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September 15th 2014

Andrew Petherbridge

Technological advances can assist police…but shouldn’t be a replacement

Andrew Petherbridge

Andrew Petherbridge

Legal Executive, Civil Liberties

Technological advances can assist police…but shouldn’t be a replacement

By Andrew Petherbridge, Licensed Paralegal, Neil Hudgell Solicitors - an expert in handling claims against the police for unlawful arrest, unlawful detention, assault and human rights breaches.

By Andrew Petherbridge, Licensed Paralegal, Neil Hudgell Solicitors – an expert in handling claims against the police for unlawful arrest, unlawful detention, assault and human rights breaches.

I have read with interest about police in Leicestershire currently trialling a face-detection system which can supposedly automatically identify suspects, thereby potentially saving police officers “tens of thousands of hours of work”.

Certainly, it is clear to see why police forces across the country – all of which have had to make significant budget savings in recent years, ultimately lessening their resource – would be keen to adopt such an impressive looking system.

“It is amazing to be able to sort through 92,000 images in a matter of moments and it is going to be such a useful tool to officers out on the street, from low-level crime like shoplifting to murder scenes”, said Hilary Gazzard, identification officer at Leicestershire Police, seemingly giving her complete backing.

Certainly, facial recognition software is already being widely used internationally. Many airports use it border controls, whilst social media site Facebook has been using basic software to suggest tags for photos for some time.

The technology is obviously well advanced, and I have no reason to doubt the claims of the software makers of this NeoFace technology, who claim it offers a “high degree of accuracy”, even when analysing low-resolution images such as CCTV.

My concern is that a court of law doesn’t ask a jury to be certain to a ‘high-degree’. They ask for a verdict ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’.

Through my work as a Licensed Paralegal at Neil Hudgell Solicitors, I have handled a variety of claims against the police, acting for clients who have been wrongfully arrested and accused of serious offences such as murder.

One case even involved an individual who was unlawfully arrested and accused of sexual offences, despite being totally innocent, as the police had simply got the wrong person.

Seeing such cases, where it is clear police have gone through all the traditional routes of identification but still made an error, makes me apprehensive about handing such an important role in police work over to technology.

It is being suggested that, if the six-month trial in Leicestershire proves successful, the system could be rolled out to other police forces across the country.

However, I would certainly like to see a longer test period carried out before we dismiss long-standing methods of crime investigation, which even now, are not correct 100 per cent of the time.

A computer may be able to compare markers on a face such as the distance between the eyes or the colour of the skin to compare photographs on an existing police database, but surely there has to be concerns at this stage that technology is not proven enough to start using it as a basis for arresting people and locking them up.

Whilst I believe advances in technology should be utilised to their maximum potential wherever possible, I don’t believe it cannot be relied upon alone.

Chief Inspector Chris Cockerill has said that using facial recognition software instead of manually comparing mugshots could save police officers “tens of thousands of hours of work”.

That may well be the case, but having seen the huge emotional impact a wrongful arrest can have on a victim and their families,  I’d rather be 100 per cent confident the identification was going to be right than save so many hours and end up with the wrong person sitting in a prison cell.

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