A critical review of the Reform report @Nathanconstable and me

On Thursday 24th August 2017, the policy think tank Reform published their report on their view of the digital future of policing. It runs to 46 pages (not including bibliography) and makes 10 recommendations which it claims are “the only way to police in an ever changing world.”
When it was published it attracted a LOT of comment. In this blog – Emma Williams (Deputy Director of Canterbury Christ Church University Police Research Centre) and I take a detailed look at the report and…… raise a few issues.

NC – Policy think-tank reports are usually controversial, especially with the agency who will be affected by the proposed changes. Policing has had an increasingly tense relationship with such bodies ever since Blair Gibbs and his four horsemen of the police reform apocalypse started producing reports-which-became-policy (including the sensationally clueless suggestion that police officers travel to and from work in uniform.)

This one from Reform caused a bit of a stir. Ironically, given the digital subject matter, this was mostly played out on social media. The National Police Chiefs’ Council tweeted it and called it “engaging” – just about everyone else tweeting about it seemed to have issues with it.
I read it through once and was pretty stunned. I read it through again and it made me angry. On the third reading I realised I was sat with my jaw dropped and struggling to believe what I was actually reading. I have wanted to blog about it since the first day but I have had to pause, stop, re-read, take notes, pause again and take a few deep breaths.
In order to address what I perceive to be are very many gaps and issues in this Reform report I will attempt to point out various elements from within it.
Look for the references
NC – I am new to academic study but more than one of my peers, mentors and supervisors have taught me that the first thing you should do when reviewing any academic article is to look at the references. Who have they included? Who have they missed?
The very first thing to point out is that the Reform report is NOT academic research. It is clearly policy research. When you examine the references it is notable that, with the exception of mention to Peel’s Principles from 1829 there is not a single other referenced piece which pre-dates 2004. Yes – the subject matter of the article is “digital” but actually the report goes into some commentary about culture. It also talks about demand. The absence of any literature which goes back further in time is telling. It is arguable that proper research into policing started with Michael Banton’s (1964) study The Policeman in the Community and that in most years subsequent to that many eminent academics have studied the role, function and culture of policing. This includes seminal research from the likes of Maurice Punch, Egon Bittner, Robert Reiner all of whom have gone into great detail to describe the makeup, work and politics of policing. Any proper academic study which goes on to make proposals for the future of the police would need to pay due regard to this work and truly understand where policing has come from, what it is and, crucially WHY it is. The Reform paper does not refer to these at all. It pays glancing reference to Peel but only to one of the nine principles.
The quality of the references is also important. The purists will argue that for something to count as evidence it has to have come from a Randomised Control Trial and be peer-reviewed. Well – perhaps this article could be construed as something of a peer-review. I personally do not hold with the belief that RCT’s are the only true form of evidence and I am also a fan of qualitative research but this report manages to be “none of the above.”
For example, large sections of proposed change are based on the comments from one individual that police officers are “terrified” of digital things. That hasn’t come from a survey, a questionnaire sent to a properly defined and selected sample base – in fact the comment isn’t even contested. A chief officer has apparently made this comment and – presumably because it suits – it has been taken as fact.
Whilst I state that I don’t hold with everything needing to be a “gold-standard” of evidence there have to be limits. If, for example, I were looking to make wholesale strategic changes to the structure, make up and working methods of an entire police service – I would want my proposals to be sound, tested, piloted and evaluated. I certainly wouldn’t be making such bold proposals based on articles in magazines – which is something this report does quite a lot. The section on augmented reality glasses in the Netherlands comes from a one page article in New Scientist magazine. The only evaluation offered in that article if from the person behind the idea saying it is “adding a lot” to how they do things. Not exactly conclusive proof of concept.
This isn’t an isolated example. Other proposed solutions in the report have been found in The Economist and Fortune Magazines. Neither of these, to the best of my knowledge, are particularly well renowned for their scientific and academic rigour.
Other references come from multiple government departments and newspapers. The office of national statistics comes up but – here is the real kicker – so do a number of political speeches and responses to parliament. When you look at these – they all come from one side of the political spectrum. Yes – the governing party but they are not the only ones with a voice or ideas or who have done research. No mention of Lord Stephens’ review of policing for the Labour Party. Just Winsor.
To me, the entire reference section reads like it has been selected to prove a pre-determined argument. Not least the multiple references to the authors own previous research and recommendations.
