17 July 2017

Can sharing information take away the strain?

Her Majesty’s chief inspector has warned that police can’t continue to buffer the cuts made in other public services, particularly the shortage in mental health provision.  Currently, police are considered to be the service of last resort but where people with mental health problems need urgent assistance, the police are increasingly becoming a first resort service.  

Ian Blackhurst, Executive Director for Public Safety & Health at Northgate Public Services believes sharing critical knowledge between all public services could enable early interventions to offer better support to the most vulnerable, reduce crime and the strain on frontline officers. 

The police can’t continue to buffer the cuts made in other public services, Her Majesty’s chief Inspector of Constabulary, Sir Thomas Winsor, has warned.  This is particularly apparent in relation to the pressures on mental health provision.  Where the police were once considered to be the service of last resort, now, if an individual is in crisis, the police are increasingly becoming a first resort service. 

This is putting additional strain on a service which has already had to deal with much change in the last decade. Something has got to give, as they say. But despite all the budget cuts and additional pulls on time, police can continue to keep the public safe and secure, by preventing crime through early intervention, based on shared accessible knowledge.

Prevention, after all, is always preferable to cure. The holy grail of any early intervention, is securing evidence based on good, reliable information. And that means information that can cross borders and silos.  Sir Thomas has argued strongly the physical boundaries between forces, impede sharing data, and that this can be overcome by removing the virtual boundaries.

Let’s take an all-too-common example of ‘Susan’. Her story is one of low level domestic violence and abuse over a ten-year period, which over time, leads to multiple points of contact with police, social services, the NHS, and domestic abuse charities. ‘Susan’ has never co-operated with police and so her partner, Alan, has never have been charged.

Almost inevitably in these circumstances, the violence builds and Susan receives death threats. Susan moves a few times to avoid contact with Alan, often across force boundaries, and the police information systems don’t always keep up.

Then, there is an arson attack at her old address. The information systems currently in place are not always capable of seamlessly and quickly linking previous occupants at the address to identify that perhaps this is an escalation of the violence and Alan’s attempt to cause Susan harm. A suspect is not identified.

With the connection between Alan’s death threats to Susan and the arson not made, the opportunity for intervention is missed. Eventually Susan is viciously attacked by Alan, whose first chargeable offence ends up being murder.

Susan is not real, but her story is, because there is often no automatic mechanism available to enable the sharing of critical intelligence between police forces and partner agencies. Key information from social services, schools and GPs often doesn’t filter through until a case conference, by which time it can be too late. The fragments of the story may well be there, but the overall picture is difficult to form and multiple opportunities to protect victims, such as Susan and her children, are lost.

Most police forces and partner agencies have a ‘Susan’ hidden within their IT systems, when all the pieces of the puzzle exist, but are unlinked. IT today can break down the silos and departmental barriers that have grown up over time and pick out the disparate pieces of the information puzzle to create a more complete record. A single picture of both victim and perpetrator, where numerous separate risk assessments over several years are available for officers and agencies to view and assess, for example, and links to old addresses and tenants are revealed.

Consider the difference this would make to the outcome of Susan’s story. Not to mention the reduced impact on police resources.

Early intervention usually leads to better support for the most vulnerable, drives crime reduction, and lessens the strain on frontline officers.

Enabling individual forces to share critical knowledge between themselves and partner agencies will hopefully consign situations like Susan’s to relics of the past. Collaboration and intelligence sharing is the key. After all, as the saying goes, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

In these challenging times of decreasing budgets and increasing workloads, integrated access to shared information will be pivotal to producing positive outcomes in policing.

Ian Blackhurst is the executive director for public safety & health at Northgate Public Services and heads up the Athena IT programme for NPS, the most ambitious policing technical collaboration programme in the country. 

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