Bobbies on the net: a police workforce fit for the digital age

As crime changes, police forces must respond. Technological developments in recent decades – most notably the growth of the internet – have digitised traditional forms of crime, providing new opportunities for fraudsters, sex offenders and drug dealers. Technology also creates a new frontline of complex cybercrime, which previously would not have existed.

Police forces should develop a workforce capable of meeting digital crime – employing new technology, upskilling workers, making better use of volunteers and secondments and removing hierarchy to do so.

Policing demand in a digital world

Crime is changing. Forty-seven per cent of crime involves an online element.

'Traditional' crime, such as robbery and criminal damage, has fallen dramatically over the past two decades.

Many traditional crimes now have an online element – either directly through committing harassment or blackmail over the internet, or organising violent crimes through social networks.

Crimes such as fraud are increasingly common. People are now 20 times more likely to be a victim of fraud than robbery, at an estimated cost of £154 billion to businesses and individuals a year.

The damage of high-harm crime such as revenge pornography is huge. On a conservative estimate, 2,500 UK citizens use the anonymous dark-web browser, Tor, for illegal purposes, such as drug dealing, revenge pornography and child sexual exploitation.

And a new frontline of crime, unimaginable without the internet, has opened. The ONS estimates that 1.9 million computer-misuse offences were committed in 2016. In 2017, cybercriminals attacked NHS computers, forcing some hospitals to divert patients for days.

Digital forces: using data and technology 

Forces have introduced technology to start meeting demand. Durham uses evidence-gathering software to collect social-media information on suspects, and instantly compile a report to send to courts. Body-worn cameras have reduced complaints against police by 93 per cent.

But the next generation of this technology needs to be installed to further improve productivity. A message from officers interviewed for the report was: "give us the tools to do our jobs".

Further opportunities exist. Police in the Netherlands use augmented reality to allow experts to advise on evidence of interest at digital crime scenes. Police should work with new technology such as smart devices in the home to collect evidence.

Investment is needed in this new technology. The Police Transformation Fund should be better targeted. Ministers should invest an additional £450 million a year in technology. This funding should come from administrative savings from accelerating the Government's automation agenda, which Reform has previously calculated would save Whitehall £2.6 billion a year.

Skills for policing a digital world

Policing a digital world requires the workforce to possess the right digital capabilities. These different bodies will require different skills based on the types of crime they are facing.

All police officers and staff require an understanding of digital trends and threats. Leaders at one force interviewed for this paper argued that digitisation "terrified officers". Apps should be developed to teach officers about new digital threats, following the US army's library of knowledge-sharing apps. These can also provide resilience training, to help staff deal with changing threats and working patterns. Support from leaders and better relationships between colleagues from across forces should be encouraged.

A smaller number of officers and staff should receive specialist training. One way would be to create a digital academy for policing, following Whitehall’s lead, to graduate 1,700 officers and staff a year. Secondments, to tech companies, should increase from today’s 365 to 1,900 to return to mid-nineties’ levels and widen forces’ digital skill base.

Shaping the workforce

Forces need to shape workforces strategically to meet demand. A new, digital police brand should be cultivated to attract people with digital skills, who might otherwise go to the private sector. Social media should be better used to target these potential recruits.

Forces and national bodies should use this brand to attract specialist volunteers, while also offering a more dynamic working relationship. Currently, of 13,503 special constables working in forces, 40 (or 0.3 per cent) are cyber specials. This misses an opportunity. One special constable interviewed for this paper told of a code they built in one morning to crack a smartphone app being used to hide internet activity. Forces should follow Estonia to employ 1 per cent of IT professionals as on-demand volunteers, totalling 12,000 people.

Chiefs should also have the power to dismiss under-performing officers and to use compulsory severance measures for officers in roles that are no longer needed.

New working patterns

Embracing and developing new technology to meet demand requires new ways of working within forces.

Hierarchy should be slimmed for teams not involved in command-and-control scenarios. Most forces work with all nine statutory ranks, but fewer ranks, down to five, could allow officers the space to meet demand without having to navigate complex bureaucracies. In the mid-nineties, Australia moved from 11 to five ranks, and improved efficiency.

A learning culture should also be established to reduce police errors. Officers pointed to the length of IPCC-sponsored investigations, which averaged 607 days in recent years, as a barrier to taking new approaches. Instead forces should follow the aviation industry to learn from mistakes, with leaders clearly setting the tone for this.

Innovation should be encouraged through removing hierarchy from specialist units. 'Agile' working, without formal hierarchy, should be the norm for teams working on projects. ‘Skunkworks’, experimental units to solve specific problems, should be encouraged to test digital ideas, such as cracking encryption. A national hackathon, run over a few days a year, could allow police forces to work with other law-enforcement agencies and individuals to develop new digital approaches to crime and disseminate best practice.

These changes are deep and lasting, but aim to equip bobbies with the tools to meet demand in the digital age.

Bobbies on the net: a police workforce for the digital age is available at