The new face of policing

6 mins read

New technologies are creating new pressures for modern-day police forces and, according to research published by Deloitte’s in its ‘Tech Trends’ report, criminals are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their use of technology.

Some notable examples have been the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to replicate a target’s voice, coupled with synthesized video of them speaking. Combined these were then used to impersonate a senior executive’s voice, costing a UK-based energy company hundreds of thousands of pounds.

AI is also being deployed to hack consumer devices by using in-built sensors to snoop inside an individual’s home, while speech recognition technology can exploit ‘fragments’ of conversations to glean details about personal lives, such as banking or medical details.

New domains of internet activity (darknets) and crypto currencies are also creating new crime challenges for the police, at a time when resources are stretched and budgets under pressure.

The Deloitte report warned that, “the accelerating pace of technological and social change places a new emphasis on the speed of reaction.”

As a consequence the criminal justice system is itself embracing new forms of technology to react to new types of criminality, but also to be more proactive when it comes to traditional forms of crime.

To date, there have certainly been significant improvements in terms of both data capture and storage, with European research suggesting that at an average domestic crime scene at least eight connected devices, holding vast volumes of information, will be seized for examination.

Information that’s gleaned from tracking and sensing technologies is also being used and now forms a critical starting point for most investigations.

Yet, according to experts from the criminal justice system, while this information can significantly increase the chances of securing a conviction there are real difficulties when it comes to handling, and then analysing, huge volumes of data as cases progress.

When it comes to surveillance and tracking, while they offer significant crime prevention and efficiency benefits, they also raise questions around civil liberties and the legitimacy of the justice system.

And, on top of all this and adding even greater texture to the mix, Covid-19 has had a massive impact on the criminal justice system itself. Despite a rapid shift to remote court hearings and probation meetings, court backlogs have increased dramatically and while the courts have started to embrace technology, many justice professionals still need to adjust to new ways of operating.

Engaging with technology

Whether it’s drones, body-worn cameras or AI and facial recognition software police forces are turning to technology to enhance or improve their capabilities.

One area of interest is an old technique, biometrics, which police have been using since fingerprint technology was developed in the mid nineteenth century to identify people. Today, along with facial recognition and DNA, there are an array of new biometric (and behavioural) characteristics such as voice recognition, palmprints, wrist veins, iris recognition and gait analysis that are available to the police.

Biometric solutions are able to simplify and accelerate the identification and processing of suspects. Most people in the UK don’t tend to carry accurate identity documents, so many find themselves being processed in a station – that’s not an efficient use of police time and is a financial and operational cost.

New biometric readers have been developed in response that use thin film technology. These much smaller devices mean that officers are able to use them in the field. Capturing prints is now easier, with the user being helped through the process, and automatic quality checks on the prints make for more accurate results.

When combined with mobile technology it is now possible to create a portable connected device which can be used anywhere and, by bringing together software and hardware with the operating systems of mobile phones, police forces and their technology partners, are now developing their own apps to match their database checking processes.

These mobile readers are making it far easier to identify suspects but they also remove the need to ‘drag’ people into a station.

A European police force using these mobile biometric devices saw a six-fold increase in the number of individuals identified, with the number of persons of interest detained increasing significantly. Not only that, it was able to save $600,000 in the first year of this reader’s use.

Interestingly, the deployment of this technology saw officers noting that trust and respect between them and the communities they engaged with actually improved. People seemed comfortable with this quick and easy way to prove their identity.

In many cases, on seeing the mobile biometric device people proactively admitted to their real identity. They didn’t protest their innocence or employ a false identity.

Their acceptance of the technology was based on trust and it’s that issue of trust that is at the heart of effective policing.

It’s also viewed as essential when it comes to the deployment of technology, especially when it comes to something like facial recognition software which has raised a number of serious issues.

By using algorithms to scan an image of a suspect loaded onto a video surveillance network it should be possible to scan streets and recognise a suspect. That’s the theory, but too often the technology has mistakenly identified the wrong person.

So while advanced forms of facial recognition do offer the potential to track wanted criminals, the risk of making mistakes is high and there are worries over how the technology is being deployed.

With so much valuable data being generated, collected and analysed the police are turning to AI to support technologies like facial recognition and biometrics.

AI is also being used for crime mapping or to simply crunch data to better pinpoint high-crime areas, which means that the police can deploy additional resources more effectively.

