Features, PublicNet: 6 October, 2017

Like many public services, UK police forces are determined to reduce their reliance on paper-based systems to record evidence and generate reports – and it’s not difficult to see why. But as the digital revolution continues to gather pace, Derek Way, managing director at Able Systems, explains why paper will always have a place in policing.

Digital technology promises to increase the accuracy and reliability of police evidence, helping to eliminate human error and ensure offenders are prosecuted for their crimes. Advocates of paperless policing say that it saves money, since officers are freed up from the burden of paperwork and can spend more time out in the community. Furthermore, data generated means that forces around the country are able to access, share and act on intelligence quickly and securely via cloud-based systems.

In comparison, the traditional police notebook certainly looks antiquated to many. Used at the crime or incident scene, these notebooks enable officers to take down key information about the offender, any witnesses and location. If called to give evidence in a court case, details in this notebook can be used to remind an officer of specific details captured when they are fresh. Naturally, this is governed by strict protocol, for example, all entries must be written legibly in black ink with the names of people and places in block capitals.

Notebooks and written reports from police interviews have been used as evidence in countless court hearings, including criminal trials and inquests. However, there are examples of cases being unable to proceed simply because of administrative mistakes. This is incredibly costly, but more worryingly it could pervert the course of justice by failing to secure a conviction or else preventing the defendant from clearing their name in an open court.

In 2015, an officer’s ‘poor record keeping’ led to the collapse of a case involving a motorist accused of driving while disqualified.[1] During an investigation by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, it was revealed that the officer had used a piece of paper during an interview because his notebook was full. He later transcribed the notes into the back of a new book, but the original paper had vanished in the meantime.

Digital systems undoubtedly have the power to limit scenarios like this. When an incident is captured via a mobile device, it can be transferred straight to the cloud and stored securely until needed. By holding it centrally, and making it available to those who need it, the onus is no longer on individual officers and local teams to preserve evidence, as it can be transferred directly to the Crown Prosecution Service in a matter of seconds.

Handheld smart devices can also play a pivotal role in helping officers gather accurate evidence. Instead of sketching a scene in a notebook, they can take photographs and record witness statements verbatim using an intuitive smartphone application.

Understandably, one of the chief concerns about digital policing is security. The cyber attack, which caused severe disruption across the NHS earlier this year, illustrates just how vulnerable IT systems can be. As with healthcare, the police hold sensitive information, so you could easily imagine forces being targeted with ransomware.

Of course, the consequences of this are potentially catastrophic. A total reliance on electronic storage means that, in the event of an attack, evidence may be lost and details of vulnerable witnesses compromised. Not only is remedying the problem extremely expensive, it is also likely to damage the public’s perception of policing and could make people reluctant to give evidence in future.

Despite this, it’s worth noting that cyber attacks are extremely rare and data systems are improving all the time. Most recently, Microsoft increased security of its Azure cloud platform, creating highly-protected areas for data to be stored.[2]

While nobody can predict what a cyber attack will look like, cloud-based software for the public sector now offers a level of security never before seen. Solutions such as UK Cloud, for instance, are compatible with the storage of ‘OFFICIAL’ and ‘OFFICIAL SENSITIVE’ information, as set out in the government’s guidelines, and all data is stored in the UK. Since cloud systems are easier to update across an entire network, there is less danger of users running old, unsupported versions that could be targeted in an attack.

Paperless offices are much talked-about in both the public and private sector, though it’s interesting that many still use paper for day-to-day tasks. Contracts that require signatures need to be printed out, even if they are subsequently scanned and the original piece of paper shredded. Laptops and tablets, along with applications like Evernote, might now be ubiquitous, but many people remain staunchly committed to pen and paper.

Certainly for the foreseeable future, paper systems will play a vital role in policing too, although technology is helping to make them as efficient as possible. Smartphones might be replacing police notebooks, however we must not lose sight of the security traditional methods offer. When police record details of an incident in their notebook, a suspect is asked to sign it to confirm they agree with it, or else they are given an opportunity to dispute it. This is more difficult with electronic systems and could even threaten some of the legal safeguards that ensure suspects are treated fairly.

When it comes to gathering physical evidence, whether it’s a weapon, fingerprints, clothing or hair, most items are placed in bags and labelled. This label has to remain legible for long periods of time, possibly even for decades, and therefore requires a robust method of printing if they are to withstand scrutiny in court even after storage in potentially hostile environments.

I firmly believe there is a need to combine digital technology with printing solutions and at Able Systems, we’ve developed a range of handheld mini printers that work with iOS, Android and Windows systems. This means that officers can gather evidence digitally, while still generating a printed record for the offender and their own records. It is the kind of ‘belt-and-braces’ approach that offers members of the public reassurance and saves administration time in the event of an electronic failure. Fixed penalty notices issued via email could easily be lost or disputed, unlike a paper receipt issued at the scene.

Earlier this year, we supplied 3,000 handheld Bluetooth printers to a major UK police force, allowing it to issue penalty notices for offences like littering and anti-social behaviour. Data protection was a top concern, so officers can now safely upload personal details to a central system but still issue a printed ticket to the offender. To enhance security further, our engineers worked with the force’s security teams to implement ‘undiscoverable’ modes and 8-digit access codes in line with National Police Agency (NPA) standards.

With more and more forces now using e-notebooks instead of a paper and pen, it’s clear that the march towards digital policing is getting quicker. For the most part, this will enhance operations, helping to provide more reliable evidence and improving the accuracy of statements made in court. But it’s important to remember that it should be seen as an integrated solution that involves electronic systems, backed up with streamlined paper records to ensure greater accountability, all the time safeguarding people against the consequences of a security breach.

For more information on Able Systems and its range of mini printers visit able-systems.com

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