The connected police officer: smart public safety
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With current events shining a light on police systems and processes, how is technology helping police forces meet increasing levels of complexity in crime and terrorism?
It’s not uncommon to find that the very first people responding to a crime scene or other threat to public safety are not the emergency services, but the victims themselves and the witnesses, the innocent bystanders or unfortunate passers-by, randomly caught up in the vortex of a dramatic event. Neither is it uncommon for the very first images, information and video footage, captured in real-time on smart devices, to be that taken by such people. In fact, it’s ubiquitous and unsurprising.
What is surprising, though, is that the public’s access to and proficiency with technology often exceeds that of the first emergency responders at a given scene, as far as creating data and communicating it are concerned. In addition, criminals have increasingly sophisticated tools at their fingertips; bombs can be detonated via cellular devices and hacking is now a familiar threat.
Public safety organisations in general are facing extraordinary challenges in today’s world, from riot prevention to coordinating refugee relief. In times of extreme threats and catastrophes, the demand for intelligent and reliable public-safety solutions is stronger than ever before.
In the face of increasing levels of complexity in crime, terrorism and public safety, how are emergency services using technology themselves in response? How is it affecting their ability to advance protection, safety and service on the ground and with what success?
Whether this lag has been down to institutionalised conservatism, a deep-seated, cultural resistance to change, or the economic challenge of doing more with less, one thing is now certain: a transformation is taking place and communications equipment company Motorola Solutions is a leader in the modernisation of emergency responders around the world.
With data now available from virtually unlimited sources, from citizen-created material - real-time video streaming, texts and images - the internet of things and a police force’s own incident-management system, police have the ability to see, hear and do more. Yet this plethora of information comes with a massive challenge: how do the police turn it into actionable intelligence to uncover deeper insights and increase situational awareness? We asked Motorola’s Tunde Williams, head of field and solutions marketing.
“Innovation covers a number of streams, one of which is efficiency and that’s being driven primarily by digitisation. It’s now mobile first and it’s being embraced increasingly by law enforcement, essentially bringing in applications that would have been in the police station, mobilising them so that effectively they become an app on a smart device,” explains Williams.
“For example, a lot of paper-based work processes, like stop and search, are becoming digitised, which cuts out hours of paperwork and connects police officers directly to their databases from the street. Basically, you remove the double-entry,” he says.
Starting with the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS), with their new One Met Digital Policing Strategy, the modernisation of police forces in the UK is already underway. The Strategy sets out the aim to deliver modern technology that’s intuitive, easy to use and user focused for all internal customers (police officers and staff) and external customers (the general public and businesses) over the next three years.
This has already begun with the roll-out of Body-Worn Video (BWV) in 14 boroughs across London. Since September 2016, officers have recorded over 153,000 video clips. A Met spokesperson commented: “The cameras have already shown they can help bring speedier justice for victims. The footage from the camera is automatically uploaded to secure servers once the device has been docked and flagged for use as evidence at court or other proceedings. Video not retained as evidence or for a policing purpose is automatically deleted within 31 days.”
Two of the most important tools in public safety and government operations are reliable communications and relevant information. The ability to provide up-to-date information to the right resources at the right time over a secure network is critical in keeping emergency services and the general public safe.
As Williams says: “We’re looking at efficiency, but the other vital stream of innovation is around safety. What essentially we’re trying to do is remove the risk from police officers in dangerous situations. Increasingly, mobile broadband is being adopted by police and 4G is making possible the availability of video into the control room.”
Motorola is working to help transform public safety in the UK with the creation of the new Emergency Services Network (ESN), set to launch this year. With integrated 4G voice and broadband data services, over 200,000 users across police, fire and emergency medical services will benefit from reliable and secure mission-critical data.
Williams adds: “Generally, control rooms rely on voice alone to find out what’s happening on the ground, rarely do they have access to video and real-time video at that, but with the roll-out of the new 4G network and the new Emergency Services Network, police forces will have the ability to get the real-time video streamed from police officers’ body-worn cameras directly into the control room, instantly transforming situational awareness.
“Now, without even saying anything, the control room sees everything: an incident commander can then assess what is needed to deal with the situation. They can see exactly what’s happening and know whether to send ten officers or 20 and that transforms efficiency and, ultimately, helps save lives.”
A number of technologies are being developed around contextual awareness. Like BWV they provide vital information in real-time as a situation unfolds. There have been trials in police forces around the world of augmented reality applications like Google Glass. It might not be mainstream yet, but it’s quite possible that very soon police officers will be able to keep their eyes fixed on a person whilst at the same time receive information about that individual in real-time.
