Tom Gash on the future of British law enforcement

Nov 30, 2017
The way we think about crime and policing is dogged by myth and misconception, according to academic, former government adviser on crime and author, Tom Gash.

The way we think about crime and policing is dogged by myth and misconception, according to academic, former government adviser on crime and author, Tom Gash.

It prompted him to author his recent book Criminal: The Truth About Why People Do Bad Things. The book takes aim at the UK’s approach to crime generally, but it also zooms in on policing.

Crime, he says, is steeped in myths and misconceptions – and some of our most typical responses to crime, including more ‘bobbies on the beat’ and tougher punishments, are much less effective than other methods. We spoke to Gash about how we can help police work smarter and better.

Clue: Hi Tom, thank you for speaking to us. Firstly, what is it about the study of crime, policing and justice that appeals to you?

Tom Gash: The problem of reducing crime is incredibly engaging, partly because it’s important, and secondly, because it’s actually really hard. You’re constantly trying to work out how to deal with this really complex, deeply entrenched problem. I’ve always been someone who likes solving problems, and it doesn’t get much more complex than the issue of crime and crime prevention. It’s certainly a space where research and evidence could be better used, and a space where an analytical and rigorous approach needs to be applied. A lot of people define policing very narrowly i.e. dealing with crime after it happens. The public, the press, many police officers too will often focus on arrests, and measure success in terms of how many criminals have been caught, not how much crime is present in their communities. But I want people to think about reducing crime in a broader way – and focus on preventing crime in the first place. Of course, working with the police, you quickly realise that policing it isn’t just about reducing crime. It’s obviously one of the main goals, but police forces deals with a very wide range of problems, including when people have fallen through the net that’s meant to be provided by other public services – mental health, or dealing with rough sleepers, for example. Policing is an essential safety net for our communities. I tend to look not just at police, but across the whole criminal justice system, and the whole set of interconnections between justice organisations and the wider public sector and communities. You have all these different organisations, and different cultures who ostensibly have the same aims, but often aren’t well coordinated, and the people involved conceive their jobs very differently.

Clue: Do you think the simplification of the role of police stymies progress, particularly when it comes to allocating budget towards more forward thinking measures?

TG: I think so. ‘Bobbies on the beat’, as a mantra, has been something that’s left areas of policing less supported than they might be, in terms of technology and other tools for doing the job well. More police on the streets is a noble aim, but what we really need is a police force that spends their time on the street efficiently. That’s easier to do when you’ve got mobile technology and systems that work. We also don’t always need warranted officers to carry out police roles – and focusing too much on cops on the street can neglect the reality that sometimes what you need to deal with, say, fraud or cyber crime, is specialist professionals who often come from different backgrounds, will have different career paths and can bring higher level skills. People talk about under investment in technology, but I don’t think that’s strictly true. The problem has been a lack of smart investment. There are lots of reasons for that. One is that for too long the police have thought of technology as being about back office services they can hand over to large suppliers. This means solutions haven’t always been properly informed by operational knowledge and police personnel haven’t always bought into solutions. There also hasn’t been a true strategic grip. Some forces simply don’t understand enough about their systems and software, and they don’t have enough knowledge about the value these systems do and could create, nor how much they should cost. And there hasn’t been enough focus on making systems more interoperable, either within forces or across forces – let alone with the wider public sector. Ideally, police forces should be moving towards a system with common standards, some common platforms, and consistent programming interfaces. Then you allow lots of different specialist software to be developed and used on those platforms, but using the same terms and languages and translations between different systems. If they can get that ecosystem setup, I think a lot of the smaller providers can come in and offer a lot of useful services. I hear conflicting accounts of whether current plans will achieve this.

Clue: What are your thoughts on digital policing and how technology can be used to reduce crime? Where are the opportunities, and what are the challenges of getting it right?

TG: Police need to use data and information more effectively than they currently are. Due to GPS tracking, we’re able to track where police are and, crucially, the patterns of crime in areas, at a much more micro level than we’ve ever been able to do before. This means we can ensure police are where they are most needed – and several forces have made progress in this space. Beyond that, we should be thinking about things like crime scene analysis and how you organise your data throughout the investigative process, so that it can be interrogated and cross-referenced much more easily. So, you can find links between cases, that you never even thought might be connected.

“‘Bobbies on the beat’, as a mantra, has been something that’s left areas of policing less supported than they might be, in terms of technology and other tools for doing the job well.”

Say, for example, the car number plate that you’ve got incidentally on this case, that’s caught on some CCTV footage. If that can be is automatically processed and matched with other cases it could be incredibly useful. So, you’re using technology and cross-referencing much more powerfully than you ever could manually. This will require much more automation so it’s no more extra work for the officer. You have to investigate and trial all these new technologies to see which are worth the investment.

