Drones, GPS and Twitter: How the Police catch the 21st-century criminals

22nd August 2013

Last week we looked at how the ever-changing technology landscape is changing the way the healthcare system and its staff operates. On a similar theme, a report has just been released on how the police are using technology and how it will change their jobs in the future.

Police forces around the country have been using social media for some time to keep their communities up to date with what is happening in their local area, pass on information and some have even used it as a log to detail the type and amount of calls they receive. The speed and viral-nature of social media has allowed it to become an essential tool in finding missing people and the Amber Alert system in America is now using Facebook, Google and text messages to alert residents of potentially missing children.

Social media has also been used for members of the public to report crimes and pass on information, something which came to light during the Woolwich shooting in May, where tweets and posts alerted police of sightings and warned the public to stay away. Although sceptics have suggested that some will use social media rather than the much-faster 999 service, there have been some cases where victims have used Facebook or twitter for help rather than alerting burglars to their presence by making a telephone call.

Pictures and information posted on social networks also led to many arrests and convictions at the 2011 London riots – some even from the suspects themselves, showing off their haul of stolen goods.

Notebooks, CrowdVision and GPS

Lothian and Borders Police have been using electronic notebooks for nearly 10 years, which allows officers to record data that is instantly stored, as well as check criminal records of potential suspects in real-time. The recorded data is then easily managed by the force and has allowed for £700,000 of administrative savings.

At last year’s Olympics, Dorset police used CrowdVision software to monitor crowds watching the sailing events in Weymouth. Cameras attached to buildings and helicopters relayed the information to software that detected human heads and monitored their movements to predict any changes in crowd movement. This was used to then close off a viewing area close to the beach that would have potentially been overcrowded as people moved forward to watch the medal ceremony.

Police in Texas have begun trialling a GPS tracking device for fleeing criminals. A small GPS cartridge is loaded into a James Bond-style gun in the grill of a police car, which can then be fired onto the getaway car. The ensuing police cars will then ease off and monitor the situation from a distance, slowing down the speed of the chase and minimising the chances of a civilian casualties. Similar technology has been used for some time in electronic tags to record the movements of low-risk criminals. Sussex Police also controversially trialled the technology on dementia patients, who account for 1 in 4 missing persons cases.

The Met spend

The Met alone spends £345 million per year on technology and has recently released plans to roll-out 30,000 new mobile devices. But with imminent budget cuts and more emphasis on smarter spending, the police will have to ensure that every penny spent on technology has a direct result on community confidence and public safety.

Airborne drones, face recognition and weapon-recognising thermal imaging are among other technologies helping to win the war on crime. But will technology make for better policing? Dave Allen, a senior lecturer and author of the report, ‘The Future of the Force: Police, Technology and Serving the Public’ believes that the reality will be a little more mundane than Minority Report style policing, but will drag forces away from 19th century style methods.  “Technology shouldn’t mean that police lose their community focus”, he said. “In fact it should mean that they can serve them more effectively.”

There will always be a need for police officers on the street, but utilising these technologies might just give them the upper-hand in catching the bad guys.


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