One area of particular interest is ‘predictive policing’, which uses deep learning algorithms to analyse data from a vast array of sources and categories to predict when and where crimes are likely to occur, and in some cases to actually predict the identities of those about to carry out the crime.

While this technology, in theory, enables officers to be in the right place at the right time it does raise questions about accountability and how the technology is deployed.

Proponents of predictive policing argue that its provides a cost effective solution and can avoid the bias that is often associated with human-generated crime analysis – but critics warn that it can easily replicate those biased patterns of policing and end up simply targeting minority groups of marginalised communities.

Surveillance is critical

Visual and audio surveillance of potential crime scenes are critical and according to VNC Automotive, a transport and connectivity software specialist, vehicle and mobile phone platform technologies are converging in the form of new systems.

“We’re already seeing a focus on app-based solutions, but there is now a shift towards exploring technology including remote control functionality, the relaying of remote surveillance footage to a car’s dashboard and even augmented reality,” explained Philip Handschin, Technical Consultant at VNC Automotive. “However, all this functionality needs to remain intuitive and easily integrated with the large format touch screens that are becoming commonplace in today’s vehicles.”

While VNC Automotive has long experience in programming entertainment, navigation and comfort control systems, that knowledge is now being deployed to the benefit of law enforcement agencies.

According to Handschin, “We can tap into the systems that OEMs build into cars, utilising large format touch screens and the existing hardware for communication and connectivity, but we can also add new functionality that empowers police and first responders to allow them to work more effectively and make better-informed decisions.”

Information is critical and needs to be assimilated quickly and technologies like ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition) are increasingly being deployed.

The roll-out of smart platforms and apps with the connectivity services that are being built into cars as standard, will allow an officer’s phone to sync with a vehicle but now VNC Automotive’s IVI connectivity software makes it possible to automatically lock a vehicle or activate remote functions like sirens, cameras and PA systems.

Enhanced dashcam capabilities are seen as being particularly useful for surveillance and information gathering, as well as for gathering evidence or for accountability purposes. In the future it’s likely that we will see this technology integrated with wearable tech, covering the likes of biometrics, personal security and incident management.

Wearable technology

Police officers have to operate in very challenging situations and a number of high-profile incidents, particularly last year, drew intense public and media scrutiny on the actions of individual officers.

Police services are issuing body-worn cameras that not only provide street-level views of police at work but which also enhance the ability to monitor the activities of police officers themselves, especially in difficult or contested situations.

Cameras are now less cumbersome and more durable and many are being designed to better integrate with in-car systems to provide synchronized recordings of an event from multiple points of view.

Higher resolution, clearer audio and wider fields of vision and heightened resistance to environmental conditions are all extending the capabilities of wearable technology.

In the US smart holsters have been designed to activate a body camera whenever an officer draws a firearm, while other cameras are able to issue an alert when an officer s injured. Body-worn police cameras equipped with facial recognition capabilities are now also in development.

The use of wearable cameras and other technology means that role of the police vehicle is itself changing and they are now becoming ‘intelligence gathering hubs’ in which first-hand data is passed back to a central command centre allowing the coordination of teams and other services.

In future, it will also be possible to transmit video and other live data to provide even more granular levels of surveillance and the emergence of drones and advanced robotics is now making it possible to obtain video and data from units capable of operating in extreme or dangerous environments.

Drones, or UAVs, can provide enhanced aerial vantage points for crime scene work, search and rescue efforts, accident reconstruction, and crowd monitoring. More sophisticated models are now using thermal imaging or 3D mapping software to offer GPS-enhanced precision to the areas being monitored.

UAVs can also be equipped with zoom cameras, making them valuable for delivering actionable, real-time intelligence when it comes to assessing and handling high-risk situations.

The police are certainly faced with a technological revolution that includes the likes of augmented reality, mobile surveillance and remote device control – the range and scope of developments is astonishing.

In the US, Ford, is currently developing self-driving police cars that will be equipped with AI and the ability to transmit information to officers, while in China, robots have been developed to patrol banks, airports and schools. In Dubai a touchscreen-equipped robot officer is on duty in tourist ‘hotspots’.

While all these advances in police technology should be welcomed, they do raise serious issues around civil liberties and while there are efforts to draw up new policies and procedures it’s crucial that public confidence is maintained and that the individual’s rights are upheld.