Cisco UK & Ireland Blog

SenseDistress: Supporting wellbeing and privacy in police custody

April 21, 2020


I have always been a technology optimist – and through my work at Cisco Innovates I’ve seen tech accomplish some very impressive things.

But one of the most valuable is supporting the vulnerable people in our society.

Take the Connected Together project, for example. Connectivity is helping digitally excluded people to access services and overcome social isolation, for a better quality of life.

But technology can also play a vital role in protecting the vulnerable, such as people in police custody with complex health needs.

When a person is detained, ensuring their safety and wellbeing becomes a critical responsibility the police.

But police custody supervisors are presented with many challenges to handle complex healthcare needs while respecting privacy and – of course – human rights.

That’s why we’re participating in a trial to see how pairing sensors with artificial intelligence can support the welfare of people in police custody – and the officers caring for them.


Detecting early warning signs

It’s true that it can be challenging to protect people’s wellbeing in custody.

Healthcare needs might not be immediately obvious, especially if detainees aren’t cooperative.

Those being held might be impacted by substance intoxication, and especially with new drugs, the effects of that intoxication may not be immediately obvious to the human eye.

Even in seemingly low-risk situations, people’s health can deteriorate rapidly – and police custody centres don’t always have immediate physical access to professional healthcare due to their location or set up.

That means responding to problems, or even identifying potential needs, early can make a huge difference. So how can the police strike this tricky balance to protect the people in their care and respect their rights?

That’s what we’ve been exploring, together with Edinburgh-based R&D startup Viapontica AI and Police Scotland with support from NHS Lothian.

We think we’ve found a way to help, with a sophisticated early warning system called SenseDistress.


The connected custody suite

SenseDistress involves making the police booking bar into a connected environment, to detect health risks in custody in a non-invasive way.

Here’s how it works.

Infrared cameras provide temperature readings which can potentially indicate people’s physical states and be used to recognise health risks linked to substance abuse.

The aim is to use sound recorders and CCTV to also recognise changes in movement patterns.

Artificial intelligence can then use these subtle, almost imperceptible, readings to calculate the risk of a health crisis.

The system can even contact medical professionals with the reading, for an immediate assessment and the best quality of care.

From the moment they arrive, SenseDistress offers the potential to help police custody staff to keep detainees safe – without invading their privacy.


Protecting the vulnerable

But the benefits don’t end there.

The truly great thing about this early warning system is that while the technology is cutting edge, SenseDistress can potentially be deployed in any custody centre by integrating existing sensors and off-the-shelf hardware.

That means the system can be affordable and discreet, whether it is needed in a hundred-year old custody center or a new state-of-the-art facility.

That’s one of the things we’re passionate about. We want to develop pragmatic solutions that can make a real difference for vulnerable people.

The work we’ve done so far is a feasibility study to validate the concept, but soon we hope to help detect potential health crises in police custody before they emerge.

This is another great example of how technology can protect the vulnerable across our society. And that’s something really worth being optimistic about.


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