This is the official blog of ex-Sgt Ellie Bloggs. I was a real live police constable then sergeant for twelve years, on the real live front line of England. I'm now a real live non-police person. All the facts I recount are true, and are not secrets. If they don't want me blogging about it, they shouldn't do it. PS If you don't pay tax, you don't (or didn't) pay my salary.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Scrap Paper

If you needed proof that the police service is 10 years behind the rest of society when it comes to modern technology, walk into the File Quality Room at Blandmore Police Station.  The need for an entire department to quality-assure and build case files was identified a few years ago as part of Blandshire Constabulary's move over to a specialist structure.  The pettiest of shopliftings can generate a case file 30 pages long, hence the FQR is stuffed to the brim with exploding cardboard boxes full of paper.

Likewise my inbox is some days inundated with polite requests that if I see such-and-such vital important prosecution file relating to so-and-so hardened criminal, could I please ensure it finds its way to court before he is released due to its loss. Before my readers jump up and down, don't worry, these lost files are not being left on trains or being stolen from car boots, but are actually safe within the walls of a police station somewhere in Blandshire. We just don't know which one.

Well if the police service is ten years behind, the Criminal Justice System is another twenty.  Here the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) announces they are hoping to trial something called "computer" to manage their case files.  This mysterious technological device will remove the need for erstwhile young barristers to traverse the seven floors of Blandmore Crown Court clutching copies of files totalling hundreds of pages.

Electronic case file management actually arrived some years ago. But we couldn't use it because none of our computer systems will talk to each other, let alone the CPS or the Court. If the Court even has a computer system.  It has taken five years for DVD technology to be playable in court - we were copying high quality CCTV footage onto VHS tapes a decade after the rest of the population were buying Blu-Ray machines.  We still cannot take photos of crucial evidence before it disappears using a mobile phone because apparently we might be accused of fabricating or modifying the picture, and will have to hand over our mobiles as evidence to prove we have not.

Anyway, I welcome the arrival of "computer" in the courts with bated breath and wonder how long it will take before we learn how to lose electronic case files too. And at what point will a canny defence lawyer demand the main server at Blandshire Constabulary Headquarters is seized to prove that the police evidence was modified since its creation?

The problem is, as long as judges in white wigs believe that the pen-generated word is somehow more reliable than that appearing on a screen, witness statements will still have to be hand-written.  And if you have to handle paper statements, you may as well print everything else out too.

And there's the biggest downside of moving over to electronic files: if something is on a database, it's easy to monitor.  If it's easy to monitor, by the law of police bureaucracy, it MUST be monitored.  If it's monitored, it equals performance.  And if it's performance, it will grow.

Bring on the Twenty-First Century.

'Diary of an On-Call Girl' is available in some bookstores and online.


Anonymous Ben said...

Paper is irreplaceable for some purposes and this is one of them.

What you should be doing, is what merchant banks do for their multimillion pound trades. I.e. scribble them on a piece of paper.

THEN you scan the paper onto a computer, and file the original.

The vast majority will never be recalled from file, electronic images being used instead, since they are easier to send about the place. (And you can still say "that's not my handwriting" to an scanned image). They are just kept for 7 years and then burned.

But it is there if you want it, so if someone really wants to check for evidence of erased marks they can. You'll find that as long as it is possible to check for fabrication and modification, the accusations of fabrication and modification will vanish.

An all-electronic system is a terrible idea though. It is ALWAYS possible to alter electronic records, and NEVER possible to prove they have not been forged from the ground up.

(I do this for a living - keep records that is, not forge them!)

22 September, 2010 15:29

Anonymous Anonymous said...

All of our cases files (they are fraud cases) are generated by computor. We then print the entire bloody thing, exhibit everything and then copy the lot before we send it to our prosector. Although all my case notes are on a system with an audit trail which can not be altered I also dutifully record everything contemp in my PNB as well.

You would think that the forms that duplicate the same information would be generated at the press of one button. Oh no. I do them one at a time.

Let me predict something. The programme purchased to do this will have been written by someone who has had no experiance of the job the programme has been written to do. They will then trial said programme asking for suggestions as to how to improve it. This will be ignored as the suggestoins will be too costly to implement.

I might be wrong....


22 September, 2010 19:52

Anonymous ginnersinner said...

