Ian Blackhurst discusses how once a day briefings could soon be consigned to history.
Policing is an information-intensive business, and it is most often visible when it is about the here and now. But it is also about preparing for what is to come, and knowing what is happening in the here and now, with context and knowledge. It is certainly not a static business. Situations develop so quickly that information given in a briefing can lose relevance and currency as the shift progresses.
How can officers be expected to turn the rhetoric of intelligence-led policing into practice if the structure of their information dissemination is stuck in a time warp? Expecting officers to rely on basic data searching capabilities and the radio for updates when on patrol is unsustainable. Change is overdue.
Actionable intelligence requires much more than one briefing at the start of a shift. Enabling officers to self-brief remotely and receive real-time updates will keep them visible and productive in their communities. Technology that does not require going through a gate-keeper is a game-changer.
Picture the scene. At the start of a shift, officers are notified of a known sex offender recently rehoused on their division. Appropriate multi-agency public protection arrangements (MAPPAs) are in place and the shift sergeant has ensured the patrol officers have the latest intelligence update concerning the offender. The risk to the public is in hand at the moment of briefing. But then, several hours later, officers are radioed about Danny, a vulnerable ten-year-old boy who has not turned up for school.
Let us look at two different ways a scenario could play out.
A missing child
The police know that Danny has a troubled background and moderate learning difficulties. He has recently been given a PlayStation and often ‘chats’ online to other players, who he has not met and does not know. ‘Chris’ is a regular player he chats with and who is friendly and sympathetic when Danny complains about his stepdad. It becomes clear that ‘Chris’ shares many of the modus operandi of the known sex offender.
Danny’s name and description are radioed to officers on patrol. The missing persons unit is liaising with the family to obtain a recent photo of Danny but it is proving difficult, as mum can only find one taken a few years ago.
Danny has gone missing before, but the officers are not able to access the records remotely. They wait for the control room to update them about any possible sightings.
Accessing vital clues – the ‘golden hour’
In a missing person case, the minutes and hours immediately following the report are crucial, which is why accessing critical information rapidly is imperative. In the case of a vulnerable child – a high-risk case – seeing the bigger picture helps differentiate the routine from the extraordinary.
Having access to as much relevant data and intelligence as possible enables officers to have a consolidated and informed view of risk. And it is important that officers have mobile searchable access to all data, and not just one database (as is often the case). This would enable response officers to view previous incidents or records involving Danny at a glance, as well as those of multi-agency partners.
So, let us imagine a different scenario.
A different story
Instead of one briefing at the start of the shift covering all the main crime patterns, officers could be ‘briefed’ remotely several times throughout their shift, with real-time intelligence and updates.
Live updates about the sex offender living in their patch are ‘pushed’ to the officers, direct to their mobile device. GPS (Global Positioning System) monitoring has shown he has started deviating from his normal routes. There is concern a pattern appears to be emerging, as his routes include going past schools and parks. One school on the route is Danny’s.
The photograph of Danny that his mum provided is also now in the hands of the officers, meaning they do not need to return to the station for a hard copy. The ‘golden hour’ ticks by, yet officers are spending more of it looking for Danny.
Using their mobile devices, officers show Danny’s most recent photo to staff at a local café. He was there a few days earlier talking to someone but they have not seen either since. The staff give a brief description, which matches that of the registered sex offender. The officers pull up a photograph of the suspect, also on their device, and staff confirm it is the same man they saw speaking with Danny. The officers have been able to remotely access accurate information, when and where they needed it.
It is now even more urgent that officers find Danny; the golden hour is evaporating. There is no signal coming from Danny’s phone, suggesting that it has either been switched off or has run out of battery.
The decision is taken for officers to attend the sex offender’s address. GPS on their mobiles makes it easier for the duty inspector to determine those officers closest and their fastest route. The suspect is not there, but viewing his records from their mobiles, the officers know a location that he has taken other victims to in the past. The duty inspector sends the officers closest and Danny is found safe and well. The sex offender is arrested. As the officers have direct access to the force’s systems via their device, and are not going through a third-party interface, they are able to create a crime report directly.
