Law enforcement agencies are increasingly finding that the current generation of smartphones and other mobile devices can have important benefits for operational work. Retaining the ability to access a wide range of business-critical IT systems in real time while undertaking work away from fixed locations can provide essential support to front-line policing and other enforcement duties. Several police services are currently employing these systems nationally and consider the result to be game-changing for efficiency and public protection. Frank Smith presents consensus and good practice from participants in police and border security with direct experience and success in implementing mobile solutions for front-line operational work.
The clearest evidence of how changing technology is affecting our lives is surely seen in the smartphone. Not just the devices themselves, but the raft of applications and new capabilities they have provided us with, such as photography, music and video, social media, online commerce, secure identity and biometrics, navigation and geolocation-based services, have a constant impact on our everyday lives. This is increasingly supported by high-quality screens, fast processing and flexible charging. Mobile communications, expanding fast, will be further enhanced by the new generation of 5G networks appearing on the horizon.
A large proportion of Europe’s population of over
500 million have a smartphone, many regarding it as an essential part of how they operate. So, how is this modern revolution affecting the two million or so law enforcement officers in Europe?
Ten years ago, as the modern generation of smartphones was appearing, the European Commission asked whether this interesting new form of computing could have a practical application for front-line law enforcement. And if so, how could it best be developed and exploited, based on proven experience? It was recognised that sharing ideas and experiences could be valuable: it could highlight good ideas, and maybe help avoid repeating some expensive mistakes that would be made.
This thinking was the foundation for an EU working group on the use of mobile solutions by law enforcement. The working group is now a subgroup of the broader European Network for Law Enforcement Technology Services (ENLETS), and bears the name ENLETS Mobile.
To be clear, the group as such does not build any mobile solutions, but it has encouraged discussion between Member States and their law enforcement services about the mobile solutions they have developed, and what has contributed to their success. It is a professional forum for the exchange of good practice, in an important area of change.
A step change began to appear around two years ago with the arrival of mobile solutions that provided support to the majority of the front-line work of law enforcement officers. With continuing evidence of success, and positive feedback from users, the number of smartphones in use by law enforcement services has increased. Building a strong solution is good, and rolling it out to more users increases the overall benefit it can deliver; but rolling it out to most or all front-line officers goes further: it shows the organisation is convinced of the value of that solution, which it now sees as standard equipment for doing the job. For an increasing number of police services, that stage has already been reached, and others are planning to follow.
The MEOS mobile solution of the Dutch police won recognition in the Dutch IT industry awards for the best digital transformation in 2017. In 2018 the Garda (the Irish police) won the Digital Edge award for the ACTIVE mobile project at the Irish Tech Excellence Awards, and its Head of Digital Services and Innovation won the Person of the Year award. West Yorkshire Police (UK) were recently shortlisted for an innovation award at the Critical Communications World conference in Berlin. Great individual achievements, showing that such projects warrant recognition across the industry as a whole.
Typical benefits of mobile solutions that provide real-time capability on the street can include the following:
- to discover or verify someone’s identity (for example, checking name and address, checking fingerprints where that is permitted, and verifying someone’s driving licence or identity document);
- to discover information the officer may need to know about the person (for example, that the person has a record of violence or is wanted in connection with a serious crime);
- to enter and complete transactions such as issuing a penalty ticket (for example, for parking or speeding – not just to enter the key details, but to verify them and pass the transaction on to the system for enforcement of the penalty, without having to return to the police station to enter further details);
- to receive information from other colleagues or supervisors (for example, location of other units on the map, video from other locations, directions from the control room, alerts about police information relevant to the current location).
Ultimately, these benefits of mobile solutions will result in more police patrol time.
How do you deliver a mobile solution that delivers these kinds of benefits, and is greeted by users as providing exactly the support they need to make their job better and easier? Some consistent themes have emerged from successful projects participating in the ENLETS working group:
- Leadership. The benefits described represent real change that can only be achieved if those involved are persuaded to buy-in to the new concept, fund it, back it, help build it, and make it a joint success. That requires vision, innovation, listening skills, determination, persuasion, team-building, and sustained hard work.
