my job and is infinitely better than anything the force can provide. I’m not recompensed for this use.

Maybe the best way to get cops onto mobile data is via their own devices? There are clearly some issues around security of data, lost devices and so on but what if the device were to be checked off and approved? What if a national cross platform solution was sourced that allowed all cops access to a secure network that was capable of national access but had local restrictions? What if the officer had a payment made to them or tax relief to purchase, connect and use their own device? Pretty much every cop and PCSO on duty has a device they carry with them that they could use.

BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) is probably a dirty word in policing at the moment but there are many officers already doing this for free (at least in relation to phone calls and social media). Perhaps, in order to keep up with the technology curve that is currently outstripping us, we need to think not about national procurement solutions but in a completely radical and new way altogether?

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8 thoughts on “Buy it Yourself”

  1. my force issued PDA’s a few years back, they were at the time outdated technology before we had them. Lack of training and willingness found these already obsolete devices destined for the desk drawer of locker of the majority of officers. I used mine for mobile pnc access, Intel etc, even ANPR but logging back onto the device after it timed out after 3 minutes was a pain in the rear. They even had a camera which was ideal for crime scenes. We’ve now got MDT in our cars. This grants us the full mobile experience. PNC, CAD, email, Intel, satnav….on paper its a dream and when it works it’s great, but again it’s flawed. I find myself using my smart phone for satnav as th MDT software is so out of date. There’s talk of tablets being introduced now but I fear that it will be too easy to forget to charge it or leave it in the locker.

    I fully embrace the tech. They are tools and I will use them to help me in my day to day policing, however policing comes from within and you cannot police with an iPad alons.

    1. I agree. Tech is not the be all and end all. It’s a tool to make our job easier. The key word here is “easier”. Add efficient too.

      If the Tech introduced does not do that from the outset then it will get forgotten, left in lockers and unused.

      It’s no different to an extendable baton. Completely useless if every time you rack it out the end flies across the room, car park or street.

      1. I get angry when the harpy witch and her minions bang on about improving police work with technology. They fail to grasp the basic concept that it’s boots required to integrate with our communities not windows 7!

  2. I used to work for police,(2008-2012) computers were stone-age level, now I work as interpreter for police, courts, NHS….it’s scary seeing & hearing how scattered and disorganised everything is. Seriously? No unanimous vocabulary/terms/data exchange!?!? This government should be put to shame for mindless cuts at most vulnerable areas, and not investing in basic structure on which each country runs: access to justice, police protection access to health services. When will they stop staffing the bottomless pockets of few greedy bastards and stop serving them with every discount in tax possible? Where else should the money come from if not from those who steal the most? If things will continue this way….UK will line up with third-world countries soon, when it comes to organisational efficiency & the rule of law.
    On the other hand it is time for police force in UK to finally get organised in regards to basic operational issues, terminology use etc. I can’t believe none has tried to implement that already, nor decided to organise push in the right direction….impossible!
    How in the world this still functions? Running on sheer good will of officers is bound to come to stand still eventually, the same as governments assumtion, that solicitors and barristers will work for free in courts or on remortgaging their homes….Sad indeed, very sad.

  3. I’m going to address the issue of BYOD from the point of view of an IT Systems Administrator. From my perspective, BYOD leaves a lot to be desired. Here are some reasons why:

    For starters it’s much harder to administer. When you get a group of staff who have iPhones of varying models and ages (going back to iOS 6 or ealier), another group who have varying ages of Android devices (again with OSes which may be years out of date) and yet more that have Windows Phones or NokiaOS or something completely different from everyone else, plus they all have different types of hardware which could be brand new or could be 8 years old, meaning it all has different capabilities (for instance new phones have great cameras but old ones might only have 3mp which might not be too good for detailed work, some devices will be much slower than others and might be too slow to be usable, some will be very limited on battery life if they are in constant use etc etc.). And this gets even more complex if you bring tablets into the equation as some of them are just compact laptops which run a full Windows OS.
    Now each of these groups of devices will likely need a different version of the programs you want to use on them, and it’s hard to tell how much of what you will need, which, depending on the contract details, might drive up your licensing costs significantly.
    And inevitably this means you must have IT staff trained in administering and supporting all the various hardware and software combinations, which drives up staff costs.

    Secondly, we come to the issue of staff contracts. If you require staff to provide a device or devices of a certain specification in order to perform their jobs, then you would have to write that into their contracts, which would be a complete hassle. For starters it would mean you’d have to get all staff to agree to the amended contracts, and if they don’t I’m not sure what action could be taken against them in light of EU and UK contract law.
    And if you didn’t make this a requirement then how would it be possible for staff who choose not to provide their own devices to be able to continue their work? Would they have to be provided with devices by the force? In which case why not do that for everyone? Or would they have to rely on the old methods, with all the attendant penalties thereof?

