Facing the cuts
Apr 19, 2018 @ 16:31

With 14 per cent fewer police officers than in 2009, the front line needs support fast. Ian Blackhurst makes the case for every police officer to be armed with biometrics.

Ian Blackhurst

With 14 per cent fewer police officers than in 2009, the front line needs support fast. Ian Blackhurst makes the case for every police officer to be armed with biometrics.

Increased pressure on policing budgets has put the spotlight on the allocation of resources. There is little doubt the front line needs support fast as officers struggle to respond to rising demands. Given this backdrop, it will be no mean feat to deliver the key focus areas of prevention, vulnerability and the management of risk as set out in Policing Vision 2025.

However, I believe that biometrics, if used effectively, will be a key tool in helping close the gap between what is available and what is expected of our forces.

With fewer officers, we need to ensure that each member of the force has an eco-system of tools at their disposal, including access to state-of-the-art biometrics. These toolkits will empower officers to be as effective as possible – with biometrics helping to identify individuals at a far quicker pace and providing them with actionable intelligence on the go to improve decision-making.

I accept that a set of guiding principles needs to be drawn up so that misuse does not occur. We need to ensure officers understand both its capabilities and its fallibilities and use it appropriately. But for me this is simply a stage of the rollout rather than a major obstacle in its use. As with any tool, technology will only ever realise its full benefits if the person using it has been fully trained in its capabilities. But if biometrics is embraced, officers can revolutionise the way they work.

Thousands of images scanned in seconds

There are currently an estimated six million private and public CCTV cameras in the UK, often providing vital footage in an investigation when needed. Enabling officers to make faster and more efficient suspect identification using this footage, will save hours in manpower time and free them to carry out other duties.

Just as easily and quickly as cars are now scanned using ANPR (automatic numberplate recognition), with biometrics, thousands of images in a crowd, or even on a recovered laptop or phone, could be scanned in minutes, triggering automatic alerts if a face matches a person who is a known security risk or wanted in connection with a crime.

Better outcomes for victims

In an alleged sexual assault on public transport or in a crowded venue, the victim may have only had time to process what has happened before the offender disappears into the crowd – leaving little time for the victim to gather a full description. This makes it hard for officers to find an initial line of inquiry. Facial recognition software linking back to a database could provide officers with an opening lead, prompting new lines of inquiry.

Improving officer safety

As officer numbers reduce, the need for single patrols could become more routine. There are also increasing numbers of younger officers on the beat who may lack some of the in-depth historical knowledge on persons of interest or vulnerable individuals in the area.

Accessing facial recognition software on their mobile device could help improve officer safety, as it would equip them with the knowledge needed to approach the suspect alone or to call for back-up.

It is also a useful tool when an officer conducts a stop and search and the suspect is uncooperative and refusing to provide proof of identification. Or if a document is produced, but the officer suspects it is stolen or faked. Accessing biometrics on the beat will allow officers to take a photograph and quickly compare this to the original data held on the person via facial composition.

Facial recognition could also greatly assist officers new to the beat with instant identification, keeping them out on patrol. In the future, this could even be completed by fingerprint, iris or heartbeat identification, all through the officer’s mobile device.

Supporting everyday policing

As we know, crime statistics are not always a measure of workload. Managing disturbances related to vulnerable children and adults is also recognised as consuming more policing resources and effort as social services’ cuts bite.

An estimated 250,000 people go missing in the UK each year according to the charity Missing People, many of whom may be vulnerable or have mental health concerns, and these cases need to be assigned the appropriate level of priority and resources to ensure a safe return.

Facial recognition technology, used in missing person inquiries as an additional resource can enable officers to extract faces in real-time and match them against that of a missing person, helping officers support vulnerable people and bring about a positive outcome.

Mobile biometrics technology could also help in assisting officers when a person is found unconscious or seemingly intoxicated or under the influence of drugs. Officers could instantly establish the person’s identity and maybe information relating to the fact that they are suffering from dementia or diabetes to determine their response.

Next generation identification

Facial recognition technology is evolving at a fast rate with better quality images ensuring more accuracy than ever before. If used and applied appropriately, it provides an invaluable aid to fighting crime both on the beat and at a national level.

As officers continue to keep our cities safe with limited resources, it is about providing them with the right array of tools to do so.

Whether biometrics is used to help generate leads in a shoplifting inquiry, a spate of burglaries or to inform public order policing, the operational benefits are considerable.

• Ian Blackhurst is executive director for public safety and health at Northgate Public Services. Visit https://bit.ly/2HfnI8Z

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