- Recognise that this kind of project is business change (not just a matter of technology rollout). Going mobile successfully means working out how the new capability can best be exploited to improve the way business is done – and not just by providing some online forms replicating what you do already.
- Engage users and stakeholders properly. Successful mobile programmes have embraced front-line users, bringing some of their best, most able operational staff into the development team to work alongside the technical staff to deliver solutions that work both technically and operationally. By working together, all concerned learn from each other. It may be useful to involve other specialists in this process; some projects have for example engaged user experience specialists to help.
- Agile capability is important. Creating an outstanding mobile capability where it has previously not existed is an adventure. Although the programme as a whole needs to be kept on track, it is not only hard but probably impossible to second-guess exactly what the full solution should do for the users. Moreover, experience of large mobile projects shows that many good new ideas arise ‘organically’, once people see the solution emerge and can think about genuinely worthwhile enhancements.
- Pilot, test, revise… prove that you have got it right. Closely related to the previous point, the best way to ensure that the solution works as well as it should is not only to involve users in the design, but to test a prototype with real users and take careful account of their feedback. It is important that when a solution rolls out, ultimately to most or all of your workforce, that you know (and not just hope) that it will work well, and ideally, that it will be received with enthusiasm and strong approval.
- Integration with the back-office infrastructure. A good law enforcement mobile solution needs to have good facilities on the mobile device used, but to maximise benefit it is essential that the device gives the user access to the range of IT systems.
- Sustain the effort (not just for the initial rollout). Experience in the working group has shown that ideas for further development often arise after the initial solution has been rolled out – and that they continue to do so. Many active mobile projects therefore have benefited from maintaining their development capability well beyond initial rollout. There have been good examples of development teams responding urgently to short-notice operational requirements. There can be challenges, for example, in sustaining funding: it is important that senior stakeholders share the vision and on-going commitment, sustained by the results of the investment.
- Build a great team rather than a perfect plan. One programme manager in the group stated this as his advice. This reflects the evolving nature of the requirements and the system, with feedback from end-users. You cannot guess or predict all the creative ideas that will come in from the operational users of a good system, some very good; but you can assemble a high-performing team of operational and technical people who are able to respond well to the new challenges that it brings.
- Reflect these principles in how you procure a solution. It should be possible to deliver a good mobile solution with a capable in-house team or a team from a vendor – if the contract allows the approach and flexibility that in-house teams have achieved. The agile, evolutionary approach described here may, for some, require a more flexible approach to system development.
- Last observation: expect a favourable user reaction when you get the delivery of a mobile solution right.
Mobile device features
Much of the description of what has been reported relates to how the development team is formed, how they engage with users, how they ensure that ideas are tested and are sound before they are rolled out to large numbers of users. In addition, the mobile device of course plays a crucial part as well, and it is the subject of active development in the market. Some features of the current generation deserve particular mention as they offer useful capabilities for law enforcement.
Biometrics and identity
Biometrics and identity have become very significant elements of smartphone use across the board, for example to ensure payments are properly authorised. Algorithms are being actively developed and refined, and the market is far from certain which modality (or combination of modalities) is ‘best’ (if there is just one).
It is common for high-end smartphones to include a Trusted Platform Module or Secure Element. This is a chip specifically protecting critical data, such as private encryption keys or personal biometrics, to strengthen the ability for a mobile device and its user to authenticate themselves to a server.
Near Field Communication (NFC)
NFC is included in a smartphone to allow it to act as a contactless payment card. It can furthermore serve as a reader for an identity card or passport.
This whole story is far from complete. The future includes much faster, better mobile communication possibilities through 5G networks with more use cases and more universal coverage, and their equivalent in high-reliability emergency service networks; connection to major computing power and analysis provided in the cloud, and much more.
The approach described in this paper that has been highly successful for participants in the ENLETS Mobile group may be more applicable to managing radical, disruptive change more widely – such as the next generation of technology change coming our way very soon. The lessons here may be more generally applicable – enjoy the journey.