Handheld devices will transform national policing within three years, according to the chief information officer for police technology in the UK.
Chief information officer of the National Policing Improvement Agency, Richard Earland, predicted the 30,000 mobile devices set to be rolled out to police by the end of 2009 — as well as future smartphones — will give frontline police among the 43 forces in England and Wales access to a raft of new services.
"Mobile-communications tech is changing relatively rapidly. In future, an officer will have access to a whole host of voice, data and images in a next-generation secure communications device.
"I would say that we are about two or three years away from that — all we need to do is to agree where our priorities are and discover those killer applications," he told ZDNet UK's sister site, silicon.com.
The days of officers relying purely on rough radioed descriptions to identify suspects are numbered, with Earland saying that a number of forces are now sending facial photos of suspects to handhelds carried by officers.
Other forces are using their smart devices to reduce the time spent travelling to and from the police station for paperwork by inputting reports through their handhelds.
"We are seeing Scottish forces doing away with the officer's notebook," said Earland.
"Once you have collected an electronic record, the ability to put that into back-office and middle-office systems automatically will very significantly reduce the amount of time that officers spend inputting data, significantly reduce errors and enhance the speed with which things get processed.
"As we move more towards neighbourhood policing, the ability to send and receive email and SMS on a handheld device will also become much more important."
He said the public would increasingly expect to be able to email and text officers and that it was important to provide devices that allowed police to respond on the move.
Bobbies on the beat can currently access the Police National Computer — which includes criminal record, vehicle, property and driver information — and local-force computer systems from their handhelds.
But Earland said the ongoing Information Systems Improvement Strategy — the project to trim and standardise the roughly 2,000 disparate back office systems used by the English and Welsh forces to improve information sharing between them — will put even more info in officers' hands.
Handheld fingerprint readers will also be made available to police across the UK from 2010 as part of Project Midas, allowing officers to perform on-the-spot ID checks without having to take suspects back to the station.