From beat to boardroom: Protecting sensitive information

Police Professional talks to Ian Cockerill, director for public sector at Adobe Systems, who explains why embracing the digital age will not only reduce unnecessary paperwork but will help to protect the integrity and security of confidential data.

Feb 14, 2008
Police-recorded hate crimes in England and Wales. PA Graphic. Source Home Office. Figure for 2019/20 not included due to missing data.

Police Professional talks to Ian Cockerill, director for public sector at Adobe Systems, who explains why embracing the digital age will not only reduce unnecessary paperwork but will help to protect the integrity and security of confidential data.

The recent spate of high profile data breaches have dominated newspaper headlines and ensured that data security is at the top of the public agenda. The data held by our police forces, such as the identities of confidential informants, witness and expert reports, is extremely sensitive and consequently data protection is even more important in this sector. Yet at the same time, the drive to reduce the excessive form filling that is dominating much of a police officer’s time means that there is a move towards the digitalisation of data.

In his 2007 report, Sir Ronnie Flanagan described a culture of ‘over reporting and under delivering’ resulting from a fear of criticism and from missing steps in processes that may later be referred to in court. Studies have shown that even in cases of simple assault, the case file is handled on average by 56 people before it even gets to court and contains a staggering 128 pieces of paper. Furthermore, a report by the Home Office in April 2007 found that police officers in the Thames Valley spend more than a third of their time involved in paperwork and training. Not only does the sheer volume of form filling required result in wasted time, but manual processes such as photocopying and checking documents eats further into time that should be spent ‘on the beat’. Moreover, this system is highly vulnerable to human error, in terms of officers filling in the form incorrectly and also losing documents.

There has been much debate about the impact that excessive form filling is having on how much time officers can spend actually on the beat and it is widely agreed that measures must be taken to ensure that officers are freed up to devote more time to neighborhood policing where the impact of their work will be felt.

Yet the importance of reporting cannot be underestimated. It is an essential part of the judicial system and necessary to protect both the police and the public from miscarriages of justice – processes must be documented properly to secure convictions. However, this does not have to be arduous or time consuming – the challenge is to accurately document activity, whilst ensuring that the police do not become bogged down with administrative tasks.

There are many simple technologies available that could significantly boost productivity and help put officers back on the beat. By making better use of the collaboration and document management technologies already in use in the private sector, the service could go a long way in meeting the challenge faced. Greater understanding and use of programmes such as Adobe Acrobat could significantly reduce the administrative burden by helping the police to manage and share documents in an efficient manner.

For example, if a case file is collated into a single PDF file it becomes searchable and indexed, enabling officers to locate specific references within thousands of pages of evidence in seconds. This would result in massive time savings as officers would no longer have to spend hours searching through huge case files to ratify a certain piece of information. In addition, by taking advantage of the new generation of intelligent forms and bringing paper documents online, the police can replace the need for error-prone, labour-intensive, paper-based processes. By eliminating the need to complete duplicate forms and streamlining interactivity between the force and other agencies within the judicial system, intelligent forms can massively reduce the administrative process. Moreover, the ability to fill in dynamic forms on PDAs means that officers can complete ‘paperwork’ without having to return to the station.

Nonetheless, as the police embrace the digital age it is imperative they ensure that the data they hold is secure. All police

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