What comes to mind when you think of the tools that your local police have? Guns? Handcuffs? Billy clubs? A radio-equipped car? These haven’t changed much for decades. Perhaps the most advanced piece of technology before the turn of the century was the radar gun to catch speeders. But in the 21st century technology is delivering a whole new set of policing tools and delivering them at a pace that is probably too fast to be fully absorbed and understood by your local police department, the lawmakers or the community they are supposed to serve. There’s sensors and data, body cams, drones, aerial surveillance and facial recognition.
At a Future Tense event in Washington this week titled “Law and Order Circa 2050” these questions were asked: Will technology make crime obsolete? (no) Will crime-fighting technologies make privacy obsolete? (likely) Will technology improve police-community relations? (maybe)
One of the biggest promises of law enforcement technology is that predictive policing can lead to a significant reduction in crime. The basic idea is by using predictive analytics police resources can be deployed to the locations where and at the time when crimes are most likely to be committed. The data analysis can divide a city into a grid and identify the hot spots where crime is most likely to occur. It can, for example, project a 45% chance of a crime being committed in a specific place between 7 and 8 p.m. on Tuesday. The follow-up to that kind of information is obvious.
A piece of data that is mostly missing at this point is just how accurate predictive policing really is and whether it is helping to really reduce crime. Data analytics is as good as the data itself and since the crime data being used is what was reported by the police in the past, some of the Future Tense panelists questioned whether it measures crime or police activity. Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney at Electronic Frontier Foundation, commented, “You can only predict crime that looks like past crime and if it is based on bias policing….you’re going to look for future crime in neighborhoods that are already over-policed.”
Data is not only being accumulated geographically but is also being used to identify individuals. Most of us have no clue how much surveillance is going on. Security cameras may or may not be visible, but do we know when they are using facial recognition technology to identify us? Does your police department analyze social media accounts? Do they have access to your call records?
While law enforcement is collecting data about citizens, are they also collecting data about their own policing? After Ferguson, the Obama administration created a Police Task Force on 21st Century Policing and out of that came a Police Data Initiative. The goal of that initiative was to make public data sets about such things as use of force, traffic stops, citizen complaints and 911 calls. Denice Ross, who is a co-founder of that initiative, said that participation by the City of New Orleans has resulted in a 16% improvement in citizen satisfaction with the police. But for the most part the transparency of this type of data is pretty limited.
One of the most widely used new tech tools for policing is Shotspotter. This involves installing sensors around a city that can detect gunshots and report to the police the exact location of that activity. Ralph Clark, who is CEO of Shotspotter, claimed that it is being used by 90 cities. He commented that when police respond to Shotspotter notifications, they may not apprehend a suspect but they might be able to aid victims or to capture evidence. Asked whether the knowledge that these sensors are in place and that gunshots would be immediately reported to the police department has resulted in a drop in gun violence, he cited “a reduction of up to 35% is some of our cities.” Hopeful but not yet that conclusive.
The promise of technology reducing crime and improving policing was perhaps best summed up by Philadelphia City Councilman David Oh. “My dream would be that we would see the technology of policing leading to a reduction in the amount of money we spend in locking up people, putting them in prison. And then we can use that money to have more beautiful communities, better education and better quality of life.” He noted that one quarter of his city’s operating budget is spent on police and prisons.
Alternatively Samuel Sinyuangwe, co-founder of WeTheProtesters, warned, “The other path is we double down on the police state.”
Future Tense is a partnership of the New America Foundation, Slate and Arizona State University. An archived video of the Law and Order Circa 2050 event is available here.