By Suzannah Brecknell

25 May 2023

Policing’s chief scientific adviser Paul Taylor shares how the new science and technology strategy was developed – and what will be needed for it to succeed

Even based on a short Teams call with Taylor, it’s not hard to see why he was chosen for a job which entails communicating with a range of different groups, and energising each of them about the importance of working in new ways together. 

Taylor, chief scientific adviser at the National Police Chiefs Council, peppers his conversation with metaphors and has a knack for choosing pertinent examples that bring his arguments to life. When describing the first national policing science and technology strategy, for example, he talks about forests, flourishing seedlings, eggs in a basket and lights under bushels – all before he even gets to explaining how technology has dramatically reduced the waiting time for responses to domestic violence calls, or why we shouldn’t fear failure.

As the policing CSA, Taylor’s job is to ensure the sector – which includes the College of Policing, the National Crime Agency, the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, and individual forces – has access to evidence and advice on any area where science might contribute to crime prevention and detection.

Taylor explains that the newly published S&T strategy for policing “brings together all the component parts of science and technology across policing and articulates how those parts create the forest – the science system – and our collective ambitions for what that science system will deliver for the public today, tomorrow and in 10 years’ time”.

The strategy has three pillars: engage, evolve, embed. The first, Taylor explains, reflects “the fact that to achieve what we want to achieve, we need to talk to everyone: to academia, who have the ideas; to industry, who can help build the solutions; and to the public, to make sure that our ambitions reflect what they will consent to and indeed what they want from a legitimate, trustworthy police service”.

The “evolve” pillar recognises that bringing S&T more effectively into policing will be a journey rather than a one-off change. “When you’re doing a piece of science and technology, you don’t do it and then six months later the flower is perfectly formed and delivered,” Taylor says. 

“It takes many years, so ‘evolve’ is about making sure that we have a system in place that allows early seedling ideas to flourish all the way across what we call technology readiness levels, to a finished product in a way that’s seamless, with no gaps in that system where things will fall down.”

Work within this pillar includes, for example, facilitating trials of new technologies to help break the catch-22 situation in which firms – often SMEs – are offering innovative tech to police forces who won’t trial it because it hasn’t been used before. 

The strategy’s third pillar – “embed” – is about creating a system which supports the use of technology across policing, and then making sure technology is widely and deeply used in that system. “It’s very easy to put all of your eggs in the ‘technology’ basket, deliver the technology and then leave it to sit on the shelf gathering dust,” Taylor says. To avoid this, he continues, you need to think about how workforce skills, policy, legislation, finances and procurement – namely “everything that goes around the tool” – can be adapted to support better use of S&T.

As well as building that system, the embed pillar aims to find good practice and spread it. “My view is local innovation in policing is better than any other sector I’ve ever worked in. Brilliant stuff goes on in local forces,” Taylor says. “But of course scaling that from the local to the national can be quite difficult. We’ve got these wonderful lights under bushels in one part of the country which never get seen by the other parts of the country. So ‘embed’ is really to create mechanisms that will uncover those lights and allow others across the country to see them and implement them.” 

“My view is local innovation in policing is better than any other sector I’ve ever worked in. Brilliant stuff goes on in local forces”

One mechanism is the creation of a model in which forces each have science and innovation leads, who meet together on regional committees. These committees in turn feed into a national innovation committee. “What’s beginning to blossom out of that now is the different regions are leading in different areas of S&T,” Taylor says, adding that the model also enables innovation to be rolled out at a regional level before considering national applications.

“Sometimes the mistake in the past has been that we do [something new] at the force level, then we immediately strive to do it naturally across 43 forces,” Taylor says. “I actually think it works better if you move to regional first: they often have comparable systems and ways of working, as well as cultures, because they interact so regularly. Then you can do it at the national level.”

To help find innovation that could be scaled up, the NPCC is running a scheme called the Smarter Practice Initiative, which is collecting three examples of innovative technology from each force to create “a baseline catalogue of the great things that are going on everywhere”. Once the catalogue is collated, it will be reviewed by a panel of experts to consider how these innovations might be rolled out across the country.  

So far, this seems a fairly straightforward innovation scheme which might not have much to do with S&T – indeed, the NPCC has run similar initiatives before on topics such as homicide prevention. But Taylor’s team also wants to bring some scientific rigour to it, by building an evidence base for innovation.  

It’s here that he talks about the technology – Rapid Video Response – which has been shown to make a dramatic difference in response times for domestic abuse calls, along with improvements in victim satisfaction and time savings for police officers.

RVR gives domestic abuse victims whose lives are not in immediate danger the option of speaking to a police officer via a secure video call to report an incident, rather than waiting for a face-to-face visit. In 2021, Kent Police ran a randomised control trial of this technology, funded by the NPCC, which found that callers who used RVR began speaking to an officer in just three minutes, compared to around 33 hours for those who received a face-to-face response. RVR also meant officers took just over two hours to complete a case, compared to three hours for the standard service, and victims were also more satisfied with their response.  

While this randomised control trial is an ideal way to evaluate a new technology, other trials might involve things like analysing data in the months before and after a new technology is implemented. This might not be as robust as a randomised control trial, but Taylor says that in government “sometimes we have to be practical”.

“It’s better to do some form of evaluation as to whether it’s making any difference than not do anything,” he says. “In actual fact, a couple of our trials this year have shown the things that we implemented make no difference and I think it’s important to celebrate that success sometimes come from the fact that the thing has failed... or rather – I shouldn’t use the world ‘failed’ – that the thing has proven not to be effective, and we’ve learnt that. That’s better than what probably happens in many other cases, where it gets implemented and it’s just assumed that it works.”

When it comes to the S&T strategy there are – as you would expect – a number of detailed metrics which will allow Taylor and others to judge whether it has worked. But what does he think will help ensure that success? 

Taylor points again to the question of local leadership: what matters is for the 43 forces across the country to buy into the strategy. “I have tried to design a strategy that, at its heart, puts innovation, science and technology at the local level,” he says. “If forces see the strategy as something that is being done in the national space, and not relevant to them at the force level, then it has failed.” 

Case studies

Demand management
With industry partners, Lancashire Constabulary is using voice-to-text and natural language processing to understand, categorise and manage the force’s annual 1.2 million 999 and 101 calls. By the end of 2021, the system had categorised 730,000 calls, which would have taken the review team roughly 68 years to process manually. 

Eastern region forces and the NPCC lead for Police National Computer (PNC) are piloting an automated process to support vetting enquiries. This tool, which automates procedural PNC record checks, passes key information to a vetting officer for assessment and decision, and has real potential to introduce efficiency for all forces. 

Tackling crime 
The Home Office Digital, Data and Technology team and forces are collaborating on pilots that utilise Automatic Number Plate Recognition data to identify and proactively target high harm county lines offenders. Applying automated data analytics tools and policing techniques has already proven highly successful in identifying suspicious travel.

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