Public being shut out of crucial debate on police use of technology, new report finds

New research from the Police Foundation shows that the police are failing to recognise the public’s concerns about how their personal data is used in the fight against crime.

The Police Foundation looked at national and local digital data policing projects. It found that while the police service is using new technology in ways that benefit public safety, the service has been too slow to consider the risks of ‘technology creep’.

With research from the Royal Society of Arts showing only 2%[1] of the public is in favour of machines being used to make decisions in the criminal justice system, the Police Foundation today makes three recommendations for police leaders:

–       Police forces should consult their residents and expert ethics commissions to consider the risks before new technologies are rolled out.

–       New regulations should be introduced to control the use of computer algorithm tools to avoid bias creeping into machine-based decisions.

–       The College of Policing and HMICFRS should lead and monitor police compliance around any new regulations.

The Police Foundation’s report includes 23 case studies showing how the police are using new technologies to prevent and investigate crime and improve public confidence. For example Avon and Somerset Constabulary is using software that brings together data into apps to keep frontline officers informed about suspects or victims when working in particular neighbourhoods.

In an example outside the UK, the Dutch police are using a digital platform to engage 1.6 million members of the public in intelligence sharing, which is helping them to directly investigate crimes and arrest suspects.

However, the police service has been too slow in recognising the risks of using these technologies. While existing privacy laws require the police to obtain legal authorisation to enter a person’s home, accessing sensitive digital data is not governed in the same way. Additionally, algorithms used to guide police decision making risk over policing certain communities if biased data is used.

The report’s author Dr Ian Kearns said ‘One of the most striking features of the debate on data-driven policing in the UK is the absence of any formal mechanisms for including the public’s voice. This is a critical gap which, if not filled, could undermine public confidence in this way of working’.

The Police Foundation’s Director Dr Rick Muir said ‘In a digital age we need the police relationship with the public to be far more dynamic, and to find proactive ways for citizens to help the police. A tech-enabled sense of shared responsibility for combating crime would be a step in the right direction’.

  1. Balaram B., Greenham T. and Leonard J. (2018) Artificial Intelligence: Real Public Engagement, London: Royal Society of Arts.

Notes for editors:

The Police Foundation’s report Data-driven policing and public value, was funded by Accenture, BT and the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Bath is published today.

The report looks at how the police can meet the challenges of reduced budgets and changing crime through the use of data-driven technologies. The report also focuses on how data-driven policing can contribute to public value.

Data-driven policing can be described as the gathering, analysis and use of data from a wide variety of digitised sources, for example CCTV, social media, mobile phones and internet-enabled technology, to inform police decision making, improve policing processes and increase useful intelligence.

The report considers how using data-driven policing can contribute to nine dimensions of public value:

–       Reduce crime

–       Improve crime detection

–       Reduce public fear

–       Reduce public vulnerability

–       Ensure civility in public spaces

–       The fair and just use of police authority and force

–       Improve the public ‘s trust and confidence in the criminal justice system

–       Deliver a quality service to citizens

–       Use public  funds efficiently

The research studied examples of data-driven policing in the UK (Avon and Somerset Constabulary, West Midlands Police, Metropolitan Police, Durham Constabulary, Staffordshire Police and Hampshire Constabulary) through a literature reviews and background conversations with local police forces and senior officers.

The research also looked at how the police are using this technology outside the UK (for example in the Netherlands, North and South America).