The Best Thing We Learned at the Police Technology Forum

By Tom Batterbury

Last week at the Police Technology Forum in Canberra, one of the presentations I enjoyed was by Assistant Commissioner Jack Blayney APM from Victoria Police. He shared the ICT transformation Victoria Police are undertaking: “delivering next generation mobile technology in Victoria Police.” His insights into the years of under-investment in policing technology were candid, and set the scene for how Victoria Police are now approaching a strategic technology overhaul with buy-in from the government to step-change their service to the community.

How politicking impacts police effectiveness

When politicians try win votes in an election year, a populist promise is to fund more police officers for the community.

While having officers on the ground is important, so too is the technology that enables them to do their jobs effectively to keep the community safe.

Over-investment in people and under-investment in technology is inefficient. Over-investment in technology and under-investment in people is ineffective.

It’s about getting the right mix of people and technology. When the right balance is struck, technology becomes a force multiplier for a more productive workforce.

Austere police budgets lead to under-investment in ICT. Yet policial optics make it unappealing  to take officers off the frontline. Just imagine if it was announced that your local police station was closing and there would be 10% fewer police officers across the city… on the face of it, you may be quite concerned. However, if the outcome of this is more efficient and effective policing, reduced community harm and safer communities due to the allocation of capital to technology, this is an outcome we would all want.

Instead of changing police numbers or rationalising police stations, police management must cut discretionary spending. This is what leads to years of under-investment in ICT and the ‘back-office’.

If this happens over consecutive election cycles, you can end up with a police force burdened by legacy technology and unable to meet the evolving needs of the community. This was very much the case for Victoria Police with years of under investment in ICT, despite being over 18,000 people strong.

A vision for policing in the future

This under-investment led to Victoria Police publishing A vision for Victoria Police in 2025. This blue paper would help guide the development of a new strategic plan, highlighting the necessity for organisational transformation to meet the evolving needs of the community, with technology (including mobility) at its core.

The blue paper led to the development of a series of business cases to government for significant funding, highlighting the realities of operating in an increasingly more complex environment and the need for police to have the right information in the right context, at the right time, to make the right decisions to deliver the best service to the community.

In 2017, $227M in funding was announced by the Victorian government to establish Blue Connect for “connecting police and the community through technology”. For the first time ever, the Victorian government developed its law and order plan with Victoria Police.

The 'A-ha' moment for government

The penny dropped when ministers experienced first-hand the paper-based processes burdening Victoria Police. Politicians saw officers taking notes at crime scenes, typing them up back at the station, and faxing them to a central data centre where they were typed up into the case management system. Officers on the frontline felt they were less equipped than other police forces to keep the community safe. It was a compelling event for change.

“There will be no more tinkering around the edges. This is the comprehensive strategy and historic change we need. Together, we’ll end the harm and make our state safer.” - Victoria Community Safety Statement 2017

Striving for an information advantage

Getting funding is great, but plenty of challenges exist for delivering such a transformational programme of work. The opportunity for Victoria Police is for more effective and efficient service delivery using information to be intelligence-led and prevention-focused. The outcome is increased community and police safety.

As information is the ‘life blood’ of policing and central to their core mission, Victoria Police believe they will achieve an information advantage through investment in big data, analytics (including biometrics, machine learning, and AI), and mobility. Integration of systems will be critical in the long-run.

But there are at least three key challenges that will need to be overcome:

  1. Integration and convergence of systems will be a long journey. At the time of developing the blue paper, Victoria Police’s information systems comprised more than 100 processes and 10 critical systems. Many manual and time-intensive tasks were being run behind the scenes. Crimes were not being prevented and solved because the right information wasn’t always accessible.

  2. Managing data levels of a different magnitude. Victoria Police are looking to pilot body-worn cameras in the near future, with a view to rollout to nearly 11,000 officers within 12 months. If this eventuates, Victoria Police will be capturing more data every 30 days than all the data from 165 years of policing. There will be a significant challenge in managing this much data and extracting value from the amount of video that will be collected.

  3. Getting integrated information to fingertips.Victoria Police are aiming to equip frontline officers with over 11,000 mobility devices and possibly body worn cameras to frontline over next 18 months to create an ‘Integrated Officer’. In addition, License Plate Recognition systems will be deployed in all highway patrol vehicles as part of ‘Integrated Vehicles’.

    These integrations will be key to getting the most out of the technology and making it available to officers when and where they need it. Part of the solution to this is NEO, the intelligence system Victoria Police have been investing in. It acts as modern interface to search data from underlying systems.

This all sounds promising and is definitely a step in the right direction, with potential to deliver significant benefits to the Victorian community. Like many areas of government, policing can benefit greatly from harnessing new technological advances.

Law enforcement is an area that has seen many breakthroughs in the past (e.g. forensics!) and will continue to evolve with technological advances. We’ll be fascinated to see where things are in five years’ time. Hopefully we will see ongoing investment in technology going forward, rather than sporadic catch-ups.