Keep your distance
Fast-tracked during the first weeks of the COVID-19 crisis, new additions to Motorola’s Pronto app are designed to help police officers carry out their duties without the need for contact with the public. Editor Philip Mason investigates.
As might be imagined we received a range of answers, touching on subjects including use of technology, social distancing, mental health issues, as well the overall government response to the crisis. One thing that came up time and again however was fears around inadequate PPE provision, with just under a quarter of respondents saying it was one of the biggest challenges faced by them since the start of the virus.
While it’s not quite within the remit of the BAPCO 2021 site to devote an entire piece purely to personal protective equipment, we are certainly interested in how technology might be used to provide at least some reassurance in lieu of adequate PPE. With that in mind, in this article we’re looking at two Coronavirus-related functions which have recently been added to Motorola’s Pronto police mobile working solution.
The first of these offers the ability to issue penalty tickets without the need for paperwork, thereby better enabling social distancing when dealing with the general public. The second allows officers to take statements by email, putting in place greater safety not just on behalf of the officer but also the witness themselves.
Ian Williams is a senior consultant for Motorola Solutions and one of the leads on the additional Pronto functionality. Discussing the development of the solution, he says: “The first addition was the ability to issue penalty tickets, particularly during the initial stages of lockdown where people were being compelled to stay indoors.
“Obviously, the initial push from government was that this may need some enforcement, which meant that forces were going to have to use paper, thereby completely defeating the object of social distancing.”
He continues: “It wasn’t that difficult to build the new functionality and get it out within the space of about two weeks. Within a couple of days of the legislation coming into force, all of the Pronto forces could make it available to their officers. The solution has actually been able to issue tickets from the start, but primarily focussed on things like roads policing.
“I think it bears saying that most forces only ever used the power to issue tickets as a last resort, with variations generally depending on whether the officers were operating in an urban or rural area. It’s been a really good tool to help reassure them that their forces are thinking of their welfare.”
While developing the additional functionality may have been relatively straightforward - at least according to Williams -, a different challenge was presented when it came to integration of the solution into the relevant back office systems. This was due in large part to the new legislation itself.
Elaborating on this, he says: “Because they’re all based on criminal codes, the normal ticketing processes generally goes via the force or the CPS. By contrast, breaking lockdown rules - which is a non-criminal offence - goes through the local authority.
“Amongst other things, that means the ticket has to take a completely different back office journey. The ACRO Criminal Records Office ultimately took responsibility for that, making sure that the tickets got to the right organisations.”
As mentioned, alongside the ‘virtual’ ticketing, Motorola also included other new functionality, enabling officers to take statements via a mobile device. According to Williams this took considerably longer however due to the complexity of the task, particularly when it came to issues around security.
Discussing the need for the ‘statement’ app, he says: “If you take a large force, they’re probably taking something like 10,000 statements using Pronto every month. As with the penalty ticketing, that involves handing over a physical object, this time to get an electronic signature.
“In terms of the functionality itself, officers can now instigate a statement from within the application while enabling new workflows to be opened up at the same time. The really interesting bit is the [Microsoft Azure-based] portal, which enables the statement to be emailed to the witness for signing, along with a six-figure, self-generated security number.”
He continues: “Regarding integration within the criminal justice system, we already knew we had sign-off from the CPS to do telephone statements. The thing that’s taken the time is integration within the cloud, due to the national accreditation needed to send data off-site. The actual development of the workflows themselves was probably only a week, again because the functionality already existed to a degree.
“It was a relatively simple process for our development teams because they do this sort of stuff everyday anyway. They understood the front-end process very quickly.”
Increased assaults on officers
According to a press release issued at the time of launch, the new Pronto functionality has been made available to all 19 forces already making use of the solution across the UK. That being the case, you can’t help but wonder how much of a hand those forces had in its design. Was the ability to issue virtual penalty tickets/take witness statements by phone part of a request by a particular lead organisation?
“Not at all” says Williams, “the whole project just developed organically from discussions which were already being carried out. It actually stemmed from a similar requirement the forces had already outlined before the pandemic, as a way to make themselves more efficient. Something like telephone statements was always on the roadmap, and the CPS had already issued guidance.”
Statistics released by the National Police Chiefs Council in May of this year revealed that assaults on the police had risen by around 14 per cent, compared early Spring 2019. Much of this increase, according to the NPCC, was likely down to people spitting at officers while claiming to have COVID-19.
Addressing this – and the level of reassurance being derived by users of the app - Williams says: “As a former police officer myself, I know that I’d be quite thankful to have access to the new functionality. In terms of reassurance on the frontline, the only evidence I’ve got at the moment is anecdotal, but the feedback I’ve been getting is extremely positive.
“There’s an awful lot of conversation going on at the moment around the lack of personal protective equipment, and the fact that people still feel they’re being put at risk. This technology might not be PPE, but if it stops them being in that situation in the first place, I’d say it’s every bit as effective.
“The other potential benefit is for victims and witnesses, who in the current climate might be scared of face-to-face contact themselves. If we can reassure them that there’s a process in place to protect them, they’re more likely to continue with the process of giving a statement.”
These are incredibly difficult times for those charged with keeping the public from harm. The new Pronto additions are just one example of how technology is being deployed to make things safer.
We will be discussing more themes and results from our COVID-19 and technology survey in the coming weeks.
For the latest on how communications technology is being used to deal with major public health crises, register your interest and join us at BAPCO 2021.
Editor, Critical Communications Portfolio
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