Having mobile access to one system bringing together essential information about the offender and victim enabled officers to determine the bigger picture and kept them productive and visible, rather than wasting crucial time returning to the station. As mobile technology can also ‘push’ notifications about possible sightings or potential leads, it can optimise deployments.
The traditional system of briefing officers once a day, at the start of a shift, is insufficiently dynamic in today’s fast-paced world. It restricts the opportunities
for officers to respond quickly and with the most recent contextualised intelligence to hand, and limits their ability to make informed decisions.
Instant searchable access to a single data store allows officers to manage real-time incidents as well as disseminating information far more speedily and efficiently. Ultimately, it allows officers to manage risk better, in an informed way.
It is interesting that, to a certain extent, policing has come full circle. Sir Robert Peel’s vision was about police presence in the communities they serve. And so it is today. A key difference is the notion of community has changed. They are now more diverse, transient and fragmented physically, but more cohesive and linked virtually online.
A fundamental cornerstone of community policing is acquiring local knowledge and contextualising it. An officer on their first shift in a new area will not know the area like the back of their hand but, these days, they can have it contained in the palm of their hand. For example, because of advances in technology – in particular with geo-fencing and temporal awareness – the officer would be alerted if the conditions in place for a tagged offender had been broken and they were in the shopping centre that was off limits, or out of the house past an 8pm curfew, and could respond appropriately.
No stone unturned
Let us take a second example, when an officer spots something amiss at a house on their new beat. There are no obvious signs of a crime, but they notice the first-floor windows have been boarded up. There are several bin bags in the garden with what looks like clothes spilling out of them.
The officer is suspicious, but there is not enough intelligence to radio in about, so they do not. There is no overt reason to knock on the door, so they do not. They might look up the address later, once back at the station, but it ends up being a very busy shift with lots of paperwork to process. So they do not.
What if they had been able to look up the address while standing outside it, from their mobile device? Maybe they would have seen it was an address of interest, a fact they could not otherwise have known from their first day on the beat. As it happens, the address is well known and officers have attended several domestic disputes.
By searching one data source, the officer can see in-depth intelligence and can flag their suspicions directly to CID. They can raise a report remotely, straight to the main system and not just stored on their device. They can complete the paperwork remotely. They can connect and go.
Two children live at the address with their parents. Searching the system, the officer can see all the relevant records and incidents, as well as those of partner agencies. Because the police systems are sharing cases with community partners, the officer notes that social services has recently been in contact following an attendance of the youngest child at accident and emergency, with a broken arm and a head injury. The social worker only saw the dad when they visited and he said his wife and children were out shopping. Seemingly, a follow-up visit is planned.
Given the history of contact between the family and different agencies, the officer decides to investigate and he knocks at the door.
A neighbour appears and says that no one has been seen going in or out of the property for days, but thinks he may have heard crying. He does not know the neighbours well, but is wary of the father and he did not want to interfere.
With no answer at the door, the officer calls for back-up and officers force entry. They discover the badly injured mother and her children locked into one of the top floor rooms, where they have been for a week. There is no sign of the father. They are weak, but alive.
Policing operates in a difficult sphere, with complex threats, higher community expectations and a greater emphasis on accountability. A sphere where even the most routine of calls can lead to – literally – anything.
Keeping officers in their communities, visible and productive, is challenging enough given the strain on budgets, so why remove them at all? Briefing officers at the start of the shift is set to become as much a relic of the past as the old police telephone boxes. Change is overdue.
• Ian Blackhurst’s team at Northgate Public Sector works with 14 police forces in the UK, helping them get information to officers at the right time. https://goo.gl/79YNSR
Ian Blackhurst is Executive Director for Public Safety and Health at Northgate Public Services.