Emma – As an academic who publishes and peer reviews articles I believe that if I produced a piece of work with the lack of evidence this report involves I would be told immediately that the work was unpublishable. The methods and subsequent data produced referred to by the authors is not cited in the report in enough depth or detail to justify the recommendations made in this piece. Indeed many of the specific initiatives they describe from the forces they have used in the work are not officially evaluated examples of good practice and this only adds to the descriptive and anecdotal nature of the report. This report comes at a time when the drive for evidence based policing is huge hence I was surprised by the extreme recommendations made from such a lack of evidence. In addition to this much of the evidence challenging the report recommendations were conveniently ignored. For example evidence around the demand that cannot be dealt with by technology / the issue of under performance and the reasons and drivers involved / the evidence around why volunteers chose to get involved in policing. All absent from this work. I think the critical review Nathan provides above offers an excellent peer review (importantly by a practitioner) which I wonder should have been done prior to publication.
Digital Demand
NC – The report starts with the confident (and cited) statistic that nearly half of crime has some form of digital element to it. If you just look at this as a statement then you might be forgiven for thinking the police need to completely review how they are doing things. Except – this is a very broad statement. It also lulls you into the false sense of security that therefore “half of what the police deal with has a digital element.”
So – let us look at what the police currently do. The College of Policing provided the government with a demand profile in 2015. This piece of work was taken from the figures produced nationally from all forces’ command and control systems. It showed that – of all police demand – only 17% related to crime. Yes – you read that correctly.
83% of police demand is not crime related. So if you extrapolate that 17% of police demand is crime and half of that is digital enabled – then that is 8.5% of demand. Now read the report in full and see how it is building an entire police force almost entirely focused on digital.
This exact argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny as I am sure that much of the non-crime demand will have some form of digital element but this report is making it out to be the be all and end all of policing. Any practicing officer will tell you – it is not.
The next question, therefore, is just exactly how skilled to police officers need to be. This for me – is where the report begins to contradict itself. In a section which looks to delineate which agency will deal with what it says “Local forces need skills to investigate crimes which involve the internet but are less likely to require the elite skills needed to address sophisticated cybercrimes.” And yet – it goes on to recommend that 1700 officers per year are sent to an, as yet not created, Digital Academy – presumably to learn the skills they won’t need. In fact – what skills they would be taught at this Academy are not explained.
I’m going to be bold here and suggest that what forces need are sufficient experts to be able to do the difficult stuff. I have no doubt that the number of these experts will need to increase. But this report suggests that IT investment is falling and then goes on to suggest that this could all be covered by “cyber specials”. 12,000 are required it suggests. Well – call me old fashioned but this suggests that there is work to be done – work that needs doing and an ACTUAL demand. Surely if this is the case then the job needs doing and it shouldn’t really rely on volunteers – whose time and commitment can never truly be guaranteed.
The biggest bulk of cyber enabled crime (besides fraud) mentioned in this report is harassment and stalking. I am struggling to work out just how tech savvy the average cop needs to be to deal with such things. In the vast majority of cases surely the suspect is known? (as I side note – the authors of this report would do well to recognise the difference between suspects and offenders) How knowledgeable does a police officer need to be to approach an internet service provider with a properly authorised Data Protection Act disclosure form with the question “Where did these messages come from?”
On the occasions where someone has gone a bit further to hide their tracks or they aren’t easily detectable that is when you might need some more expert assistance – but not in every single case. Most of these digital crimes can be dealt with with existing processes.
So then we come to fraud. These are the cases the report suggests we know little about and are probably mostly hidden. On this we can agree. But – then you have to look at where they are originating. I’m sure that there is a large home-grown proportion of criminality on the internet but most of the really serious reports about hacking, phishing and large scale fraud seem to be coming from abroad. And from countries with whom we do not have the best of relationships, jurisdiction or extradition arrangements. So – what happens when the local constable starts an investigation into a six figure internet fraud and then finds that the perpetrators are based in the dark web in Russia or Nigeria.
Surely – surely – the overall argument here is not to make local police forces deal with this kind of stuff – but for the National Crime Agency to deal with it completely or even set up a new police service which is entirely dedicated to this type of crime. The report already says it needs 12,000 people (volunteers) and that local officers don’t really need to be trained to that level (even though it wants to send 1700 each year to a tech academy for reasons it doesn’t elucidate on.)
