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MPs: Fight grog-fuelled crimewave with PDAs

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The MPs also noted that actually the British police get a lot of the available money compared to other countries - more than in America, for instance.

Police funding in the UK is the highest amongst the OECD countries. For example, in 2004 the UK spent 2.5 per cent of GDP on public order and safety, ahead of the US at 2.2 per cent, Spain at 1.8 per cent, Germany at 1.6 per cent and France at 1.4 per cent.

There was also some stuff on the vexed question of crime statistics. No matter how the official stats go, people tend to remain convinced that crime is surging. This isn't helped by the fact that police forces often refuse to discuss any given crime publicly, preferring to speak only of statistics and generalities. Hence the recent argument in favour of "crime maps", which the MPs broadly approved of.

Low levels of public confidence in the police and distrust of crime statistics are in part driven by a lack of clear information about local crime and police activity. The public should be provided with better information about crime levels in their neighbourhood. Neighbourhood crime mapping appears to be a useful means to achieve this ... Local police successes should also be publicised in more detail, to reassure the public in a way in which outline crime reduction statistics do not ... As a matter of course, police forces should make available to the media the general details of criminal activities that have been reported to the police.

Some of this is already in place, in trial areas.

There was also support for the use of tracking tags on suspects released on police bail:

We welcome the use of tagging orders to enable the police to monitor more effectively defendants released on bail. However, we still have some reservations about the extent to which breaches may occur; the Home Office should keep this under review. In our opinion, breaches should be dealt with by withdrawal of bail.

There was another tech angle, too, with the MPs pushing heavily for the use of networked gadgets by street coppers, in order to keep them out on the cold streets rather than form-filling and keyboard-bashing in the warm station. Many English forces have now issued BlackBerries, which use the ordinary mobile net to access resources securely in much the same way that corporate clients do.

Expert witnesses told the committee that the BlackBerry and other portable-tech solutions had gone down well, but there had apparently been problems with different solutions used north of the border. Some Scottish forces have to use the Airwave/TETRA network as ordinary mobile coverage can be unreliable or nonexistent, but this requires different platforms and bandwidth can be very limited.

For whatever reason, it appears that Scottish cops don't like handhelds. A survey by the Scottish Police Federation (what would be the union for rank and file coppers, if they had a union) said that 70 per cent of them reckoned that digital gadgets made them less efficient - and even endangered them, as they weren't keeping an eye on potentially troublesome suspects while keying in data.

The big debate, which the MPs couldn't quite settle, was whether it would be better for all UK coppers to have a monolithic common mobile-networking solution - in other words a huge government IT project, with attendant risks of catastrophe and one-size-fits-all nightmares - or let the current piecemeal, force-by-force efforts proceed. In the end, the MPs reckoned a common national system would be best.

Personal digital assistants can significantly increase the amount of time that police officers spend on visible patrol and dealing with incidents outside the station, and reduce the time they spend on paperwork ... We recommend that sufficient funding is made available as soon as possible to enable all frontline officers to have access to a PDA ... In our view, it is possible to achieve a balance with meeting the needs of individual forces by developing a common platform that can then be tailored to suit the local situation.

There was loads more for those interested, regarding the wider use of non-sworn civilian staff with no powers of arrest, collaboration between the UK's patchwork of often quite small regional police forces etc etc. The report can be read in full here. ®

*Yes, we're aware that the prohibitionists can easily produce figures suggesting that booze badness costs the country £20bn pa. We've seen one such set of estimates. It included more than a billion pounds on burglar alarms (people buy 'em because they're afraid of drunk burglars, apparently) and nearly £5bn for "emotional support".

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