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Country plods still not carrying mobile data devices

Seven forces have no digital coppers at all

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Police forces across England and Wales have wildly differing attitudes to the use of mobile-data gadgets. Almost 45,000 "hand-held IT devices" are in use by plods up and down the land, but seven forces have issued none at all.

The league table of gadgets issued by forces was released yesterday in answer to a written Parliamentary question by Keith Vaz MP. Technology advocates have frequently suggested that more use of mobile data by police officers could cut down on time-consuming paperwork and visits to police stations, enabling coppers to spend more time on the streets.

The head of the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA, in charge of Blighty's central police databases and tech initiatives), announcing more funding for gadgets last year, said:

"Mobile computers are critical to a modern police officer. Officers who have access to databases, such as the Police National Computer, command and control and intelligence systems while out on patrol, are spending less time returning to the station and more time on the frontline - therefore increasing visibility and reassuring the public."

It was expected at that point that all UK police would have access to such technology by this year. However, despite ample funding from central government, it seems that some forces still refuse to move into the era of the networked copper. As of yesterday the following forces still had no handheld devices at all: Devon & Cornwall, Gloucestershire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Sussex and West Mercia. Other forces had issued only a few dozen devices.

By contrast, some forces such as the British Transport Police have been early adopters: BTP officers have long used GPRS handhelds, and have also used portable "slim printers" to issue legally-required forms (for instance after a stop-and-search) which would normally be completed laboriously in pen.

Police handhelds used to access criminal records, intelligence and other important data have to comply with CESG security standards requiring strong encryption: furthermore information cannot be held on the device, but must reside permanently only in the NPIA's blue cloud.

It's important to note that the number of handheld devices doesn't really reflect how much access officers have to mobile data: it's very common for police cars to have systems in them, and relatively few coppers spend much time on foot these days - especially since the advent of Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs). Then, in some rural forces access to commercial mobile-data services (and even the government's TETRA system, which in any case offers rubbish bandwidth) can be very spotty.

Controversial mobile fingerprint-scanner devices allowing on-the-fly checks against the NPIA's database are administered under a different project known as Lantern. Trials involving a few hundred devices during the past few years have been deemed a success: In February this year, contractor Cogent Systems was selected by the NPIA to move forward with a rollout of as many as 10,000 systems.

The full list of handheld data devices by force can be viewed here. ®

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