Emma – of course digital crime is a huge issue in the current climate and we need to consider the technical skills required to deal with this. However I think the drive to utilise technology discounts the importance the other very important people skills required to deal with some of these issues. This is ignored in this report. I recently attended a problem solving award event in the Met Police where many of the schemes up for awards focused on cyber crime. These problem solving programmes focused on the vulnerable / education / local community issues and building social capacity to deal with them. This is prevention and this is policing.
Technology is part of the solution not all of it. I refer to a reference Nathan has already alluded to. That of Punch. There is a lot more in the demand conversation both in terms of what officers face and how to deal with it – this is what matters. The skills officers need to deal with such factors extend way beyond that of being good with a computer and that must be acknowledged.
NC – The report mentions a series of potential solutions which often lead to the question “what problem are they trying to solve?” We have already discussed the Netherlands Augmented Reality Glasses (unevaluated and – as far as I can see – nothing a smart phone couldn’t do) but there are others.
Drones – says the report – Drones with facial recognition could be deployed to places so they could find wanted and missing people. So many questions arise here – never mind the obvious surveillance issues (more on that later.) Where would you deploy them? Places which have large amounts of people? You mean – places that already have a lot of CCTV coverage? Who would pilot them? Who would respond to a positive sighting and go to locate or arrest the person? What do you do in large covered shopping centres?
Whilst we are on the subject of drones (and the Netherlands) it should be noted that they have gone full retro when it comes to tackling the drone issue. They are now training eagles to take them out in mid-air. And you thought working on the dog section had kudos. This report didn’t mention the potential problems or criminality which drones could pose – but I do wonder if their solution might have been “more drones” or “drone-killing-drones” or maybe even a death-ray from space (I read about that in a magazine once. I think NASA had one – police could have one too.)
The report suggests that forces should use digital reporting and have systems where people can send in virtual evidence. Now – there are elements of this which make sense but I am not sure that the public actually WANT digital reporting. What is it the papers keep saying? Oh yes “police couldn’t be bothered to turn up.” Has anyone asked the public what they want in this discussion? Do they want the police force that is being described in this document? Do they want a more impersonal and remote service where contact is primarily by email? They might – we don’t know. Reform certainly didn’t ask them.
Body Worn Cameras. These, says the report, have the ability to reduce traditional crimes. The example they quote? It reduces escalations of situations in the vicinity of a police officer. You see the obvious flaw here don’t you? The clue is in the title of what they are – BODY worn cameras. Yes – they may play a role in reducing crime but they require a fundamental piece of hardware to achieve this. A human police officer. 1700 of which have been sent to an academy – 1500 others have been sent away on secondments for reasons the report doesn’t really explain and we have lost tens of thousands more due to prior financial cuts.
In fact – almost all of their tech solutions require a police officer or police officers or staff to be able to do something with the information they are given. It almost CREATES work!
Staff Matter
NC – I could spend hours and pages dissecting this report page by page but I fear that you don’t have the time and I don’t have the patience. I have written copious notes on lots of details but I have covered my main reservations so far – with one exception.
Having already said that local forces should not be expected to deal with advanced level digital crime the report then comes on to the compulsory severance of police officers who are unable or unwilling to get to grips with technology. This struck me as a massive non-sequitur.
Having not spelt out what the basic requirement for technical knowledge for the average constable should be it goes on to talk about sacking people who don’t meet it.
It talks about chief officers having the ability to fire officers whose roles are no longer needed. Without specifying what those roles might be – or recognising the vast amounts of experience that officer could be redeployed to use – or trained in – or even basic employment rights.
Then comes the craftiest trick in the book it says “senior management, officers and staff” spoke of the need to be able to sack people. It doesn’t mention who, how many, in what context. For all we know it could be three people. It doesn’t say “the majority of..” it just lists the role. For all we know 96% of those same role holders might have said they DIDN’T think compulsory severance was a good idea but the statement – as written in the report – cannot be said to be untrue. Semantics, eh?
Finally on this topic I would like to reserve special mention to the senior leader who is quoted in the report as having said “we find ways to make things unpleasant” for people who are not doing a good job. The report states that this is “inefficient.”