Clue: Do you think the police are set up for this kind of digital transformation? Or does it require a fundamental change in thinking in how they approach technology?

TG: My personal view is that they should pass a lot of this work to academics, and encourage research councils to put the funding towards this type of technological research, and using data and technology sources they already have. Get academics churning through the data that’s already being created, and finding new sources of insight and intelligence from the work that’s available. We shouldn’t be that far away from that reality. There’s so much information that already exists, but isn’t being processed to find connections between the factors that might be contributing to crime in an area. If you can get all the data there currently is, or at least large chunks of it, preferably anonymised, into the hands of people who have received some research funding I guarantee you’d find interesting problems, and interesting solutions.

Clue: So, there has be a more collaborative approach between academia, police, government, technology partners, third parties?

TG: Yes, absolutely. We just need a very simple agreement between the police and some academic institutions, that they will share this data, that the data can be used for specific research purposes, and set  the conditions on which the data is used, in terms of security etcetera. A slightly different set of data should also be shared much more broadly with approved businesses, and a more basic data set (free of confidentiality or security issues) should go to everyone. Then, you can start getting more people looking at problems of crime and a huge range of things that could be done to better understand policing effectiveness. Even on very mundane stuff like HR decisions in policing and workforce management.

Clue: Use of public and personal data is a political hot potato, how do you go about changing the public’s perception of governments and police collecting and analysing this information?

TG: One of the things I tend to find is that the public is much more open to the police using data if it’s for their security. It’s not that hard a political argument to win, you just have to demonstrate that it’s worthwhile. I do think there’s a conversation to be had, but in many cases you don’t even need any personal data, and you can certainly have anonymised data. I think sometimes the concerns are overblown, but I suspect it’s a case by case thing, where you need to understand some types of data are sensitive, and some aren’t.

Clue: Interoperability, smart data analysis, a focus on technology: It seems that we all know the right answers. But with so many stakeholders, whose job it it to get this ball rolling?

TG: At the moment, it’s quite difficult. What happens is third parties like yourselves have to do all these bilateral negotiations with 40 different police forces to get any data. It should be a ‘do it once thing’, where you say, ‘This is the arrangement for getting data out there for research and commercial development projects.’ So, if we want to streamline it, we need to identify who takes charge. The Home Office has said that it is taking a much more ‘hands off’ approach to policing, leaving a gap that is only slowly being filled. There are a few options for who could lead on improving co-ordination. The National Police Chiefs Council or perhaps the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners. They could do it, in theory, but they have very little resource.Then there’s the police ICT company, which is alongside the Home Office, they could do it. But again, there are question marks about resource.

“The police need to understand the importance of, and the power of, data and evidence, more so than they ever have before.”

Then you’ve got HMIC, who I think have a lot of capability and might be willing to do it, but then the police would be more nervous about something that was led by the HMIC, because they would think it was an attempt to do more inspection, or judge the quality of their work more. And then you’ve got the College of Policing, which is another option. So, there are all these different national people who could do it, and I think that’s part of the problem. What’s needed is for them to sit around a table and say, ‘Well, who is doing this? Who’s taking this on?’ And if they’ve already decided, they need to tell everyone – because at the moment the people outside policing who want to get hold of data, and to support delivering commercial projects really don’t know where to turn!

Clue: Do you think there’s a fear factor as well? I mean, it’s so many people involved, it’s so public-facing, is it that none of them really want to take the responsibility in case it goes wrong? Or is that a simplification?

TG: I think it’s probably that it’s just never high enough up each organisation’s priority list. In total, it would make sense, but someone will have to do a bit of work, mostly for the benefit of others, and so it takes a bit of leadership on that front, to do that. I think that’s the thing holding it back.

Clue: So who is leading the way in terms digital policing? Any interesting case studies of countries or forces that are doing this particularly well?

TG: There are lots of pockets of good practice. But could I point to a force that has done it universally well? Not really. Singapore does a lot of surveillance related stuff, they’re using different types of pattern recognition software, to see if they can spot riots before they happen. They’ve got incredible levels of surveillance in Singapore. So, that’s an interesting place, but there is a cultural aspect about the level of surveillance and security that you’ve got going on there, an intrusion that people seem to tolerate.

Clue: So, what needs to be better?

TG: The police need to understand the importance of, and the power of, data and evidence, more so than they ever have before. And the police needs to start in investing in what works. Be that a program to help at-risk kids, be that regular arrest enforcement activity, be that different patterns in the deployment of officers. If they can start to just collect the data, and analyse the data to work out what works and question whether their standard operating models work, that’s the thing that will really transform policing. Forces have to be inquisitive, and questioning. You have to look a little bit broader than that, transform the ‘Who done it?’ question, into the, ‘How can we make sure that we can stop these things happening again?’

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