Need the police? Ask the computer

Sunday Star Times, Sunday, 18 February 2007

By Rachel Grunwell

Overstretched police may get a helping hand from new computer software designed to decide whether officers investigate cases - or abandon them.

Papers obtained by the Sunday Star-Times reveal officers at Police Headquarters are investigating adopting nationwide case-screening computer software. This could mean police formally investigate only serious crimes of a pre-determined criteria or cases with a high "solvability rate" - such as where the suspect's name is known.

The papers state "cases that do not meet the required numerical threshold are eliminated from further investigation" and reveal a risk of public backlash because people might expect "all reasonable leads and avenues will be pursued by police".

National's police spokesman and former officer, Chester Borrows, fears the system might be too automated and over-ride officers' experience and instinct. But Police Deputy Commissioner Lyn Provost is confident the system will be fairer, more ethical and transparent, and follow a more logical decision-making process. Officers currently use a combination of instinct, ideas and policing policies to determine how to respond. She says other intelligence-led policing may include:

Computers in all police cars - being trialled by 80 cars.

Having a system so the public can email crime complaints from home.

All major stations could have LiveScan, giving instant identification by scanning fingerprints or palms electronically.

Meanwhile, Provost says case-screening is the top priority and stressed that computers would not replace police -just help with decisions. She believes Kiwis understand police do not have time to respond to all crime. "It's (about) being at the door when you really need us".

She admits the new system could mean rural and provincial police sometimes leave local low-level crime and work instead on higher-priority city cases. "The way technology is going, there's no organization that can discount doing a job from anywhere".

Police are yet to consult interested parties such as the justice sector, Victim Support, Women's Refuge, iwi and companies who have used the software.

Case-screening priorities have not yet been sorted - and may differ between regions.

The papers also reveal the extent to which the number of crimes is swamping the available officers. At any given time in the past three years in Auckland, more than 3000 cases have been sitting idle: "Serious crimes such as murder, sexual violation, child abuse and family violence always merit investigative follow-up - but the reality is that even crimes in this category need to be prioritized."

Provost confirmed police are looking at software by health economist Dr Paul Hansen, an Otago University associate professor, and his partner, software developer Franz Ombler. Their software has already helped the Health Ministry prioritize some waiting lists and Otago University choose scholarship recipients.

Hansen said the software helped people make fair decisions quickly. "Sometimes it's good to remove the emotional factors so you aren't swayed by them".

The papers said a different form of case screening was successfully tested in the 1990s by police in Palmerston North and the Auckland suburb of Glen Innes. That model checked for four solvability factors, giving a high score for clues such as a suspect's name (score 10), car registration number or description (7).

The papers said policing priorities had since changed and the new software could include priorities like crimes involving at-risk people or repeat victims/offenders, race-related or organized crimes or a threat to national security.

The papers said New South Wales police discarded case-screening because its administration was complex and did not deliver clear benefits.