Communications policing is the new community policing

4 September 2017

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Collaborative research between Cardiff University academics and the police has found that current UK policing approaches to social media analytics are fragmented and struggling to keep up with technological advances and their disruptive social impacts.

The Open Source Communications Analytics Research Centre (OSCAR) led by Cardiff University was funded via the Police Knowledge Fund by the College of Policing and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, to look at how the police service is using social media and ‘big data technologies’.

Big data

The work examined how social media and other forms of publicly available ‘big data’ are changing: how police investigate crimes and respond to critical incidents; the ways they develop intelligence; and methods for engaging with communities. Importantly, and unlike previous research in this area, it adopted a holistic and comprehensive approach, investigating these impacts across the full range of policing disciplines including; Counter-terrorism; serious organized crime; public order; and Neighbourhood Policing. A second key innovation of the approach is that it was jointly conducted by academic researchers in direct collaboration with police officers, to develop unique insights into this aspect of policing.

Key findings of the research conducted are:
  • Too much attention nationally has focused upon purchasing increasingly sophisticated ‘big data’ technologies and not enough upon developing the skills of analysts and users within police organisations.
  • Nationally, the approach is fragmented with different agencies and police forces adopting very different approaches. There does not seem to be a consensus about how much of this work is ‘generalist’ and how much should be ‘specialist’.
  • Communications policing is the new community policing, and should be treated as such, to reflect how more and more of social life has a digital component.
  • Only a relatively small proportion of police officers and staff have the digital skills and tools needed to exploit the opportunities for digital intelligence and evidence to inform their investigations and enquiries.
  • Police organisations should seek to recruit data scientists within their workforce, to enable new ways of working for the information age.
  • Nationally, there is an ‘R&D gap’ in terms of police developing the tools and techniques needed to keep up with the rapid advances in social media technologies.

An important element of the OSCAR approach was that the academic research was conducted on live policing operations, in the process triggering a new counter-terrorism investigation. This showcased how adopting innovative ways of working can help improve the delivery of services to the public, but also improve the skills and training of police in new areas of their practice. Work from the programme has been influential internationally, with presentations on its work provided to: the US Department of Homeland Security; NATO; and Europol.

Saving the taxpayer significant money

Reflecting upon the value and benefits of the pioneering OSCAR approach, the National Lead for Open Source and Digital for counter-terrorism policing said: “One of the most important pieces of work was reviewing the ways of working within open source practitioners. This insight has allowed us to improve training programmes and change our thinking about how we hire staff. OSCAR has saved the taxpayer significant money assisting us in these areas.”

Professor Martin Innes who led the OSCAR Centre said: “It is clear that social media and associated technologies are having transformative impacts upon how all public agencies are delivering their services...”

“The OSCAR Centre has taken an evidence-based approach to mapping some of the key challenges for the police service, and through its innovative and pioneering method of police working directly with academic experts, has started to outline some possible solutions.”

The best service for the public

Dr Nicky Miller, Research Evidence Partnerships Manager at the College of Policing, said: “This is an important piece of research looking at how police forces can use technology and social media to continue to keep the public safe in the future.

“The project was made possible through the Police Knowledge Fund and it is encouraging to see police forces and academics working together to develop and improve the service.

“We recognise that the nature of demand on the police service has changed rapidly over recent years and it is vital that we ensure officers have the digital skills and training needed to meet this challenge and provide the best service for the public.

“The College is equipping people with the skills to investigate crimes with a digital element and as well as developing a cyber-crime investigation manual we have to date trained 1,700 digital media investigators. In the longer term, moves to help policing develop as a profession can help officers and staff become more adaptable in responding to changing demand.”

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