America does better, says Martin Innes at Universities' Police Science Institute, Cardiff University, probably because it has to: the country has many small police forces that have needed to learn to share information.
British bobbies are looking rather blue these days. Their budget may be cut by as much as 25-40%. Crime has fallen, but officers’ workload has not. According to the Metropolitan Police some four-fifths of calls that they take are not to do with crime but require close attention even so. And those offences that have increased in frequency, such as domestic violence, need particularly careful handling. But whereas forces around the world make better use of technology, Britain’s lag behind.
One problem is that police computers are so out of date. Each year the police waste £221m ($342m) because they cannot access systems and records once they step outside the station, according to a study by the Centre for Economic and Business Research, a think-tank. A review of London’s Metropolitan Police described a mishmash of 750 computer systems, “wired together over the last 40 years”. One core operating process, it found, was based on “a 1970s baggage handling system”. Police could get better deals on new technology as well. In September Theresa May, the home secretary, said that savings from better procurement methods might be worth as much as £75m a year.
There is an even bigger hitch, says Tim Newburn of the London School of Economics: that the 43 forces of England and Wales are bad at sharing data with each other. It has been 12 years since an inquiry into the murder of two schoolgirls recommended that the forces improve their co-operation, but since then most have barely begun to do so.
Between 2007 and 2009 Surrey police found that they could not get hold of Metropolitan Police intelligence, which damaged an investigation into sexual abuse by Jimmy Savile, a television personality. Reports in February suggested that Welsh police had failed to catch a triple-murderer because his criminal record was held by another force. America does better, says Martin Innes at Cardiff University, probably because it has to: the country has many small police forces that have needed to learn to share information.
Britain has also been slow to take up new software that crunches crime data in order to predict where offences might happen. These are designed to save police time and money, as patrols can be targeted more precisely. Some are fairly old: one piece of software that narrows down suspects by spotting patterns in criminal activity was first developed in 1997. LexisNexis, the company that owns it, says areas where it has been tried out have seen a 46% reduction in crime. Nearly 500 police districts in America are now using it.
Even when Britain’s police forces use these tools, they do not use them well. In 2013 Kent started using crime-prediction software from an American company called Predpol. The company’s website boasts that between 2013 and 2014 crime went down by around 10% in two precincts in Atlanta which were using Predpol technology, but went up or stayed flat in four precincts that were not. Yet in 2013-14 crime in Kent went up by 11%. The trouble, according to the chief constable, was that the police were not going where Predpol told them to. Lawrence Sherman, at Cambridge University, says that police forces could be using GPS to check that officers are going to the right areas. Trinidad and Tobago has successfully tried this.
There are some signs of change. South Yorkshire and Humberside police, along with Cambridgeshire Constabulary, are making their technology more mobile. Each force now expects that this will save its officers around a quarter of a million hours a year. The College of Policing recently trained 5,000 officers in retrieving intelligence from digital sources. Better late than never.