How mobile policing technologies enhance law enforcement
An insight into mobility in UK policing and what the future of mobile police technology looks like
In just the first two decades of the new millennium, UK policing has changed enormously. The landscape of crime has evolved – partly due to the development of technology and its use by criminals – as has society, and the relationships between police and members of the public. Meanwhile, real-term government spending has been reduced just at the point when society and crime have become more complex, leaving the police having to do much more, but with less.1
So, it is hardly surprising that the police – who have, after all, been early adopters of tech for some time – have (in the form of the National Police Chiefs’ Council) recently appointed their first Chief Scientific Adviser in a bid to find digital solutions for many of these challenges2. The movement towards digital policing is also formalised in documents that include the College of Policing’s Future Operating Environment 20403.
However, in the UK the concept of policing by consent is a crucial aspect of the relationship between the police and public. This affects the introduction of some digital innovations into British policing, because generally such technologies must be accepted by the public, which requires a very strong use case that may be tested in court (as was recently the case for facial recognition technology)4.
Nonetheless, technologies from the civilian world have made their way into policing, and are increasingly adapted to become effective law enforcement technology. In particular, mobile digital policing is becoming very common. This may be partly because mobile technologies are increasingly used by the general population and are therefore recognised and trusted, and also because the use of mobile devices – be they police communication technology such as smartphones, specialist law enforcement technology including body cams and fingerprint readers or asset-tracing and verifying technologies like RFID tags and barcodes – above all keep police officers out of the office and on the beat, where their visibility and presence deter criminals and reassure citizens.
Why mobile policing technologies?
Since 2007, Loughborough University and Leicestershire Police have collaborated on the design and development of a mobile policing unit that has now been adopted by police forces worldwide5. Several years in, we now have robust data6 that shows the implementation of that mobile policing programme by Leicestershire Police has led to:
- A 44% increase in visibility and accessibility of police on the streets
- less duplication in crime recording
- a reduction in vehicle travel and officer return journeys to police stations
- improved real-time access to criminal intelligence
- financial savings above £5m
- better operational use of officer resources
In other words, mobile policing has allowed Leicestershire Police to do more with less; to become more efficient while remaining visible and accessible. Elsewhere, other forces and police authorities are developing and deploying various mobile digital policing technologies to save money, get more from smaller forces and improve outcomes. For example:
- London’s Metropolitan Police force has developed its own mobile fingerprint unit, which it claims will save time and money7. Notably, the Home Office has now issued hand-held fingerprinting devices to most police forces across England and Wales
- West Mercia Police has invested in a range of mobile police technology with the express intention of keeping their officers on the beat and accessible8
- Developers of policing technologies are constantly upgrading their products with the needs of police forces in mind, for example by giving officers enhanced security that allows them to safely access a wide range of digital capabilities and assets via their mobile devices9
- Some UK police forces are building their own mobile apps, to respond to specific policing needs, such as the Covid-19 pandemic10
Mobile technologies let the police respond very quickly to changing needs and reassure the public. For example, in October 2021 the Met Police Commissioner announced that in the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard, all plain clothes officers in London will now verify their identities by video-calling a uniformed colleague whenever they approach lone women11. Data from mobile devices such in-car cameras can also provide (through both footage and digital metadata) very robust, traceable evidence that can improve conviction rates and help to reduce crime.
What is the future for mobile police technology?
Mobile technologies are now well embedded in UK policing. There is sufficient (and growing) experience and data to prove their value, so they are here to stay.
Mobile policing may, in due course, be augmented with technologies like AI, machine learning (perhaps to model crime patterns, predict outcomes and determine bail decisions) and facial recognition. These have the potential to transform law enforcement, but have yet to undergo sufficient process to be widely accepted. Even so, we have seen that current mobile policing tech is under constant development, and so the future for mobile policing is clearly very bright.