Public trust and data-driven policing
Jul 12, 2019 @ 12:08

In the first of two articles, Boyd Mulvey calls for an advocate to champion better communication around the benefits of intelligence-led policing, with comment from Giles Herdale, co-chair of the Independent Digital Ethics Panel for Policing, and Jennifer Housego, Head of Digital Change at Essex Police. 

Policing by consent is at the heart of the British policing model. Dating back to the foundation of the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) 190 years ago, the concept of the ‘police are the public and the public are the police’ was set out in the nine principles of policing attributed to Sir Robert Peel and has been the bedrock of policing ever since. 

It follows the ideology that the legitimacy of policing in the eyes of the public is based on a general consensus of support that follows transparency about their powers – to reassure the public that policing is here to serve the public, not rule the public.  

Today, police forces are facing fresh scepticism when it comes to transparency, with its use of intelligence-led policing. Data and analytics within policing has a bad public profile. Perpetuated by the Gangs Matrix developed in response to the 2011 London riots, the press and privacy advocate groups have been quick to label many intelligence-led policing advances as discriminatory and questionably wrong. 

Many, including myself, would argue that intelligence-led policing is now critical to policing success. Fewer personnel and stretched resources means that the police need to work smarter and take a more analytical approach to policing. 

The rise of technology used by criminals has led to an explosion of data sets and to ‘keep up’ the police need to harness the intelligence available to them in order to prevent crime before it happens – something that is particularly useful in tackling the recent surge in violent crimes, such as the knife crime epidemic and County Lines drug dealing.  

There is a general feeling among police that they need to be better at communicating the benefits of intelligence to the public. The police are clearly trying to tackle the stigma surrounding intelligence-led policing – MPS Commissioner Cressida Dick and MI5 boss Andrew Parker have recently spoken out on the very necessary role data itself and data sharing plays in tackling terror-related crime. But without the full support of the public, this could be very challenging.  

Part of the issue stems from a lack of communication from the police, which in turn leads to a lack of knowledge within the general public on how this data is being used and collected. If we had an open and transparent data sharing framework, backed by a public advocate who could clearly vocalise its benefits, we could begin to see a shift in the attitudes towards data collection and analysis, opening up untapped intelligence sources that are currently being blocked by negative public perception.   

What has instilled public mistrust in data?  

To address the issue, we must first consider why there is a negative perception of data in policing and why there is a lack of understanding around it. 

Jennifer Housego, Head of Digital Change at Essex Police, feels that recent high-profile issues have led to mistrust. 

“Things have changed in relation to the public perception of data and how it can be used by different organisations, it’s changed a lot in the last couple of years because there’s been so much mainstream media content relating to the topic,” she says. “If we go back a couple of years there was hardly any coverage in relation to data privacy, but of course we’ve had legislation changes through the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) coming into effect last year, as well as a number of high-profile news stories, such as Cambridge Analytica, which has brought data into the public domain.”  

With high-profile data breaches and other organisations seen to be tightening their grip on data security, how can the police prove that security is also firmly on their agenda? 

Ms Housego believes it is down to communication and transparency.  

“I think there’s a growing awareness of the opportunities that different organisations and commercial companies have, as a result of the way that they use data,” she explains. “Of course, data use has been going on for years, but it has only recently become mainstream and that has increased the public awareness, but not necessarily their understanding, of what is happening. What we need to do when advocating data is make sure that the understanding is really enhanced as well, we can really only do that through better data management and transparency.” 

Transparency around data and driving public engagement is something that Giles Herdale, co-chair of the Independent Digital Ethics Panel for Policing, agrees with, taking the view that the police need to better address the positive work they are doing. 

“The public mood around data is extremely fluid at the moment, there’s not a settled view on how they feel about it. So potentially, because policing has been a bit late to the party in terms of data-led activity, the benefits have not been well articulated and as such the police are now in a race to catch up with industry,” he says. “The danger with that is policing will overreach itself and lose its credibility along the way; we need to have a much more considered way of engaging the public with the debate.”  

The need to drive public engagement and support  

Public engagement and support is critical to the success of police forces and intelligence-led policing; it is only with this support that the police will continue to grow its provision of tools and analytical skills, which could have a huge role in helping to solve or prevent prevalent criminal activity.  

But, as Mr Herdale points out, the use of Big Data to predict or solve crime is still relatively uncharted territory. 

“Information management was never seen as a core priority in policing, it was always seen as a support function, not front and centre of the operation capability,” he explains. 

“We haven’t yet grasped that nettle. Because this has not been a priority, there’s a general lack of knowledge, skills and awareness within policing at the time that the levels of available data is exploding. Police leaders have just not had their eye on this ball.” 

Combine this with public scepticism and we now have a perfect storm – a fear around internal data sharing both within forces and externally with other agencies, due to the implications of data loss and the subsequent public outcry if this was to occur.  

But this does not mean that policing as a whole feels it needs to step back; if anything there is a quiet determination in some quarters to prove the benefits of a data-savvy force. 

As Ms Housego highlights, “within the police there’s an absolute understanding and commitment to get this right. The intention is to use data to drive decision making and to help the police to make better decisions in order to prevent harm and keep people safe”. 

So, what are the police doing to ensure that data sharing is transparent and ethical? And how should the benefits be correctly and openly communicated to the general public? In part two next issue we will answer these questions and continue to discuss how we can harness an improved public perception of data to keep our streets safe. 

Boyd Mulvey is the founder and chief executive officer of data cleansing and analysis software provider Chorus Intelligence. 

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