MobileID’s Impact on Improving Police Efficiency Highlighted by ACPO’s DCC East Midlands Peter Goodman and the NPIA’s Nick Deyes

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Confirming identity is a major aspect of a police officer’s job, especially as a criminal can go to great lengths to disguise who they actually are. However, fingerprints remain a reliable biometric identifier, and consequently advances in this area are keeping pace with those in modern technology. Thus, the now prolific mobile technology has played a significant part in supporting police to identify criminals across England and Wales.

Mobile identification (MobileID) is helping officers to identify individuals by their fingerprints more quickly. Furthermore, MobileID forms part of the Information Systems Improvement Strategy (ISIS), which is transforming the way police technology is developed, procured, implemented and managed. This technological step forward will ultimately help police officers on the front line to carry out their duties more effectively, as Association of Chief Police Officers Lead on MobileID Deputy Chief Constable East Midlands Peter Goodman and Head of ISIS at the National Policing Improvement Agency Nick Deyes explain to Editor Caroline Pennington.

Goodman begins by discussing identification complications surrounding automatic number plate recognition (ANPR). "Five years ago, when the police first made use of ANPR technology, there were roadside checks with a high volume of people that we had not seen before," he explains. "Officers recognised that there was a real issue around the identification of the people they stopped, which was particularly acute because of the diverse nature of people and the open borders that we have in this country. All too regularly they were finding that they were having to make arrests for fairly minor offences because they simply did not know a person’s identity – and consequently they would have to take the individual into custody to verify these factors."

Taking a person into custody to establish their identity not only takes several hours, but it also removes officers from frontline policing. However, as Goodman continued by explaining, mobile technology has increased the efficiency of this process: "In 2006, we had the notion of a device that would assist in the identification of people, and we worked initially with the company that provided the National Fingerprint Database (IDENT1) to develop a pilot to see if we could create a mobile fingerprint device.

"We went for fingerprints because they are the only biometrics where identification is absolute. We trialled that over a couple of years with a pilot device called Lantern – which took a fingerprint, sent it off to the IDENT1 database and came back with a match in a short period of time. Obviously, however, you would only get a match if that person’s identity was already stored in the IDENT1 database, so they had to be people with previous convictions."

24 forces across England and Wales are now using the MobileID device, and Deyes shares how the technology has been developed: "The business case was built around Lantern, for which we had 330 devices across 28 police forces. If you think about what an old mobile looked like, Lantern devices were similar. As they were the size of a brick, they tended to be used by traffic police rather than officers on the beat."

The field trials reported significant benefits from the Lantern devices, including improved levels of public confidence, faster identification of victims of crime, and increased time on the front line for police officers. Deyes comments on this, explaining that "the positive feedback from the traffic cops who used Lantern generated the project to replace them with the MobileID devices, which do a very similar function but using a much smaller unit".

MobileID is a very simple concept, assures Deyes: "When an officer wants to verify the identity of the person in front of them using a MobileID device – which is as big as a cigarette packet and attached to a Blackberry – they put one of the individual’s fingers onto the scanner and it checks their fingerprint against the IDENT1 database, which contains entries for nearly nine million people. Everyone who has been previously convicted will have had their fingerprint taken, and if they are on that database, it will return the identification of that individual." Depending on the strength of signal coverage, the officer will receive information about a person’s identity between 30 seconds and two minutes after scanning an individual’s prints. Once this search is complete, the fingerprints are then removed from the MobileID devices.

"The huge debate around ID cards came about because identification is difficult to achieve in a modern day society," continues Goodman. "Consequently, for those with a criminal background, MobileID closes a huge loophole. We know that serious and violent offenders will do everything that they can to prevent the police from knowing their true identifies. We have had people on the run and wanted for murder or for serious offences of kidnapping who have given false identities, and who have been arrested; we have also had people arrested who have been involved in the importation of drugs."

Consequently, MobileID has been successful in bringing more people to justice, as confirms Goodman: "On a number of occasions, we will often bail people on the street, or give them fixed penalty notices, in order to avoid the long process of taking them into custody. The average time for a person going through a custody suite is four hours. So for public order offences or for minor matters, we would seek to give them a fixed penalty notice. A significant proportion of these are done under false identification but where we have MobileID that is not the case – because we are able to say then, there and absolutely definitively who that person is."

The NPIA records instances of when MobileID has been used to great effect in local communities. For example, local officers in Chelmsford, Essex, recently responded to a report of a disturbance. On arrival at the scene, they located a male who had sustained such injuries that led officers to believe he had been involved in the incident. However, the suspect was evasive when asked for his details – name and date of birth, for example – and the circumstances surrounding the incident. Although the officers were unable to obtain the suspect’s identity with his cooperation, they were able to do so using a MobileID device, which provided a positive result in 30 seconds. Moreover, the information revealed that the individual was suspected of murder in Poland and wanted on a European arrest warrant. He was therefore subsequently detained and returned to Poland to stand trial.

MobileID also helps in the identification of victims of fatal accidents. The NPIA has reported that, having responded to a fatal road traffic collision, Hampshire officers were confronted with a situation where a driver had suffered extensive and disfiguring injuries. The officers were able to use their MobileID device to obtain a fingerprint from the deceased person, and consequently identify him. Whilst this saved a great deal of time for the officers; more importantly, due to the nature of the injuries sustained, it allowed relatives to avoid the trauma of having to physically identify the deceased.

However, the information supplied by the MobileID devices is not only useful in identifying individuals, but also in enhancing police officers’ safety. "This is another big benefit when officers are often dealing with people they do not know," states Goodman. "The officers do not know if the person has got a drugs conviction, weapons warnings or a violent background, for example. When officers come across people they have to make dynamic risk assessments on the individuals they are dealing with.

"Within 60 seconds of the encounter, however, MobileID enables officers to find out a person’s background as, through the Police National Computer, we can check whether, for example, they have any violent convictions, drugs convictions, or if they are wanted – all of the different things that you would want to know about an individual whilst on the street."

Given the demonstrated benefits of the scheme, forces must now decide whether it would aid effective policing in their areas. Deyes goes on to confirm the future plans for the device: "It is up to individual forces to take a view over how many of the devices they want, and if they have not got any, whether they want to take them on. I think it was difficult for forces that did not sign-up to reassess the potential of the devices until they started being used live and operationally.

"We have currently got 500 devices being deployed in live operational circumstances, so forces can now take a view on the benefits they offer. Furthermore, we are talking to specialist police units, port police and people who would not have been part of the first wave of forces to take a view. Forces are in a difficult financial climate and there is still a cost that they need to find for the devices, but the time that is saved by not having to take a person to the station to check their identity, with that time now spent on patrol, there is an efficiency saving rather than a specific cash saving."

Approximately 50,000 officers across England and Wales are equipped with mobiles devices including PDAs and smartphones, but not necessarily a Blackberry. Deyes confirms that there is a case currently under review for integrating the fingerprint scanner (which is a separate device fitted onto the back of the Blackberry) into the equipment the forces already have to prevent weighing officers down by lots of different technology.

Mobile identification is an efficient and time-saving way of confirming a person’s identity at the scene, within minutes. The devices are currently being used in 24 police forces across the nation, and help to make communities safer, as well as increasing public confidence and officer time spent on patrol.

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