Are the Met Police set to radically transform crime scene investigations?

Image credit: Matt Brown

According to Sadiq Khan’s Police and Crime Plan 2017–2021, the Met Police Service (MPS) is set to introduce new mobile technology that could alter crime scene investigation significantly. Detectives are desperately under-equipped when it comes to digital, so this announcement is long overdue.

The MPS has received heavy criticism recently due to a failed iPad rollout and a projected £30 million overspend. So will it use these latest advances to furnish teams with substantial new kit? Or is it just another step change along an already well-trodden path?

One of the key statements in the plan explains: “We will bring frontline policing into the 21st century by equipping officers with mobile data tablets to enable them to work on the move, without having to return to the station to access or input information.”

It seems unfathomable that this doesn’t happen already, but it’s been a difficult and well-documented journey. Last year, the MPS shelved plans to equip staff with iPad minis, which reportedly wasted £6 million. The hardware itself cost £1.2 million, with an estimated £4.1 million spent on software.

The main aim of that particular trial was to reduce desk time by allowing officers to access systems remotely. A case study by Vodafone estimated that every officer could gain an extra six hours per week by making checks and entering information while on the move. It’s unclear whether Vodafone will be involved in the MPS’s latest rollout plan.

When tablets do finally end up in the hands of officers, they’ll be able to use them to document crime scene evidence: “Technology will transform crime scene investigation, with mobile devices enabling direct and immediate submission of evidence from scenes to provide early investigative leads.”

Further specifics on how the MPS plans to use mobile aren’t readily available. But rather than focus solely on creating efficiencies, perhaps it’s time to embed technology into the culture? It could use this opportunity to think beyond traditional methodologies and embrace the latest innovations in digital policing.

Mobile fingerprinting

In India, police in Alwar are trialling an app that can match biometric information with a secure criminal database in seconds. Police can quickly profile criminals using fingerprints, voice or facial recognition via a system referred to as artificial-intelligence-based human efface detection (ABHED). The pilot project is ongoing.

Real-time DNA analysis

At present, DNA analysis of crime scene evidence is generally carried out in a lab by specialists. But in 2015, a paper by Anna Mapes and Christianne de Poot explored the potential for DNA analysis to be undertaken directly at crime scenes. It states: “The current mobile smartphones offer an interesting technology platform for mobile sensors in a wireless network given the intrinsic capability to capture temporal and spatial information and transfer data and the optimised interface allowing users to perform a wide range of tasks.”

Work is continuing to develop an all-in-one mobile technology that adheres to stringent quality standards: “The technical innovations in the area of fast and mobile DNA analyses are towards creating fully integrated instruments for the analysis of DNA traces. These instruments will enable the analysis of biological traces on or near the scene and connect the results directly to a reference profile from the DNA database to identify suspects, witnesses and/or victims.”

For a glimpse of what that might look like, take a look at Biomeme’s ‘mobile genetic diagnostic platform’ that turns an iPhone into a mobile DNA laboratory. It tends to be used for environmental and food-based analysis — such as identifying microbes, pathogens and genetic mutations — but its use on a crime scene can’t be far away.

Virtual reality and 360-degree video

Last year, Staffordshire University received a grant to explore whether crime scenes could be recreated using virtual reality. By providing this in the courtroom, it could bring an unprecedented level of clarity to a jury.

Another way of achieving the same aim would be to use 360 video to capture an environment. Viewers could interact with the recording via Google Cardboard.

Facial recognition

Using a mobile device for facial recognition isn’t a particularly new concept. One of the early pioneers was Massachusetts-based biotech company BI² Technologies, which launched its MORIS app way back in 2010. You just take a photo of an individual and it trawls through a connected database for results.

More recently, in South Wales, Police used a van-mounted facial recognition system, provided by NEC, to make its first arrest. Trials of NEC’s software are ongoing across the country and it’ll be interesting to see whether it’s integrated into body-worn cameras.

Digital forensics

We leave traces of our digital footprints wherever we go — from a geolocated tweet in a coffee shop to checking in some milk on a wifi-enabled smart fridge. As ‘the internet of things’ becomes more popular, all kinds of devices could store evidence to support a prosecution or provide an alibi. Clearly, there’s a privacy issue to wrangle with as a society first, but the analytical technology is readily available.

The MOPAC report refers to the creation of 96 self-service digital forensic kiosks: “The rapid recovery of data from digital devices such as smartphones is critical to the majority of criminal investigations. In digital forensics, the MPS will implement a new operating model where the majority of the recovery of data will be undertaken by investigators through the deployment of 96 digital forensics kiosks across the MPS.”

This is a huge step forward, but the real benefits arrive when the technology is mobilised allowing detectives to rapidly unlock information in the field. Timing is critical in a fast-moving case and potentially data could be downloaded directly at crime scenes rather than taken to a kiosk or sent to a lab.

Over the next few years, digital is set to profoundly alter crime scene investigation in London. Quite how far depends on the ambition, budget and willingness of the MPS. But with the number of detectives dwindling, there’s never been a better time to position our force as a leader in digital policing.

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