Wednesday 19 September 2012

The pen is mightier than the sword

Or, updating the adage for the 21st century, the computer is mightier than the gun.

Arming every officer, even if it were logistically possible, even if they were all suitable (which it isn't, and they aren't) would not prevent tragedies such as we saw yesterday. Policing is a risky business at the sharp end, and where a madman does things so far off the scale of reasonableness and predictability the risks are impossible to eradicate.  And to alter the essential character of our policing to such an extent in the hope that it might help is, sadly, simply not worth it.

But what we must do, what the leaders of our Police Service are duty-bound to do, is to take every possible step to make sure that our policing of our communities by consent is safe.  In this context that means making sure that every single piece of information and intelligence which might help inform officers attending every call for help is available to them and those who direct them.

There is a long-standing issue with the dissemination of information gleaned from major investigations, which few forces, if any, have come to terms with.  Typically, a force will have three computer systems relevant to this issue - Command and Control, which logs calls for help, who is responding, how the incident is dealt with and the result; an intelligence database where information, graded for reliability, is kept in cross-referenced indices with entries relating to persons, vehicles, premises and locations; and the HOLMES (Home Office Large Major Enquiry System) database upon which every piece of information relating to major investigations is kept in discrete accounts.

The Command and Control system has a facility whereby as an incident log is created any flags attached to the address entered will be displayed.  These may relate to the occupiers or the location and are essential for the dispatching officer to make an informed decision as to the risk to officer safety.  In some forces these flags still have to be entered manually whilst in others information will be copied across from the intelligence system automatically.  But of course even in the latter cases, manual entry on to the intelligence system is required, so there is a dependence on somebody, somewhere, deciding that the information is worth recording.  The ultimate systems might be where the Command and Control logs themselves automatically write back to the intelligence system, but the issues of duplication and data standardisation here are proving difficult to overcome.

At a divisional level intelligence staff are pretty good at updating the Command and Control database. But it all becomes a bit murky when you start to try to include HOLMES. Culturally it has taken some years to arrive at the position where detectives investigating the most serious of crimes have accepted the necessity to put everything they do, see, hear and take possession of on to 'The System', that is, to record it on the HOLMES database. The additional burden of separately submitting an intelligence report for the different database seems to have been taken on only by the more conscientious and far-sighted officers.  Despite repeated efforts it has not been possible, to my knowledge, to arrive at a reliable means of achieving the automatic transfer of information from HOLMES to an intelligence database, certainly not in a foolproof and operationally sound way. So we are left to rely upon the judgment of individual intelligence officers attached to major enquiry teams, who have as a priority the gathering of information for dissemination to their team and perhaps understandably therefore are frequently too busy to push information out from the team to the wider force in any comprehensive or reliable manner.  I doubt there is a Senior Investigating Officer past or present who has not wrestled with this problem, tried to address it but ended up uneasy that it has never really been solved.

Why is all this relevant?  Because the fact that there is a vast mass of useful intelligence lying dormant in HOLMES accounts across the country means, generally, that opportunities to solve or prevent crime, and to mitigate risks to officers, are not available to those who would like to take advantage of them.  Because, I fear, it is very likely that despite the huge external and internal publicity generated by Greater Manchester Police in the hunt for Cregan, there will be information in the HOLMES account that would have led to his capture had it been available to a wider audience. Or, more devastatingly perhaps, which would have linked Cregan somehow, maybe through a few degrees of separation, with the house in Abbey Gardens.

This piece is written not to criticize nor carp, but rather to offer a suggestion at a time when all of us, especially those who have worn the uniform, are hurting. It is extremely difficult, extremely unpalatable.  But it would be some additional respect to the memories of Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes if their painful loss were to inspire each and every police officer and staff member to ensure that every conceivable snippet of information they acquire is shared as widely as it can be. Computers, not guns, ought to be giving our dedicated frontline officers the increased safety they deserve, but as ever, they can only be as good as the information they are fed.