Policing with a Smartphone

Technology. Some people love it and others can’t stand it. But it’s made its way into all areas of our lives, and now it’s becoming the police’s secret weapon.

PCSOs and police using apps to keep communities safe

  • Apps save police time

  • Developing the apps cost hundreds of thousands of pounds

  • Smartphone cameras catch criminals

The South Yorkshire Police are leading the way with smartphone apps which can be used to identify criminals, vehicles and more… On the beat 101 spoke to Sergeant Simon Davies, the project manager in charge of the development and implementation of the apps.

More efficient and more visible

“It’s about being more effective more efficient and more visible – we have to save money and deliver the same or better service” the friendly Sergeant Simon Davies tells me.

“It’s all being developed in-house and it’s designed to be easy to use.”

The South Yorkshire Police have been using Blackberrys for some time. Some 2,500 officers have the devices including PCs, PCSOs, PCSO supervisors, Special Constables, Sergeants, Inspectors, CSIs and some Detectives.

PCSOs and frontline officers benefit most

But it’s the frontline officers, especially PCSOs and PCs that get the most benefit from the apps, Sergeant Davies explains.

“Before, information on suspects and vehicles was held at the police station but officers always need it when they’re out on the beat – so they’d have to ask someone at the station to give it to them over the radio or phone or even come back to police station to get it”.

So 18 months ago the development of specific police apps began.

The two apps are called “ID a person” and “ID a vehicle”. Essentially they check the police national computer for descriptions and warnings on people and vehicles and also search the local South Yorkshire database for information.

App checks two databases simultaneously

Before, two separate searches had to be carried out, but often this meant that the local database wasn’t checked. Now, with the app, these two searches are combined saving time, effort and officer hours.

Another bonus with “ID a person” is that if the person is a known criminal you also get a picture.  This is really useful in identifying criminals and noticing when they lie about who they are.

Sergeant Davies gave the example of disqualified drivers often learn dates of birth and details of other people and pretend to be them. But now, the threat of getting blackberry out and doing the check often makes them come clean.

The same applies to vehicles. Two checks need to be carried out: a DVLA check and searching local intelligence. The app performs both.

For example, you might stop a driver for not wearing a seatbelt, and quickly discover, thanks to the app, that the car has a drugs marker.

Camera records evidence that would otherwise be lost

And of course the camera is very useful for recording evidence. For example, as Sergeant Davies describes, the camera was used to take a picture of a footprint in the snow where a motorbike had been stolen. Without the camera, the evidence would have melted and been lost forever. Later the picture was used to help identify the thief who was caught behaving suspiciously.

Incidents of domestic violence are another time the camera is invaluable, Sergeant Davies tells me. Officers can take pictures at the scene and collect evidence that often otherwise goes unreported.

App development expensive

This kind of software isn’t easy to develop and it certainly isn’t cheap.

Sergeant Simon Davies told me that the apps he manages are created by a team of 8 in-house developers, business analysts and software developers over a period of many months.

Hundreds of thousands of pounds

He agrees that the development is costly. For contractual confidentiality reasons he wouldn’t tell me exactly how much, though he did say it was in the region of “hundreds of thousands of pounds” – but, he added, “not lots of hundreds of thousands”.

So a few hundred thousand pounds. But is it worth it?

Sergeant Davies asked: “How do you put a value on being out and about in the community? Feeling safe doesn’t have a monetary value”.

He told me it had been proven that his officers spend more time on the beat thanks to the app.

This was established, he said, using a standard Home Office calculation, which showed that if used correctly the app saved each officer 30 minutes a day. By working out the cost of 30 minutes worth of police time, then multiplying it by the 2,500 officers that use the apps, the mathematicians found the app could save £6 million.

The Head of the National Audit Office, Amyas Morse, agreed that the introduction of mobile devices hadn’t incurred an absurd cost. He said: “The roll-out of mobile technology to police forces was achieved against a tight timescale and at reasonable cost.”

But whilst it’s always nice to have numbers and a monetary figure to how much can be saved, the reality is more complicated.

Sergeant Davies noted that the progress is only made if the apps are used appropriately. He described the apps as “an opportunity” to save time and money. Some people take to technology “like a fish to water”, others are more resistant.

Making good use of time

He said that even though the apps meant officers didn’t have to come back earlier at the end of their shift, often they still did – it was a case of adapting, changing ingrained behaviours and making them aware of the possibilities. The officers must “make good use” of the extra time available.

On top of that, there’s the price of the smartphone itself. Over 3 years, the cost of a device is £600. The security on the phones is naturally of utmost importance. Sensitive information mustn’t fall into the wrong hands.

The phones are password protected with mandated levels of passwords. The passwords have to be changed regularly and must include different types of characters. On top of that, the devices can be wiped remotely so are very high security.

50,000 checks on smartphones each month

The uptake of the apps has been good so far. Sergeant Davies tells me that the number of checks carried out over the radio each month has decreased by 60%. This equates to some 50,000 checks a month done using smartphones.

The reason it wasn’t more, he explained, was that sometimes officers have both hands full when they are carrying out checks – for example whilst driving or when arresting someone – so on these occasions can’t use the smartphone to perform the check.

But, this technology isn’t without it’s critics. Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office called into question the technology’s ability to do much more than get bobbies out on the beat for longer.

He said: “Too little consideration was given to the need for the devices or how they would be used. In the majority of forces, the benefits have not so far extended beyond simply allowing officers to spend more time out of the station.”

“There is still the opportunity to achieve value for money, though, if more forces use the technology to improve the efficiency of their processes and make savings in their back-office activities.”

Margaret Hodge, chairwoman of the Commons Committee of Public Accounts, said: “If value for money is to be achieved, mobile technology will need to be used to drive improvements that will reduce paper work and make police work more efficient.”

What do you think – are apps a good idea to make police forces more efficient or are they a waste of money?

No expansion to other forces planned

At the moment only the South Yorkshire Police use the apps. Sergeant Simon Davies described the 43 forces across the country as a “mish mash” with each doing its own thing on a different system.

The National Audit Office agrees, saying “the experience of implementing mobile technology reinforces the challenge of achieving convergence of ICT across 43 police forces, each with bespoke systems supporting individual business processes.”

The challenge of last 20 years has been to coordinate police forces – trying to design software around the service. But, it seems, the results are mixed.

More apps to be released

Two further apps are due to be released soon. One of them allows officers to submit information on a person immediately, instead of waiting until the end of the shift. This will increase the amount of time officers get to spend on the beat as they are freed from having to go in quite so early at the end of each shift.

The second is a stop and search app which should reduce the time it takes between the search and the systems to record the data for the home office.

Other policing apps…

It’s not only the police that are developing apps. A friend of On the Beat 101 found out about an app being developed to gather information about the public’s experience of stop and search. Watch the video to find out more…

Got an opinion or an insight? Something we’ve forgotten to say? Leave a comment below!

Read more: Go to part 1 of our technology feature on Policing with Twitter – also read our interview with a PCSO on Twitter in the Story of a PCSO on Twitter.

All pictures courtesy of South Yorkshire Police.