Another area of development is in biometric sensors. Williams explains: “Being able to sense when an officer is in a stressful situation, based on their vital signs, is a significant piece of contextual information. A change in state can happen very quickly and if you have an officer in danger, it’s vital that that information gets relayed to his/her colleagues so that help can come straight away.”
Currently, most police radios have an emergency red button, or panic button, on the top which when pressed sets up an emergency call, a hotline to the control room, as well as to all his or her colleagues. As Williams describes: “Immediately they hear what’s going on. The radio goes into a state called ‘hot mic’ and at that moment, all the audio is relayed directly, together with the officer’s location, to the control room. So, with that information, they know where that person is and help can come straightaway. The problem is, when you’re under extreme stress, depending on the situation, you may not even be able to press that button.”
This is where biosensors come in. A sensor that picks up a person’s heart-rate provides one significant indication. Another could be placed in the officer’s Taser holster, sending a signal once the Taser is removed. With these two pieces of contextual information it would be easy to conclude that action needs to be taken - and can be taken in seconds rather than the minutes it would take over radio.
Williams adds: “One of the enablers for this technology is innovations in Bluetooth, which has come a long way from the old days of wireless earpieces. Now Bluetooth can be used for many different things: to locate people inside buildings using beacons or iBeacons, calculating distance and precise location. The new versions of Bluetooth use extremely low energy so you can now have a Bluetooth device that can remain charged for over a year. Such biometric sensors can be driven by a Bluetooth low-energy device, making it highly practical.”
Motorola has taken its expertise in contextual awareness another step with an innovative project in Detroit, Michigan, USA, called Project Green Light. The home of RoboCop it may be, but any comparisons with the superhuman cyborg law-enforcer of the near future are purely coincidental and there’s not an ED-209 in sight.
Project Green Light is the first public-private-community partnership of its kind, blending a mix of real-time crime-fighting and community policing aimed at improving neighbourhood safety, promoting the revitalisation and growth of local businesses, and strengthening the Detroit Police Department’s (DPD) efforts to deter, identify and solve crime.
When officials realised 25 per cent of violent crime in the city was taking place within 500 feet of gas stations, Motorola Solutions’ Smart Public Safety Solutions worked with them to help combat the problem. Detroit Police initially partnered with eight gas stations to install video cameras streaming live footage to Detroit’s new Real-Time Crime Center where police were able to analyse available data, monitor active incidents and events and deploy resources, all from one location. Project Green Light has now been expanded to more than 20 locations, including fast food restaurants, liquor stores and additional gas stations.
Motorola Solutions’ CommandCentral Aware application aggregates the video, allowing crime centre analysts to view multiple feeds on one screen and share high-definition images of suspects, vehicles, car registration numbers and other critical information to responding officers.
In the first few months of operation, analysts have been able to quickly identify suspects, leading to faster arrests. Examples include a suspect brought into custody less than two hours after being clearly identified on camera firing a weapon into a vehicle at a gas station and another where two suspects were arrested after a carjacking.
The project is one of the first of its kind in the United States. Motorola Solutions’ Central Region corporate vice president John Zidar commented: “Project Green Light demonstrates how smart public safety technology can assist police departments and be an extra set of eyes on the street. The ability to stream live video to Detroit’s Real-Time Crime Center allows analysts to quickly send critical information such as a photo of a suspect or an image of a vehicle to officers in the field to help capture suspects faster and make the community safer.”
The DPD’s CommandCentral platform is part of Motorola Solutions’ Intelligence-Led Public Safety application suite and helps to streamline the way agencies can use the enormous amounts of data coming in from multiple sources such emergency calls, social media feeds and nationwide databases to help increase situational awareness and reduce crime rates.
This community method is similar to the Met’s approach to developments in predictive policing in the UK. Using previously recorded crime data to identify where certain crimes are more likely to occur in the future, the system uses a computer algorithm to produce ‘predictive crime maps’. Let’s face it, if it’s good enough for Tom Cruise’s diminutive chief of PreCrime in Minority Report, then who knows where our police officers will take it? These maps highlight crime risk areas to inform daily police patrols and their use ensures that police patrol resource and activity is more scientifically targeted to localities where the greatest opportunities exist to prevent and detect crime and reassure communities.
Speaking to E&T, a Met spokesperson said: “Academic research has shown that the risk of a burglary occurring at, or close to, a London property is higher in the immediate aftermath of that property having been burgled. The MPS has used the research evidence to design its algorithm to suggest patrol areas that will maximise the deterrent value of policing activity.”