Maybe I'm naive, but surely if a defence counsel stood face-to-face with me in court and spouted those immortal words 'I put it to you officer, that you have edited this picture to show...' such and such, that the judge would step in and challenge him to prove it. If not I certainly would. That's him making a serious criminal allegation against a Police Officer, right there, and he can't just throw things like that casually into the court room with no evidence to back it up whatsoever. So what if the defence want to allege such a thing, that surely shouldn't mean we should behave like they a) will every time, and b) have in fact edited the footage/picture/statement. We should really grow a couple and stand up to this fannying around.

22 September, 2010 22:49

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with Ben 201009221529. His suggestion is simple, cheap and workable - many have been doing just this for years.

After thirty five years in the computer/IT business, I really don't trust them - or, rather, their 'management'.

Anonymous 201009221952 is spot on, too.


23 September, 2010 09:23

Anonymous NottsSarge said...

A cop here has recently been jailed for generating 'fake' cautions for jobs. Part of the compelling evidence against him was that the would-be offender had never actually handled the form he had supposedly signed to accept the caution - so paper systems sometimes have their place.

Then again, I don't think there is any need for the nuts and bolts of a case file to be printed off. Statements might be handwritten, they might be typed (I remember the fury of a former Supt that such a thing might happen) and maybe it's handy to have those in front of you at Court, scribbled on in various colours to pick out the good bits. I'm not sure that the MG4, 6s, 9 or 10 (as they never seem to look at that anyway) ever need to exist other than in digital form.
It's been mentioned before that the Courts (and by extension all lawyers) don't like things to be tinkered with. We have a system, it's been around for years so That Is How Things Are Done. And His Honour Judge Cloud-Cuckoo feels far better waggling his Mont Blanc pen at those who invade the privacy of his courtroom than he would scrolling down in a rather pointed manner on some sort of SmartBoard application.

IT may have its flaws but it's the 21st century. A significant part of the Criminal Justice System is still hanging around somewhere in the 19th

23 September, 2010 10:55

Blogger PC Bloggs said...

ginnersinner: no, it wouldn't happen that way. The defence lawyer would say "my client refutes the allegation and therefore believes this photograph to have been fabricated". If the continuity of any evidence is challenged the onus usually returns to the prosecution to prove that it stands, that is the basis of our criminal justice system.

23 September, 2010 18:05

Anonymous Ben said...

Surely your testimony that the picture matches your recollection is enough to put it before the jury?

That said, it might help somewhat if you immediately email said picture from your phone to your super, so you don't have time to alter it, then the defendent will have to suggest that you are both lying.

In an ideal world, you would be equipped with cameras which immediately generated a cryptographically time-stamped signature via t'internet to get as close as possible to unforgeable.

Nothing is unforgeable though - and it takes quite a lot of effort to get computer records to approach the unforgeability of paper or film. It might just be easier to carry a 35mm camera.

23 September, 2010 19:12

Blogger PC Bloggs said...

Yes, we do have cameras, but like all police kit they are never around when needed and if they are the memory card is full or the battery flat...

23 September, 2010 20:13

Anonymous ginnersinner said...

Ellie, don't you think it's just a little perverse that the prosecution, if they want to make an allegation against a person in court they have to bring in evidence to back it up, and loads of it, yet essentially all that the defence have to do is say it. They don't, in most cases, genuinely believe it to be so, they're just doing it to muddy the waters. And just because there might be a flaw in the chain if evidence, it doesn't follow that the evidence must have been tampered with. I'd want to see some specific evidence suggesting that it had.

23 September, 2010 21:33

Anonymous NottsSarge said...

Ginnersinner - that's innocent until proven guilty (beyond all reasonable doubt) summed up!

Digital media just seems to have passed 'the system' by. We have BlackBerrys, which we are allowed to use for taking photos - so they are, at least in theory, time, date and GPS stamped. I'd be interested to know how often SOCO 35mm footage is challenged compared to 'real time' BlackBerry images - but of course SOCOs will be regarded as 'experts' while cops remain plotters and schemers whose sworn testimony can't be trusted.

As for ANPR and similar things, well, they are just dark arts that have no place in the criminal justice system. It's a computer, Your Honour, a sort of electronic abacus if you will...

24 September, 2010 01:33

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course you could use cameras which do have built in GPS and and RAW format. (such as .DNG or .CR2), which have the advantage that you cannot tamper with the original data, a bit like the old fashioned negatives.

24 September, 2010 22:42


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