Taking the guesswork out of police work

Technological advancement has always helped the crook before it helped the cop and, for police detectives, the Internet is certainly a double-edged sword.

Crime traditionally depends upon an offender being in a specific place at a specific time and police investigations aim at establishing the facts of the scene.

The Internet means that crime doesn’t necessarily have to occur at a certain hour or location. An offence can be committed in a split second and computer clocks can be manipulated to make it seem that a crime occurred at an altogether different time. The victim of a crime may even be a continent away from the offender.

No longer do law enforcement agencies enjoy the advantage over criminals of geographic containment. These new global realities render traditional policing obsolete. Law enforcement agencies today require new skills and new tools, with greater professionalism and innovation. Police officers can’t fight twenty-first century crime with nineteenth century methods.

Police detective work tends to focus on the collection of information through street investigations, informants, undercover operations and interviewing suspects and witnesses. Things like fingerprints, DNA profiling and facial recognition are then used to build evidence to convict a suspect who has already been identified and arrested.

New technological developments are now allowing those aids to conviction to be used as aids to detection. That is, fingerprints and DNA tests can be used to catch criminals not just convict them.

In the United States, after being tracked unsuccessfully for 15 years, the so-called Unibomber was indicted because of a DNA sample taken from the back of a postage stamp that he had licked. Similarly, using facial recognition technology, police can now identify bank robbers caught on video cameras with an 80 per cent accuracy rate – more reliable than the naked eye.

Much of the legwork and guesswork can be taken out of criminal investigations by integrating profiling and forensic science techniques with technology, and making the tools available to officers on their desktops over a secure intranet. Detectives are able to jump ahead of the investigative process by not having to hunt through thousands of dusty fingerprint records or to try to “think laterally” about a link between different crimes.

Computers don’t solve crimes. They are designed to produce scientific fact, not determine innocence or guilt. Integrated technology can accumulate links in a crime, but it’s still up to the investigating officer to decide to make an arrest, bring a suspect in for questioning, and watch for developments or whatever. Detectives won’t be made redundant by technology, but they will have to learn to use the tools. They will have to change their “policeman’s hunch” mentality and accept that technology rather than intuition is now their best friend.

Technology allows police to investigate a raft of cases at the same time because they no longer have dozens of unsolved cases; they have dozens of pieces of strategic data. Some police chiefs believe it will soon be possible to do away with case-by-case investigations altogether.

*Article extracted from ‘eGov: e-Business Strategies for Government’ by Douglas Holmes, published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing, ISBN: 1-85788-278-4. US $29.95. To order, email:orders@nbrealey-books.com.