Technology

How British Bobbies Use BlackBerrys


Getting chewed—and eaten—by dogs. Getting run over by cars. And Land Rovers.

It's not an easy life being a police BlackBerry (RIMM) out on the mean streets.

"Nothing is copper-proof," Keith Gough, mobile information manager for Thames Valley Police told silicon.com. "Police officers are not delicate flowers."

And yet—increasing numbers of police are using sophisticated hardware on the beat. The government has committed £80m to ramp up police smartphone use by funding the deployment of 30,000 mobile data devices by 2010—with the Home Office's plan being to increase police visibility in communities by easing the bureaucracy burden.

The thinking goes: if database checks can be made, and information at least entered on a mobile handset and sent securely back to police systems, the officer can remain for longer where they are most wanted: out on the beat.

The number of mobile data devices currently deployed to police is around 39,000, with an even split between forces that have chosen BlackBerrys and those that have plumped for other mobile data devices such as Windows Mobile (MSFT) phones.

With the extra government cash, this is likely to rise to somewhere between 40,000 and 45,000 devices in circulation. There are roughly 76,000 officers in patrol and neighbourhood policing roles.

The impact of mobile technology on policing was the topic at a RIM-sponsored roundtable where speakers including Gough discussed the benefits police get from their mobile devices.

But just because a device has been handed over to a police officer doesn't mean it's actually being used, as inspector Jim Hitch of Bedfordshire Police explained. "We monitor usage and we're running at about 80 to 85 per cent."

Hitch said the older generation of police officers don't always take to the BlackBerrys. "A lot of people really have trouble with the keyboard," he said. "A lot of people have trouble understanding how it all works. We put a lot of effort into the training but it's really not just the physical training of doing it, it's actually then keeping that going and making sure that people use the devices."

"This is not really a technology project," Hitch added. "The technology is there and in many ways that's the easy bit—what this is a people project. This is about cultural change. This is about getting people to work differently. This is about getting people who have never really used a mobile phone for anything other than answering calls and making calls to actually do their day to day job on a small, tiny in some cases, PDA."

"There's a lot of culture to overcome."

Bedfordshire has "super-users" on each division, available to offer advice on how to use the hardware. They also do "positive intervention"—identifying and targeting individual refuseniks to try and encourage them to take-up the technology. "But it's a question of winning hearts and minds rather than waving a big stick and trying to make people do it because I've found that that doesn't work," added Hitch. "It's one of those things that really needs a lot of effort."

But a smartphone is not the only gadget police carry around—they also carry an Airwave radio.

The Airwave Tetra network was designed for voice comms, and while the radios can be used for sending basic data—such as two-digit codes—complex data tasks such as checks of the Police National Computer can't be done without additional assistance. For example doing a PNC check over Airwave means radioing an operator back at base who does the check on the officer's behalf and radios back with the relevant info—something that takes both time and a free operator.

Thames Valley's Gough said a PNC check over Airwave takes an average of three minutes provided an operator is available. He said the force, which rolled out BlackBerrys to its officers in June 2008, has seen a steep rise in PNC checks since it put smartphones in the hands of its officers because they cut out the need for radioing into an operator back at base.

"In July...we had 22,000 PNC checks made over the BlackBerry but the demand on our PNC bureau and the control room was the same so what it did was it released this pent-up need for making PNC checks which wasn't being met by using the Airwave channels because they were always busy," he said.

Bedfordshire's Hitch added that prior to their BlackBerry deployment, 46 per cent of officers' time was spent in police buildings but three years on this figure has been reduced by a fifth, with the reduction holding over two six-month assessment periods.

With unlimited mobile data on tap, all manner of information can be pushed to police officers who might previously have had to spend time returning to the station to receive it. Thames Valley's Gough noted the force is working on getting daily briefings out to officers on the BlackBerry—something Bedfordshire already does.

But with so much data on tap isn't there a risk of information-overload making front-line policing less agile?

Gary Cairns, mobile information programme manager of the National Policing Improvement Agency admitted there is a balance to strike. "It is about giving [police officers] information that's relevant to the duties they're fulfilling," he said.

But Thames Valley's Gough claimed front-line police officers often have too much to remember as it is, and said smartphones could actually help them out in this regard. "If you think an officer has to go in for a morning daily brief and they might have 30 or 40 pieces of information including photographs of 20-odd people. Now that to me is information-overload," he said.

"I wouldn't be able to remember those faces but by deploying them to the BlackBerry if they see somebody on the street and it rings that bell in their mind they've got the information there on the BlackBerry. So it's appropriate information they're getting."

Asked about the cost of using BlackBerrys, Gough said the Thames Valley force buys each device for around £200 and is on a £12 per month unlimited data tariff, while Bedfordshire's Hitch said the all-in cost per device/user per year is £270. He added that using ruggedised devices rather than off-the-shelf BlackBerrys would entail a considered step up in the cost per device—and wouldn't necessarily be worthwhile considering the sticky end of one of their BlackBerrys.

"A dog ate one," said Hitch. "And you can't do much with that, the whole thing's gone and I don't think much would have survived that." At the last count, he said some 30 devices out of the 1,600 deployed had been broken or destroyed in the line of duty.

Over in Thames Valley, Gough said only a handful of the almost 3,000 devices deployed had been seriously damaged. "We have had them driven over by a Volvo," he said. "It survived that, didn't survive the Land Rover. And we've had a couple chewed by dogs because we give them to dog handlers as well."

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