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Automated policing is not the way for our boys and girls in blue to go


TODAY sees the publication of a report from the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) entitled ‘A Force for Good?’

This rather innocuous-sounding document, which is unlikely to get much publicity due to the wall-to-wall Covid-19 coverage, raises several incredibly important points about modern policing. 

In essence, the report’s authors, Asheem Singh and Will Grimond, argue that the police have expanded their use of artificial intelligence (AI) and automated decision systems (ADS) without debate, review or approval. 

And they are right! 

Policing in the UK is based on consent. This means ‘that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect’.

A key part of this consent is our interaction with officers, from seeing bobbies on the beat to having them as family members, friends and neighbours. Yet the rush to use AI and ADS puts this at risk for four reasons.

First is a belief that technology can be a replacement for boots on the ground. While police numbers have increased over the last 50 years from 92,446 in 1970 to 123,200 in 2019, contact time with the public has dropped.  

According to a report by the Police Foundation, an independent think-tank, almost half (48 per cent) of the public say they never see a bobby on the beat, while just 16 per cent say they had seen one at least once a week. The worst figures since records began!

The report, published in February this year, warned that Britain may be at a ‘tipping point’ in policing and that ‘public views are changing. Crime and policing have risen up the national agenda and ratings of local police are declining. This appears to reflect a widespread perception of police “withdrawal” across multiple aspects of service’.

It continued: ‘In the year to March 2019, public ratings for police understanding and acting on local concerns, being reliable, treating people fairly and of confidence in local police all took a turn for the worse.’ Something that the current occupant of No 10 hopes to reverse with the hiring of an additional 20,000 officers.

Second, the clear lack of any published ethical standards. Now, this is more than the usual holding and storing of vast quantities of personal data, real-time tracking and automated recognition of everything from faces to car number plates.

This is about how this information is used. Will this data be shared with other parts of the state, maybe even sold to third parties? Will the software developer have access to it? How will data breaches be reported and who will carry out any investigation? Will the data always be stored in the UK?

Or how about the problems when information is wrongly processed by an algorithm with all the consequences this might have? Who is culpable? It is very easy to blame the computer! 

The third point is that there are the shortcomings in the tech. We know that the elderly, children and those from the BAME community are already likely to be flagged. In one major study, carried out by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), these systems, including those used by the police, were more likely to misidentify women, black and Asian people by up to 100 times.

My final concern is the removal of humans, capable of exercising their judgment. Yes, this involvement can be messy, emotional, even wrong. But taking this away this from the policing equation not only removes a policeman/woman’s judgment, sometimes built over a long career, but reduces the role of officers to a strange hybrid – a cross between traffic wardens and security guards, there to dispense tickets and provide a bit of muscle, but nothing more. This would be a mistake, as police officers are far more than that.  

Don’t get me wrong, I am not opposed to the use of technology by the police. I think it is vital in the battle against crime. But it must be done with our approval, with built-in safeguards and can never be seen as a replacement for boots on the ground. 

If police chiefs lose sight of these principles, they put at risk the very foundation of policing in the UK, a model that is based on consent and underpinned by our respect for the boys and girls in blue.

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Alistair Thompson
Alistair Thompson
Alistair Thompson is a political campaigner and director of Team Britannia PR.

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