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How quickly the world can change. Within a matter of weeks, the narrative within our police forces shifted from one of optimism as they looked forward to the biggest funding boost for a decade, to suddenly being tasked with enforcing a nationwide lockdown.
While forces grapple with how best to enforce the lockdown without the benefit of adequate training or indeed any time to digest it, they, like everyone else, are also challenged with finding ways to minimise their own exposure.
Many forces are leaning on technology as part of this solution, either by quickly deploying something new, or finding creative new ways to use the technology they already have. So, what are officers doing to stay operational during the COVID-19 pandemic?
1. Keeping officers informed via digital means
One of the biggest challenges for officers right now is the speed at which the environment is changing. The shutdown measures were announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday 23rd March, with the corresponding “Public Health Regulations 2020” bill being passed and needing enforcement by the following Monday, 26th March.
Such rapidity of new legislation would be difficult for forces to digest and implement in normal circumstances, but during a nationwide lockdown where officers are unable to even access classrooms, is simply unprecedented.
Aside from the speed at which the legislation was introduced, guidance based on this legislation is also changing daily. Officers need ways to stay up-to-date with the latest government policy and advice. Sharing data with officers quickly and efficiently has never been more important.
It is here that the National Enabling Programme (NEP) must be credited for its swift work in delivering its “Civil Emergencies Toolkit” to officers. For those unfamiliar with the programme, the NEP was created in 2017 to enable better ways for the 43 police forces in England and Wales to work and collaborate via a common, secure cloud platform.
Powered largely by Microsoft Office 365 and the Azure cloud, it is a form of digital transformation designed to support the goals of Policing Vision 2025.
In light of the pandemic, the NEP quickly launched the Civil Emergencies Toolkit, which consists of two components; the Microsoft Teams collaboration application and a new Crisis Communications Power App.
Together, these two components have provided officers with a quick way to enable remote working on multiple devices, including the ability to host online meetings, hold video calls, transcribe content, send instant messages, share documents and more.
In addition to the work done by the NEP, apps such as Pocket Sergeant can provide officers with updates on COVID-19 guidance to officers quickly and efficiently.
2. Helping officers to work remotely and minimise trips to the station
The advice to the public is simple; if you can do your work from home, then you must. Frontline officers, however, don’t necessarily have this luxury. By the very nature of their job, frontline officers cannot work from home. They need to be out in the community they serve.
This is where PPE and sensible distancing, where possible, is their best defence. But what do they do when they need to process an individual or access a database which is only accessible from the station?
Much like businesses up and down the country, forces are having to find a way to enable their entire workforce to work from home. Not easy to do at the best of times. However, this sudden need has accelerated many digital transformation and business change plans.
So, while this won’t have been the way they would have planned it, for many forces, the situation has proven how rapidly their processes can be digitised when everyone is pulling in the same direction.
3. Changing procedures at a rapid pace
The speed at which new processes are having to be delivered in both the private and public sectors due to COVID-19 is staggering. Banks are rapidly deploying systems to administer the new Small Business Interruption Loan scheme, councils have built new online systems to support local businesses seeking access to grants or other forms of support within days, meanwhile HR functions are scratching their heads trying to figure out how to process payroll for furloughed workers.
Officers responding to new guidelines and procedures need their IT systems to react just as quickly. Stopping and processing someone for breaching the “Stay at Home” policies is a new process that officers were notified of with only a moment’s notice, but traditional police systems are simply not set up for deploying new processes so quickly, as they are often bespoke to each force and/or require specialist developers to make changes.
Turning the new laws into simple digital processes that can be mobilised quickly into simple-to-follow workflows on their smartphone can reduce the likelihood of mistakes being made, particularly when officers are currently unable to receive formal training of these new laws. Modern, digital platforms can allow forces to build and amend their workflows within a few hours via a simple interface.
It is important for any apps that they use to enforce the “Stay at Home” policy be as intuitive as possible as officers will not receive much if any formal training. Processes in the app will need to be deployed rapidly and adapted/amended as and when guidance is updated.
4. Speeding up ID verification
Officers often need to verify the ID of an individual to know who they are dealing with and to ensure data quality is being maintained. Whilst in the UK an individual is not required to carry ID papers there are other ways of establishing someone’s identity, such as with a driving licence, passport, fingerprint or facial recognition. Any one of these could be used to save a trip to the station.
When an individual has ID with them, it is still a slow and cumbersome process to input their details into the officer’s mobile device, and is prone to high levels of error. In the midst of a pandemic when every officers’ time is so critical, and they need to limit their time with potentially unwell individuals, anything that can speed up this process is important.
This is where the addition of Optical Character Recognition (OCR) functionality on mobile policing devices comes into its own, allowing officers to scan and import data from common state-issued documents like passports or driving licences within a few seconds.
Aided by AI algorithms which can quickly recognise and distinguish different data types (e.g. forename, surname, DOB, passport number etc.) in order to import data straight into the relevant fields, OCR saves officers an additional few minutes every time (not to mention the significant reduction in errors).
5. Dealing with post-lockdown
A clear strategy for post-lockdown is still to emerge, but some kind of technological element is likely if people are to return to some kind of normality without triggering a second wave of the virus. Part of this solution may involve verifying whether individuals are able to move more freely because they are recovered and virus free, or are deemed vulnerable and should remain in isolation or lockdown.
There is a delicate balance to be struck between data privacy and the health and wellbeing of individuals. While the science is still evolving, whatever that balance is, mobile technology may help to ensure that officers can act safely, proportionately and correctly.
6. More intelligent allocation of police resources
The use of a mobile digital technology that can collect data from frontline officers is a great way to improve the deployment of officers, since data can be rolled up into a dashboard for decision makers to benefit from a near real-time picture of what is happening on the ground.
What’s more, this data can be further analysed later to optimise procedures and potentially offer other insights which could help in the fight against coronavirus (in much the same way as Google is now sharing data on people’s travel habits to help policymakers and public health officials inform their response to the outbreak).
Police applications with real-time access to the GPS location of officers can also assign jobs automatically to those nearest to them, reducing needless travel and allowing them to attend more jobs in a given shift. Such software could also be configured to chain together the most efficient route to a series of jobs, in much the same way that apps like Uber automatically assign jobs to their drivers based on their current job and location.
7. Monitor and support officer health and wellbeing
Policing the current pandemic may be the biggest challenge that many officers have ever faced. The potentially negative effects on their personal health and wellbeing must not be overlooked during this crisis. Officers are doing a very demanding job, so anything that can alleviate potential stress levels will be helpful.
Thankfully, officer wellbeing has been a police priority for a few years now, with the national police wellbeing initiative “Oscar Kilo” launching back in 2017. Many forces now also have access to the “Backup Buddy” smartphone app which can provide more direct advice and support to officers who need it.
Mobile technology too could also play a proactive role in monitoring and improving an officer’s health and wellbeing in the future; from monitoring their physical health to automatically suggesting specific support after a traumatic job.
While our brave NHS doctors, nurses and carers are undoubtedly the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic, our officers are standing firmly beside them, keeping the peace and offering all the support they can in these strained times.
Technology companies too, by utilising some of the work that has already been done by the likes of the National Enabling Programme, can help to provide the systems that are needed at a record pace. But we need to work quickly as we do not have years to figure this out.
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