Better data sharing could save lives

Written by Ian Blackhurst on 1 August 2017 in Opinion

Ian Blackhurst of Northgate Public Services explains how effective collaboration between law enforcement, healthcare, education, and social services could help protect vulnerable citizens

Early intervention has become a mantra for delivering public services against a backdrop of increased workloads and constrained budgets. Particularly in the police, where managing an increasingly complex workload has become the norm. For example, police officers are now more likely to be called on to assist people experiencing mental health problems, when previously this was regarded as a last resort approach. 

How can the police service ensure it can continue to provide support for the most vulnerable, while cutting crime and reducing the strain on frontline officers? Tighter collaboration based on critical knowledge shared between departments could be the key, leading to earlier intervention and better outcomes. 

When individual forces share key information between themselves and partner agencies, a more complete picture emerges and forces can identify and highlight potential links between crimes and those who commit them more effectively.  

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Let’s take the example of ‘Susan’, whose story of low-level domestic violence and abuse over a 10-year period leads to multiple points of contact with police, social services, the NHS, and domestic-abuse charities. Susan has never cooperated with police and so her partner, ‘Alan’, has never been charged.

The violence builds and Susan receives death threats. She moves a few times to avoid contact with Alan, often across force boundaries, and the police IT does not always keep up.

Then, there is an arson attack at Susan’s old address. Current information systems are not always capable of seamlessly and quickly linking previous occupants at the address to identify that, perhaps, this is an escalation of the violence and Susan is at risk. A suspect is not identified.  

As the connection between Alan’s death threats and the arson is not made, the opportunity for intervention is missed. Eventually Susan is killed by Alan – whose first chargeable offence is murder. 

Painting a single picture
Susan is not real, but her story is, because there is often no automatic mechanism available to enable the sharing of intelligence between police forces and partner agencies. Key information from social services, schools, and GPs often does not filter through until a case conference, involving all agencies, takes place, by which time it can be too late. The pieces may well be there, but the overall picture is difficult to form and multiple opportunities to protect victims, such as Susan, are lost.

Most police forces and partner agencies have a Susan hidden within their IT systems; all the pieces of information exist, but are unlinked. IT can help break down these departmental barriers developed over time and pick out the disparate pieces of the data puzzle to create a more holistic view. 

A single picture of both victim and perpetrator, where numerous separate risk assessments over several years are available for officers and agencies to view, can be revealed. 

This can be done automatically, uncovering links that, previously, officers would have needed to trawl through many databases for, speeding up responses, and freeing up officers’ time. Sharing data – especially when delivered directly to an officer’s phone or tablet at the point of contact – can help forces ensure the right connections are uncovered at the right time, so they can make a difference.

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary has warned that police cannot continue to buffer cuts. In my view, therefore, information sharing must become increasingly pivotal to producing positive outcomes in policing. It’s the equivalent of a modern-day truncheon – the right tool for current times. 

About the author

Ian Blackhurst is the executive director for public safety and health at Northgate Public Services

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