    Thirdly we hit the issue of maintenance – if a staff member is using the device all day every day the battery will likely deteriorate in capacity very rapidly and will likely need to be replaced every 12 to 18 months. Who would be responsible for that, the staff member or the force? And what if the device was dropped whilst being used to photograph a crime scene? User or force? Or if the device was dropped on lunch and broke? User or force?
    And what happens when staff begin to complain that their old devices are slow? If you tell them “This is too old and won’t run the software, get a new one” that breeds resentment, but from the IT perspective it’s all you can say – if the device is too old it’s too old.
    And what do you do about those 1 in 1000 people who have an odd-ball OS that there is no software for? Do you force them to buy a more mainstream device?

    Fourthly we have the issue of distractions – if an officer is encouraged to use their personal device to complete paperwork or take photos etc, then they look at the device more often than if they weren’t asked to do that. They will therefore notice that they might have some status updates or messages or notifications etc that they could look at. I’m sure most officers would be able to ignore these until a suitable time, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find a small number of officers got distracted by their device whilst they are supposed to be working.

    Fifthly we have the issue of malware/viruses. Whilst it’s true that it is harder for viruses or malware to get onto a phone or a tablet (but not a tablet computer as this is essentially a computer in tablet form which is accessible to all viruses etc) it is possible for it to happen – which presents an attack vector to the police network.
    And we also have the issue of jailbreaking/rooting – if officers have chosen to jailbreak or root their device, it presents additional vectors for attack to the police network.

    Sixthly we have the issue of data costs – if staff are asked to claim back for their data costs through an expenses system then how do you work out what was police use and what wasn’t? And if you have staff claiming back this way then the force can’t get a bulk deal on mobile data/network usage because it’s all tied to personal handsets. This would significantly increase the cost of BYOD.
    The alternative is to supply a SIM card to officers for them to use in their personal devices. This would allow a bulk deal to be gotten for mobile data/network costs etc, but what do you then do about personal calls or data? Do you charge the employee for those? Or just soak it up? Again, it’s something you have to pay for without it being the best deal possible.

    Seventhly (if that is a word) we come to data loss – this should be easily manageable in that there applications available (like Good for Enterprise) that can wipe a device’s “secure” data when certain security conditions are met, and most mobiles have a “remote wipe” feature that could be required to be enabled and accessible to IT, so I’m not too concerned about this point.

    Eighthly we have the “arms race” – say an officer purchases the brand new phablet 12 from Nectarine – their colleagues see it, and some might get envious – they then go and buy the phablet 12 or one of it’s competitors. This is normally good for IT as we know the devices can run the software, but this is bad for morale – officers think they have to keep up to look “cool” or to look as if they care about work as much as their colleagues, and it might get into some manager’s heads that anyone who doesn’t keep up with the pack in terms of device buying is “not a team player” and should be penalised. This leads to more resentment as staff feel they have to keep expending their own money on devices that they mainly use for work.

    Ninthly we have “bad choices” – what if someone goes out and buys the latest phablet 12 but then gets told “that’s too new, we don’t have software for it yet” or “I’m sorry, we know you just spent £800 on that but we have been told by the software people they aren’t going to support it” – you now have staff with expensive paperweights as far as work is concerned. And it’s their personal money that went into buying these paperweights, which leads to more resentment.

    Tenthly we have licensing – a lot of software manufacturers will charge extra for people to use their software on personal devices (rather then corporate-owned ones), and some won’t support it at all. Then you come to the tricky issue of illegal downloading – it’s not clear at all legally who would be responsible for illegally downloaded content on a device used for personal and work use – for example if they had a work issued SIM card and downloaded illegal music over that data connection, who is responsible? The IP would be tied back to the force that owns the SIM card, who would then have to prove who had it in their possession at that time.

    Apologies that this post got a bit long, but the whole BYOD area is a minefield and it would be a significant headache to try and work it all out. It’s much easier and would likely cost the same to just buy and issue standardised devices.

    1. A comprehensive reply thank you. I don’t think any of the points you raise are insurmountable with the correct processes and guidance. There are also clearly issues around licensing that would need work. However, as you say, just providing the kit may solve this. Sadly we have empirical evidence within policing that shows we are pretty poor at sourcing and providing up to date kit.

      I don’t particularly advocate outright a move to BYOD but raise this as a discussion point based on some observations. Your reply therefore is exactly what I was looking for and most welcome.

      What we need is a fresh approach to IT within policing. BYOD is one aspect of that to be considered. We also need recognition from the Govt that this needs a big chunk of cash which they are going to have to put their hands in their pockets for. A piecemeal offering to forces without any joined up approach will be disastrous.

      If we always do what we have always done the result will always be the same.

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