Skype Wars

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A long time ago in a galaxy far far away……

[cue Star Wars fanfare]

A New Hope

It is a period of civil unrest.
NPCC rebels striking from
a hidden base, have won their
first victory against the evil
Empire.

During the battle, rebel spies
managed to steal secret plans
to the Empire’s ultimate weapon,
the DEATH KNELL. A cunning plan
to reduce rebel numbers,
increase their workload and destroy
policing forever.

Pursued by the Empire’s sinister
agents, Prince Alec of the Cambridge
alliance races to HQ, custodian
of the stolen plans that can save
his force, the public they serve and
restore freedom to the galaxy…..

At my recent TEDx talk I said that Skype, FaceTime and other video applications would become more common place in policing and forces needed to build this into their call handling infrastructure.

Yesterday, amongst a tidal wave of misinformed commentary, Cambridgeshire Police announced plans to use Skype as a contact method. The story was reported in the media in a variety of ways.

The BBC were fairly balanced and the Daily Mail (as you would expect) were less so.

Cambridgeshire Police were far calmer, rational and informative with their news release. 

There was also a discussion on LBC about it. Clive Chamberlain (@MrCliveC) appeared on the Nick Ferrari show and the conversation continued later in the next show.

The pilot the Cambridgeshire Police are running has been described as a retrograde step and ushering in an era of “virtual policing”. Callers to LBC explained how this service was going to maginalise pensioners who cannot afford computers, don’t use computers and don’t have internet connections. Others said it was a disgrace and just a cost cutting measure. Another way the police were squirming out of doing their job. The commentary ran from the ridiculous

“I’ve been burgled and my laptop stolen. How can I Skype you?

to the absurd

“How am I supposed to Skype the police whilst being stabbed?”

In order to address some of these concerns let’s apply a healthy dollop of common sense to the whole debate.

Skype is a big, no, enormous business that allows millions of users worldwide to connect and engage in video conversations with friends, family and for business. It is a modern form of communication that is increasing in popularity as faster internet speeds have made it easier to achieve a reliable service.

If the public are using this service in vast numbers then why not the police if we can see a use for it?

How are the police going to use it? It’s important to immediately dismiss any notion that Skype will replace emergency 999 calls or that it is to be the only method of contacting he police. I tweeted to LBC;

The Skype debate is not “we are moving to Skype get used to it”…. It’s “here is another option you may choose to use” @LBC

It actually made it on air and to be fair Tom Swarbrick really couldnt see the issue his callers had with the proposal.

The Cambridgeshire news article is quite clear. They deal with some 101 calls by an appointment system. This won’t be all 101 calls but it will be those that have been assessed as being suitable to be dealt with by appointment. This is not new. My force runs such a scheme. West Midlands have also had a “diary car” for some time. These booking systems work and provide a good service. Let me explain why.

You are having continual problems with your neighbour. There is nothing going on right now but you want to speak to the police about the issue. You call 101. The police take the call and consider the priority to deal with the it. Many people will demand to see a police officer and you do too but tell the call handler that you are only available until 3pm and need to see someone before then. The call taker can see the list of imagepriority and emergency incidents already pending. They make an assessment and try to steer you toward an appointment. The nature of demand means we cannot promise to get to you before 3pm. You could sit there waiting all day only to get a call at 2.50pm apologising that we can’t get to you and asking when you are next free. You get cross, arrange a time window for the next day of 10am to 2pm. You sit around all day again and we still haven’t got to you. This process can sometimes roll on for days. This makes us worse than the boiler repair company who say they will be with you at ‘some’ time between 8am and 6pm. Your whole day, or several, are wasted.

So we make an appointment. A dedicated officer not responding to immediate and priority incidents will attend at a given time and see you. You can plan your time accordingly. Brilliant. You get a better service and we come to see you. Win all round.

The appointment systems are a good way of ensuring we deal with (a phrase not liked in policing) ‘slow time’ demand.

So where does Skype fit in with this? Many issues do not need the physical presence of a police officer. We just need to take the facts, evaluate the circumstances then give advice and put a plan in place to deal with it. So in the appointment scenario above the call handler asks the Skype question. You are a modern person. You understand the demands on policing and you don’t really care how you communicate the problem to the police, you just want something done. You accept the offer, the police officer Skypes you at the given time and the matter moves along. It’s different and more interactive than just a phone call.

Of course you may say “I don’t have Skype” or “I really would like to talk in person with an officer”. Then guess what? We’re coming. It’s as simple as that.

Of course this is a new direction for police contact. Traditionalists will see it as a step that distances the police even further from the community. Some will see it as the thin edge of the wedge and the harbinger for virtual police officers based in call centres in Bangalore.*

Will this save money? Yes but in reality a negligible amount… fuel etc. Will it save time? Yes. Stacks of it; particularly in rural forces where beat areas can be several hundred square miles. In policing our most precious resource is our staff and their most precious commodity is their time. If in some small way we can utilise a more efficient way of communicating with people, when it suits them and us, then it has to be a good thing. It saves us money but more importantly time. Time we can then put to good use.

The outrage bus of misinformation was in top gear in the fast lane yesterday. This is not the death knell of policing as we know it. This is not the end of personal visits from police officers. This is not the abandonment of traditional contact methods such as 101, 999, email, letter and webpage. This is adding another option for the public to use to contact us in a way that suits them.

The space the police occupy on the internet is increasing every day. We Tweet, we Facebook, we Instagram, we Periscope, we YouTube and more. We are starting to broadcast public meetings on Blab so that those who cannot attend such meetings in person (disability, single parents and more) can do so digitally and have their voice heard. Now we Skype too. Is there seriously something wrong with that?

To those of you that doubt this idea I repeat the words of a famous Dark Lord…

“I find your lack of faith disturbing..”

Darth Vader

May the [police] force be with you…  in a way that suits you, us and works.

  • [irony and sarcasm alert] The police have always been years behind the private sector. Just as the banks are moving away from off shore call centres it would follow tradition that we would now move off shore! There are probably a few call centres going cheap. [/ends]
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