Police in the UK have had the power to stop and search suspects for many years, but the practice has proved to be contentious and divisive among communities because it has led to suspicion that specific racial groups or local areas are being targeted unfairly or without proper justification.
Stop and search powers have become more closely regulated in recent years to avoid this impression being reinforced and the data collected on each is being used by forces to demonstrate to communities that the powers are being used in the correct and compliant ways.
The situation has been less than perfect for police forces as well, especially as the reporting burden has increased. Each time a citizen is stopped and searched a lengthy, normally paper-based, reporting process is required, taking officers off the streets while they catch up on their administration work.
Greater Manchester Police has recently deployed a short data application (SDA) designed by radio supplier Sepura to enable officers to input stop and search data using their radios.
‘The key objective was to reduce the paperwork, bureaucracy and the time required to record when police officers use the power of stop and search, but not in any way to remove accuracy of the record and understanding of the impact on our communities,’ says Garry Shewan, Assistant Chief Constable at Greater Manchester Police. ‘We wanted our officers to be quicker and more efficient without losing the data.’
In fact the force wanted to go further and improve the data collection process and accuracy. ‘We wanted to ensure we had more accurate records of when powers were used and the ability to ensure we were able to use it in a more transparent way, so we could understand the impact on people’s feelings better,’ adds Shewan.
In the past, officers filled out large paper booklets recording stop and search and those where taken back to the police station to be filed and entered onto the police system by employees. That process and the disconnections within it allowed for some data to be entered incorrectly.
‘It was a very slow process and it wasn’t foolproof – records could get lost,’ explains Shewan.
Thanks to the GPS capability of the police radios, the SDA automatically logs the location, time and date when an officer reports they are about to carry out a stop and search, which saves the early steps of the recording process and eliminates inaccuracy.
The officer then inputs the rest of the data required either using voice or the keypad on the device. Data points include the grounds for the search, the evidence used to justify it and the ethnicity of the citizen being stopped and searched.
Although not known for their ability to handle mobile data, police radios are more than adequate for this type of application, says Shewan. ‘We collect nine sets of information and all are able to be handled by normal police radio. There are seven legal requirements [to be addressed for each stop and search] but we have also included two additional requirements that assist us. The great thing is we have a technical solution that takes information from the streets to our database where it can be utilised almost immediately.’
The SDA, which has now been rolled out across the entire Greater Manchester Police force, was initially developed by Sepura and the force in response to the requirements of the 2010 Crime and Security Act, which mandated improved accuracy of data during stop and search encounters.
‘My understanding is that it was quite a significant length of time that we took to get to the right solution,’ admits Shewan. ‘Part of that was finding the right partner and the right technology, but [deployment] has been very smooth because we took our time to get it right.’
Greater Manchester Police initially tested the SDA in two of its policing areas for 12 months before rolling it out across the entire force. ‘It has worked incredibly well,’ confirms Shewan. ‘The great thing is we have been able to focus police officers’ minds in terms of the powers and grounds associated with stop and search. We have seen a reduction in the number of times stop and search is used, but the quality of each stop and search is improving all the time – that has been the real, significant benefit of this technology.’
Aside from the operational benefit of collecting more accurate data and making it rapidly available to be utilised, the force has experienced efficiency and cost benefits. ‘There has been a clear efficiency saving for the force,’ says Shewan. ‘Officers are able to be on the streets for longer and have got more time to give to our communities.’
There’s a cash saving associated with that, too. Greater Manchester Police has calculated that the SDA will generate savings of approximately £700,000 each year.
‘A further benefit is to give accurate, mapped data about when and where stop and search is used,’ adds Shewan. ‘This is particularly valuable where communities are concerned about the use of stop and search. It’s a really helpful tool to ensure we retain and grow confidence in our communities.’
Shewan sees further need in the force for mobile data applications, but thinks future steps will require a new police mobile device. ‘When is the iPhone of the police going to be developed?’ he asks. ‘The challenge is how to get data mobile and there’s a real demand for an iPhone type of police radio – one piece of easily usable equipment. At the moment, the technology we utilise is probably getting to the extent [of its capability]. I know and hope that in the future there will be a police version of a device with iPhone-like functionality.’