No – it is unethical.
I accept that I lack the full context of this statement but – if it is as reported – then whoever you are – you do not deserve to be in a senior leadership position and one Chief Constable has gone on record in direct response to this quote suggesting that if ANYONE were to be eligible for compulsory severance it might be whoever spoke these words.
I could not agree more.

Emma – this was my main concern with this report. The audience this report focused on is surely political and I cannot believe any officer truly believes what this report appears to advocate around staff performance. It astounded me (my jaw dropping moment) that no consideration was given to the excellent work produced by Ian Hesketh and others about well being and performance and the College of Policing‘s work on organisational justice and the link to productivity. This aspect of the report essentially suggested we condone bad practice by leaders and remain unquestioning of the reasons for under performance by simply getting rid of people. Plus what does this mean? How do we define under performance – reading this report one might assume the authors refer to technology skills only. This is concerning, ignorant and minimises the importance of empathy / people skills and indeed being able to deal with the unknown. Context and the unknown is something technology cannot deal with either but that is another issue not for this blog. I wondered as I read it if that was why the authors chose to leave out the huge demand coming in to the police from the mental health area. Technology cannot deal with that can it?
NC – As this is a blog I have stopped short of covering all of the points I noted in the Reform report. I can summarise it by saying it is political; it is selective; the evidence for the proposed solutions are weak; it takes no account whatsoever of the many and varied things that the police do besides dealing with internet related matters and then seeks to build a police force entirely designed to deal with internet matters. It talks of sacking officers who don’t come to terms with technology but doesn’t specify a level of knowledge they might require.
There are so many questions which could be asked: who back-fills for the 3200 police officers the report wants to put somewhere else for a year? Why does the report say that violent crime is falling when the very statisticians they quote elsewhere on other matters have just reported that it is rising? What about things like moped crime, dealing with mental health issues, victim contact, road collisions, crowd control, policing protests?
How to overcome the massive ethical issues it raises about surveillance and data sharing – the report simply bats these off with “lingering issues should not be excuses for not implementing technology.”
How to address the obvious paradox that if, as the report states, 80% of cyber crime is PREVENTABLE with simple computer hygiene (a matter for the user and arguably the tech companies) why the report then goes on to design an entire police service designed to DETECT it.
Where and why is it ethically right for police and health to share information because it seems to be something this report thinks should happen more frequently.
How “buying off the shelf” tech isn’t as clear cut as this report makes out – partly because the products often still need massive reconfiguration – partly because the products don’t exist and partly because there often is no “shelf” to buy from. An off the shelf product still takes months to implement and years to tweak and configure. See your local crime recording systems for further details.
Why advocate a product whose algorithm only gets 88% of predictions on HIGH RISK bail release decisions correct?
Why are none of the ethical issues of predictive policing addressed? Why no counter evidence (of which there is plenty)?
When talking about flattening the rank structure it says that the only legal requirement is for a Chief Constable and Constables. I have heard this before but it takes no account of the legal requirement for certain officers to perform certain functions within such legislation as PACE, RIPA and many others. It would be a pretty busy Chief Constable having to authorise EVERYTHING if only two ranks existed. In fairness – the report goes on to say that the police could survive with fewer ranks not two and quotes ongoing research by an existing Chief which supports this. An approach the Met have just decided not to follow.
And then there is my favourite bit of all – in the section about “re-branding policing” to make it more attractive to millennials. Whilst comparing the advertising campaigns of a spy unit in Israel it says that policing cannot compete and so should therefore do more to sell the fact that it is a public service and appeal to people that way.
Well – to that I say this – anyone who joins the police not knowing it is a public service or not wanting to serve the public has probably joined the wrong job. I’m not entirely convinced that “police as public service” is much of a secret?
Not only that – but, in trying to advertise the sexier parts of the job the report suggests that the police should talk more about the work of the National Crime Agency. Which is a completely different organisation. With its own recruitment process. Arguably, the NCA should be advertising the work of the NCA (which I am sure it does) rather than the police – who don’t do what the NCA does.
But here’s the thing – a lot of police work isn’t sexy. A lot of it is horrible. A lot of it is dealing with very unpleasant things in unpleasant circumstances. A lot of it is standing around in the cold and the rain. There is quite a bit of blood and violence. A lot of decision making in a closing time frame. A lot of pressure. A lot of paperwork. This work isn’t going away – despite the best efforts of some people to have you believe otherwise.

But hey – digital. Anyway – lets REBRAND policing whilst nailing it fully to the mast of principles created around 1829.
Let me conclude by stating what I do agree with in this report – Police IT procurement is poor; investment in police IT is poor, there is a need for officers to have better kit, more knowledge and better access to expertise. But this report is written in isolation – it is a single-issue subject which links badly to other things with a view to making recommendations which do not naturally follow.
It shows little understanding of what policing is – what it does – where it has come from – what people want from and expect of it or how it is held to account. Somehow we need to combat this developing narrative that the police service of the future will be so much better if it is made up of 20-something computer experts – working behind screens – and on short term contracts. What price experience? What value on skills which do not involve the ability to touch-type or interrogate the inner workings of the internet? What about compassion, empathy, courage, resilience?
Its concluding paragraphs say that change is not something which should terrify officers – yes – the same report which wants to sack them if their role is no longer needed. It says officers “should embrace” its recommendations without really properly or adequately selling them or justifying them (which is ironic given the section on leadership needing to take people where it wants to go) and finally it claims this is the “only way” to police an ever-changing world.
It isn’t the “only way” – there are many other ways – it’s just that this particular report has failed to mention any of them.
Emma – policing is a public service. It deals with people – I could write a 1000 words on this alone but this is already too long. Nathan has covered the evidence and drawn excellent conclusions in his writing. To rebrand what we want the police to be requires far more thought and consideration and evidence than this report touches on. Currently I would argue that revisiting the classics as Nathan does above is still highly relevant. This is what policing is – it is messy / contextual / needs interaction and engagement with people. Not people beavering away behind a screen or being told by an algorithm who might commit the next crime. Technology is part of the issue not all of it.

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