Tag Archives: technology

The Highest Standards

Whenever a police officer gets themselves into a bit of a mess we often hear or read this comment;

Police officers are public servants from whom we expect the highest standards..

This of course is correct and rightly so. We are public servants, we uphold the law and take an oath to act with impartiality and are bound by a code of ethics that demands integrity and honesty. Our behaviour, if we are to be trusted and have the confidence of the public, has to be exemplary.

This week is #RoadSafetyWeek and as you would expect I have been pushing out messages to support this campaign along with #DontStreamAndDrive, #Fatal4 and others. Whenever I engage in a determined effort to tackle the use of phones by drivers I am pretty much always challenged about the use of radios by police officers.

“Why can police use their radios?”

“Surely police using their radios is just as dangerous”

“One rule for us and another for the cops”

“If I was doing that I’d get a ticket”

This is only a sample of the comments that I get back and in some ways you have to agree with them. Yes we are trained to a higher standard but the risks and dangers are still there and to be honest the ‘because we are better trained drivers’ just doesn’t wash with many people at all. The police aren’t the only drivers on the road trained to a high standard. Over the years the IAM have trained countless people on how to be better and safer drivers.

So what makes us so special? In reality nothing. We are not special at all so why do you get a ticket for using a phone but we use our radios without an issue? First of all there is a difference between a phone and a radio. It is covered in the mobile phone legislation where it makes a distinction between a mobile phone and a two-way radio. The legislation then creates exemptions for certain frequencies. I understand this was to ensure that government and private organisaions that routinely use two way radio e.g. police, ambulance and taxi drivers, could still do so. This was fairly simple for the police when the personal radios we used operated on the UHF frequencies. They were a radio. Nothing more and nothing less. Then we had the introduction of the TETRA system and things got a little more complicated because these devices are primarily a two-way radio but can also be used like a phone. They also looked much more like a phone. Many arguments arose about this but the frequencies used still fell into a band that is legal. Even before TETRA the police were starting to build hands free functionality into their patrol vehicles, especially so for traffic vehicles that often had a VHF set fitted within them. This practice has continued and most vehicles now have this capability.

So the bare bones of this are that using a hand held mobile phone whilst driving is illegal. Using a two radio (frequency exemptions permitting) is not. However, there is no overridding exemption and when the police use their radios their driving standard has to be maintained. If it falls below the required standards then prosecution may follow. Here lies the rub though. If we forget frequencies and function and simply look at both devices there are many similarities. They are a communication device that can be hand held and can create a distraction for the driver. They are both capable of being operated handsfree but the majority of the time a police officer uses PTT (push to talk). This requires the officer to be hands on. That said the radio is generally affixed to the officers body armour and can be let go of in an instant should both hands be needed on the wheel. It also doesn’t fall to the floor as a mobile phone would. Whilst the radio has a screen it is not integral to the operation and nor does it need to be viewed. A phone on the other hand could be dropped but creates that secondary distraction. Where is it? Is it in your lap or the footwell. Has the screen smashed? In this footage from the USA the driver is using a mobile phone and despite the situation she gets herself into she does not let go of the phone at all.

The two-way radio clearly needs less input than a phone and operates differently but in light of smart handsfree technology it could also be argued that a totally voice controlled phone is safer.

I blogged recently about the mobile phone legislation and how, by allowing handsfree operation, it appeared to have focussed entirely on the importance of having the drivers hands on the wheel.* If that is correct and was seen as the danger that drove the legislation then the same can be said for any other device that operates in a similar way regardless of frequency. I can imagine this was a tough decision though as a blanket ban was going to cause huge issues for countless  999 organisations and others. The net effect would have taken every taxi driver and courier off the road overnight. It would seem therefore that practical, financial and employment issues stepped in over outright road safety. There was a trade off.

*What this did was ignore the fact that eyes on the road and mind on the road are also essential.

Police and road safety organisations all encourage no distractions in the driving environment at all. We encourage people to turn their phone off or pull over at the side of the road and park safely before using their phone. Whilst they do that the police officer or taxi driver passes by using a radio without an issue and this creates a disparity that angers many. There is of course the issue of urgency. The phone call from the dentist or from your boss is generally not life or death. The messages a police officer gets passed often are.  I’m sure you’d agree that it would be a farcical situation for an officer to ignore being shouted on the radio. Instead they pull over in a safe place, park, stop and then speak to the control room to be given an emergency that they could already be half way to if they hadn’t stopped.

So what makes a taxi drivers call urgent? Can it be viewed in the same light? Many taxi’s now operate on different systems altogether and in the case of Uber is entirely mobile phone based. The latter is another argument and blog entirely.

