Imagine if police officers were able to receive calls, collect evidence, file reports, and access data on the neighbourhoods they’re patrolling at any time, without having to trudge back to a squad car or drive to a detachment.
That’s what the Toronto Police Service wants to see in two to three years by equipping officers with smartphones and tablets — something several police forces in cities around the world have already done. But the move to mobile is still very much in the experimental phase.
Toronto police can already access databases and file reports remotely through workstations in their vehicles. But in its report released in January, the TPS’s Transformational Task Force argues that isn’t good enough anymore: “Cars are also physical barriers that create a sense of isolation from residents.”
As well, in some situations officers must go to their divisional station to file paperwork, return phone calls, and respond to emails — taking them away from the communities they patrol. Mobile devices, the report contends, would allow officers to spend more time on the beat and allow them to access “information and analysis that will give them a richer understanding of the city and specific neighbourhoods” — including economic and social data, as well as crime statistics.
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At the New York Police Department, all 36,000 officers have had access to mobile devices since early 2016. A so-called 9-1-1 app provides them with the information they need to respond to emergency calls even before they hear from a dispatcher. That’s helped the NYPD shave more than a minute off average response times.
This technology has potential, says Nevena Aksin, a graduate student in criminology at the University of Ottawa — but there’s been scant research to determine whether the benefits of these technologies are worth the cost.
One cost-benefit analysis by the U.K.’s National Audit Office surveyed 43 police services and found only 10 claimed savings, she says. It’s easy to see why: given the speed with which mobile policing technology is changing, newly purchased device can quickly become obsolete. “We’re experiencing that right now with body cams,” Aksin says. “Something is coming out one week, and then in another week they have a newer version with all these new and better features.”
There’s also the prospect of breakdowns. Aksin notes that RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson recently complained to the federal government about network computer failures, including an 11-hour outage that disabled every officer’s BlackBerry and cut off access to a key police database.
“If police become dependent on that mobile technology and that technology fails,” Aksin says, “they might not be able to respond to incidents as quickly or as effectively — and the public can really suffer as a result of that.”
Then there are concerns about privacy and information security. “You want to make sure the data is stored in a secure space, there are clear regulations on who can access the data, how the data will be used and so forth,” she says. For its part, the NYPD purchased phones running Windows Mobile instead of going with the vastly more popular iOS or Android — in part because the Windows phones had better security features.
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While Canadian police forces are often technological laggards compared to their counterparts in countries such as the U.S., Aksin says, a few have experimented with it here.
At the Prince Albert Police Service, in Saskatchewan, officers have tried out the Building Tactical Information System (BTIS), developed by Ottawa-based firm APX. It can provide officers with information on buildings they need to enter in response to emergency calls — including floor plans, satellite photos, and details on where the building’s electricity panel is located.
Officers in the field were issued iPhones or laptops connected to the system, Staff Sgt. Dave Schluff says. They were then put through two drill scenarios: one in which an active shooter was prowling a local school, and another in which someone had barricaded themselves in a building but didn’t pose an immediate threat to anyone.
Schluff says being able to access floor plans through BTIS was invaluable, as it gave officers some idea of the building they were entering, which allowed them to quickly formulate a plan to get in and out safely. He adds that the force found the system to be secure: if a device had been stolen, dispatchers could’ve shut it down remotely.
But the technology was consistently helpful in just one of the two test scenarios, Schluff says. In the case of the barricaded, non-threatening perp, officers made full use of the system to decide how to enter the building and position themselves. Yet in the active-shooter scenario, the officers became increasingly focused on their immediate safety and surroundings and weren’t able to use their devices.
The experience taught Schluff and his colleagues that handheld technology, if adopted, would require police to change the way they approach some situations. “You have to create tactics to actually use it safely, too,” Schluff says. “You don’t want to be looking at your phone or looking at a tablet when there’s a serious incident or threat that pops up.”
“It’s not an abracadabra, that’s for sure,” he adds. “But it’s interesting and held a lot of possibilities to go further into the future.”