Page last updated at 12:35 GMT, Wednesday, 25 June 2008 13:35 UK

Police look to digital switchover

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News

Scene from a BBC drama featuring police interview room
The tape recorder has featured in many TV shows

The tape recorder has been a constant in police interviews for the last 20 years but it could soon be consigned to the bin.

Plans to conduct and store interviews in digital format could radically speed up the time it takes to bring criminals to justice, say experts.

The majority of forces still rely on analogue recorders, with many having up to half a million tapes in storage.

No timeframe has been set to switch the 43 police forces in England and Wales.

Networked evidence

Time is running out for analogue tape which has already become a dead format on the high street; something that has an impact on police use of tape recorders.

"Spares are getting harder to find and it is time for a change," said Andy Griffiths, Detective Chief Inspector with Sussex Police who also sits on the ACPO (Association of Chief Police Officers) steering committee for investigative interviewing.

The steering committee has been examining the best way to facilitate the switch to digital and is advocating a two-fold change in both the hardware and the methods of storage.

Old Bailey
Some cases are thrown out because of bad quality audio

The most radical of these is a plan to put interviews on a network which could be accessed nationally by other forces, lawyers and other approved individuals.

Changing the way evidence is stored could require changes to legislation which currently mandates that a master-copy of evidence is kept.

"It would be much more convenient to have online access," said Mr Griffiths.

Currently police have to post tapes to a typist to be transcribed before it can be submitted to the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) which can be very time-consuming and risks data breaches.

Having higher quality audio is also important if the audio evidence is used in court.

"Judges are frequently criticising the quality of audio recordings" said Mr Griffiths, with some cases being thrown out of court altogether.

Making sure the networks are secure is a key consideration of the steering committe as is ensuring that the different systems employed can all talk to each other.

"Improving the way we interview has benefits for victims, offenders and the court process but there will be difficulties along the way and we have to make sure we don't end up with a fragmentary system," he said.

The steering committee is due to report back its conclusions in October.

Saving time

Technology to aid the switchover to digital has been on show at the annual ACPO conference in Liverpool this week.

One company, Impact Marcom, used the conference to launch its digital platform for recording interviews, dubbed VADER (Video Audio Digital Evidence Recorder).

It allows police to make digital audio and video recordings which can be stored on digital discs. It also allows the interviews to be streamed to a server which can then be accessed by lawyers, transcribers and other interested parties.

Managing director Julian Phillips thinks changes in legislation are inevitable as the new systems roll out.

He also thinks the time saved by such systems could have major implications for legislation such as the recent controversy over the length of time for which terrorist suspects can be held.

"If you speed up the way evidence is collated, you don't need 42 days," he said.

The system also provides speech to text translations which could be very useful in speeding up detective work.

"If the police conduct 30 interviews there might be a name or address that keeps cropping up. To find this by reading all the transcriptions would take days but this system can go straight to the word saving hundreds of hours of police time," said Mr Phillips.

The firm has been in talks with a dozen or so police forces in the UK and two are currently trialling the system.

It is already up and running in Norway.

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