Despite calls for more money to give all front-line police officers access to PDAs and help boost time spent on the beat, not all officers that have tested the technology are convinced of its worth.
In July, the Home Office announced an extra £25m of funding to put thousands more mobile devices in the hands of police, topping up £50m of funding for police PDAs announced in May.
However, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee has called for even more cash to be made available to mobilise every front-line police officer.
In a report into government plans to update policing practices for the modern era, Policing in the 21st Century, the committee states: "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 welcome the home secretary's recent grant of £50m to fund PDAs in 19 English forces and her promises of a further £25m, but recognise that many forces were disappointed not to win funding bids. We recommend that sufficient funding is made available as soon as possible to enable all front-line officers to have access to a PDA," the report adds.
Inspector Jim Hitch, of Bedfordshire Police, told the committee that, after his force deployed PDAs, the amount of time officers spent in the station dropped from almost half (46 percent) to just over a third (36 percent), where it has remained. Hitch added that visible patrol time went up from 14 percent to 19 percent, while time spent by officers dealing with incidents rose from 19 percent to 26 percent.
However, some PDA users claimed the technology made them less efficient, not more.
Seventy percent of the 349 officers surveyed by the Scottish Police Federation said the PDAs they trialled had made them less efficient, while around a quarter said there was 'no change'. Less than 10 percent said handheld devices made them more efficient. The committee also heard that software problems with the Scottish trial had meant electronic notes were often corrupted, forcing officers to spend time re-entering evidence back at the station.
PDA use was also felt to pose a potential problem regarding police officers' personal security. Seventy-five percent of the Scottish officers surveyed said they felt less safe using PDAs, rather than paper notebooks, because of the concentration required to operate them during potentially confrontational situations. However, the report noted that Staffordshire Police recommends officers resort to communicating by radio rather than through the PDA if they think a suspect may become violent.
According to the committee, 19 police forces in England and eight in Scotland have won bids for 10,000 mobile data devices to be delivered between September 2008 and February 2009. The total cost to a force of equipping a police officer with mobile IT is estimated to be between £3,000 and £6,500 per officer over five years.
Figures from Thames Valley, West Yorkshire and Bedfordshire forces put the average cost — for training, infrastructure and the device itself — at 80 pence to £1 per officer, per day.
The committee took evidence from BlackBerry maker RIM, which estimated it would cost £50m to purchase and provide BlackBerry devices for all forces.
RIM has currently deployed 14,000 devices across 28 UK forces, according to the committee.
In a previous report on police funding, the committee criticised "insufficient progress" in introducing police PDAs, and recommended chief constables ensure they are introduced in all forces "as a matter of urgency". However, the report notes, this has not yet been achieved.