However, we are also in a place of increasing technology and information within our vehicles. On a recent TV program a medical technician driving an ambulance was seen to be looking down and reading img_1575out loud the detail of their next job on a screen fitted to the vehicle. We also know from the program that he was not on his own. So why is the screen fitted to the ambulance in a way that the driver can see it and read it whilst in motion? Are we putting temptation and distraction in the drivers way? Setting them up to fail and increasing the risk of road collisions? Many police officers in the UK now carry tablets. Some may hook up to cars. The ones issued in my force don’t but if we look to the US many of their patrol cars have a full size laptop fitted to the dash. If we then add all the ANPR screens and information in police cars there are additional distractions that can pull the drivers attention from the road. Even more so if single crewed.

To add further fuel to the debate there have been a number of occasions where police officers have been caught using mobile phones whilst driving. In this situation the officer was on police land as detailed in the report. Here an officer in Nottingham is reported to have been using a phone whilst driving.

It’s not surprising really that many drivers cry foul when caught using their phone. There is a double standard engendered here either by poor behaviour or legislation. This creates a ‘Don’t do as I do.  Do as I say’ scenario.

The scales are set with ultimate road safety on one side and practicality/financial issues on the other. Every death or serious injury on the roads is something to avoid and if we can enact legislation that reduces them we should. However, it does have to be tempered with common sense. There are practical solutions. If all police officers were double crewed then the passenger could handle all the radio traffic and information in the car. That said the current staffing levels mean this would create a huge issue for policing and communities. Yet as we can tell from the ambulance situation above, even with two people in the vehicle the distraction is still there and the driver can be drawn to it like a moth to flame.

As technology becomes increasingly mobile it is adding burdens to the driver in the car. The police and many other organisations both public and private are adding technology and screens that could potentially distract the driver. Mobile phones have rapidly evolved and provide countless ways for all drivers to be distracted other than by the traditional calls and texts.

The bottom line is that any distraction whatsoever is dangerous and could lead to death or serious injury. Whilst police officers can use a radio legally they are still entirely responsible for the standard of their driving. We also know that should that standard slip then they can expect the full weight of the law crushing down on them because of the position they hold and will be held to the highest standards.

It is concerning though that police drivers who will be held to the highest standards, rigourously investigated by the IPCC and expected to adhere to the code of ethics are having potential distractions put in their way by the organisations that employ them.

 

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On 31st October Tomasz Kroker was sentenced to 10yrs in prison. Whilst driving along the A34 at 50mph in a truck he collided with stationary traffic. Nothing new there. Collisions happen every day right? Well this one was different in that as consequence a woman and three children tragically lost their lives. So what was the cause? How could this have happened? Kroker was scrolling through music tracks on his phone to choose his next track. With eyes off the road and mind off the road he left a trail of destruction and devastation that nobody wants to see on our roads.

On 6th September Christopher Gard was sentenced to 9yrs in prison. With 8 previous convictions for using his phone whilst driving, Gard chose to send a text message to a friend about a dog walk. Whilst doing so he lost control of his vehicle and collided with cyclist Lee Martin and killed him outright.

Just think about that for a moment. 5 lives taken over the choice of the next music track or something so important as a dog walk

Smartphones and the multitudinous apps that they can run have brought about an always on 24hr society. We can’t stand to be parted from our phones and eagerly await the next alert or notification. Somebody just replied to your Facebook post. Your tweet just got retweeted but by who.. a celebrity maybe? A new Snap from a friend, your Ebay item just got a new bid, a Whatsapp message inviting you to a party. This list goes on. Our desire to be informed, up to date and fully connected is important to us. We thrive on the pace and instancy of our online lives and take it with us wherever we go. The FOMO (fear of missing out) factor plays hard ball with us and when that notification sounds we can’t help but look. We have to know.

Whilst this is great and a product of our desire for information and connectivity this behaviour is spreading to somewhere it shouldn’t. Our cars. It’s a well established fact that driving and using a phone is illegal. In fact, in the UK it’s considered so serious the government are on the verge of increasing the penalty to £200 and 6 points yet the problem persists. If anything it may well be increasing.

People are dying on our roads every day and the involvement of a phone or mobile device is becoming more prevalent. So what can we do about it? Simple. Don’t phone and drive. Don’t text and drive. #DontStreamAndDrive. In fact, if you’re driving, don’t do anything with your phone at all. Even a hands free call is a distraction and can significantly impair your driving performance to the extent it’s equivalent to drinking and driving.

Make a promise to yourself today. Commit to never use your phone behind the wheel of a car. Keep yourself and every other road user safe from injury or death.

We live in an always on, 24hr society and we love it. Make sure you don’t love it so much it overtakes common sense and you switch from always on to permanently offline.

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?