All these technologies are here today, but the challenge we have is as much about change management as it is about R&D. As Williams says: “It’s going to take some key forces - I call them lighthouse forces - adopting some of these key technologies and then you will see that technology being rolled-out by others. I think you will see key technologies filtering through in the next five years.”
Engineering in the police force
Modern policing is increasingly high tech – the equipment used, the systems needed, the crimes fought. The police need engineers and technology experts to keep everything working smoothly. Some individual forces employ engineers directly, while others tender out engineering services to private companies.
“Police forces are large complex organisations that need to use technology to work efficiently,” says Stewart Meikle, force engineer at West Midlands Police. That’s aircraft, large fleets of specialised vehicles, specialist buildings and rooms to operate from – custody blocks, patrol rooms and armouries.
“Within each area, there are technologies and systems that need to be managed by people with the relevant technical expertise. Crime is constantly evolving, so there’s a need for the police force to evolve, too.”
Meikle manages and directs all the mechanical and electrical engineering activities across the West Midlands force. In around twenty buildings this includes heating and air conditioning, electrical supply, emergency standby generators, lifts, barriers, lightning conductors.
“I have a wide range of technologies to understand and manage and a large and diverse supplier base to deal with,” he says. “The job is complex and interesting. Every day there are different technical decisions to make. I have a high degree of autonomy and get to make significant engineering decisions.”
Modern day police forces need lots of different engineers. Network engineers maintain IT systems and mobile data engineers make sure officers can communicate with each other, in the station and in the field. Site survey engineers oversee station maintenance and improvements and design engineers work on police vehicles.
A few months ago, Western Power had to cut off the power to Wolverhampton Central Police Station while they were making change to the power supply to the city. As the power went off, the standby generator cut in and Meikle’s team of engineers were able to set up a backup system that generated its own electricity for eight hours. “There was no disruption to policing in Wolverhampton, while the rest of the city centre lost its power,” he says.
In a previous role, Meikle was responsible for the black boxes in police cars. These are used so that when there’s a serious incident involving a police car, there’s much better understanding about the circumstances that led up to the collision.
“With the boxes it’s much easier to identify what happened and deflect unjustified blame being attributed to the police,” Meikle says. He adds that the boxes also enable the police cars to be tracked. “It’s great knowing where all the police cars in a fleet are at any one time. But that’s the geek in me talking, I suppose.”
Mechanical engineer Julian Wilcox's company, Wilcox and King Engineering, converts cars into police cars.
“We strip out most of the car’s interior, run cabling throughout the car for blue lights, cameras and computers,” he says. “We install automatic number plate recognition, mobile data terminals, mobile digital computers and speed enforcement systems.”
Wilcox’s company works on general-purpose police vehicles and unmarked CID cars, also specialising in vehicles used by road police, tactical firearms and armed response units and dog units. It also designs and manufactures specialist equipment mounts and bespoke electrical looms, supplies and installs vehicle racking and has an onsite installation service for equipment such as telematics, vehicle tracking, CCTV and communications.
“We design and make all the brackets to mount the equipment, put the car back together, cover it in stickers and the police take it away,” he says.
Wilcox employs an automotive technical technician and vehicle conversion technicians who work on the car’s electrics, connecting it up and testing it.
“We also have a couple of guys who specialise in putting the holes in the cars, cutting out the dashboards,” he says.
However, becoming a police force employee requires more than just engineering skills and qualifications.
“You also need to be a team player and have good project management skills,” Meikle notes. “A potential recruit would also need to be trustworthy and law abiding. You’re going to have access to restricted data and police equipment, so you’ll need to be security vetted. I’d advise people to stay away from violent and extreme politics and, of course, criminal behaviour.”
Meikle suggests that people who are interested in one day working as a police engineer might consider becoming a special constable to find out what police work is all about.
“The police is an organisation where you get credit for doing a good, thorough job,” he says. “Senior officers generally have good people skills. You also have a good set of colleagues and there’s a great sense of belonging.”
For Wilcox it’s the variety of his job he loves. “If we do a batch of fifteen vehicles, that’s actually quite a monotonous run for us,” he says. “In the workshop at the moment we’ve got some Ford Focuses, some BMW 5 series’ we’re doing for a police force and some large vehicles for the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA). We also carry out work for ambulance and fire services and the civil authorities.”
Meikle notes that you get even more from the work than just personal job satisfaction.
“What I do has a direct relevance on how the police does its job,” he says. “The police deal with matters of life and death and it’s good to know that you are contributing to something that is important.”