How technology has changed the face of crime fighting

Gareth Wilson, Chief Constable of Suffolk Police. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Gareth Wilson, Chief Constable of Suffolk Police. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

In his latest column, Suffolk Constabulary chief constable GARETH WILSON writes about the way technology has changed policing during his 30-year career.

Since announcing my retirement a few weeks ago, I have had some wonderful messages from a real variety of people and also had time to reminisce.

Around 30 years ago, I was apprehensive as I approached the regional police training centre at HMS Ganges on Shotley Point and started on a journey that would give me the most fascinating insight into our communities, societal inequalities and those who cause harm through offending.

My class comprised of officers from across the region and beyond and I formed friendships that have lasted throughout my career.

There are many enjoyable duties I perform as chief constable but one that I truly enjoy is the ‘passing out parade’, where new recruits celebrate the end of their initial training alongside their friends and family.

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The ceremony is conducted next to the force museum and it’s when I’m looking at the displays I can see how far we have moved on.

With the reductions in police budgets, a core element of our business strategy has been the development of technology. Knowledge is power, and when in the hands of the state has to be gathered and managed both ethically and lawfully.

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On my first few days on the beat, I visited the ‘collator’ who had handwritten index cards on all of the local villains. It was a manual system, alphabetically listed and containing reams of information that had to be read to gain any sense.

Now automated, our IT systems allow instant access to information held on people across the country and beyond national boundaries.

Our systems help us deal with globalisation, travelling criminals and allow us to manage people at risk in a wholly more professional way.

Linking in with other technological advances such as Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR), it allows us to target our resources in a far more efficient and effective way ensuring we keep the public of Suffolk safe.

Another exhibit in the museum is the teleprinter - a system where telex messages were passed between stations across the country and relied upon people periodically coming in from patrol and checking what had been printed.

Messages comprised of everything from mass circulations to specific requests to arrest people. You were sometimes blessed with a call from the originator guiding you to pick up the printout.

Investments agreed with the police and crime commissioner have led to mobile devices, allowing remote working over wide parts of the county.

The times of the teleprinter are long gone, but recent advances allow instant access to intelligence and so many different applications that allow officers and staff to be far more effective in what they do and respond instantaneously as incidents unfold.

I spent many hours in the ‘report writing room’ scribing and submitting case files and investigative updates.

Of course technological advances have not all been in society’s favour. The era of the keyboard warrior filling social media with both hatred and spite has added to the workload of many officers.

Their activity ranges from low level comments that cause offence to threats against life. The volume of devices and their capacity has also led to challenges for investigators.

How does an investigator sift through the equivalent of a whole library’s worth of information manually? They simply cannot and we are having to develop technology to deal with the innovations we see.

The development of forensic science has come on a pace with DNA giving a massive advantage to law enforcement.

I have spoken before about my time leading homicide teams and we have seen time and time again convictions in recent times that would not be possible without the tenacity of cold case detectives and the advances in science.

I am fascinated at what developments will be next and into the future. One thing is for certain and that is that those who think they have got away with a crime will have to look over their shoulder for the rest of their lives.

We will never rest and when we get a breakthrough, we will come knocking.

Looking back across my service, the advances have been phenomenal and what was exalted as a mere concept on the television programme Tomorrow’s World is now old hat.

Of course, they have presented real challenge to the criminal justice system but the basics of being a good copper still form the foundation of what we are all about - integrity, tenacity and the ability to be able to be inclusive with those whom we serve day in, day out.

I have loved every minute of it and would advocate a career in policing to anyone who asks. It’s been the most wonderful journey and I look forward to sharing a few more thoughts as I work towards my departure in April.

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