The Role of Technology in Policing

With advances in technology, it’s not hard to see why police departments are taking advantage of modern offerings as a way of making their jobs safer and more effective. The latest innovations can make police work not only safer for officers, but the public as well, and provide ways of catching criminals like never before. Non-lethal weapons such as tasers, stun-guns and pepper spray can be used instead of guns to hinder criminals and makes arrests, and three-dimensional imaging scans crime scenes more effectively than sketches and photos.

The internet has grown to become a powerful tool for finding and following criminals and stolen items, and it can be used as evidence to bring criminals in. In extreme cases, criminals are leaving a trail of evidence in the form of Facebook posts and tweets – sharing their illegal behavior and flashing stolen goods and money. The rising use of social media has also led to increased engagement by the public and victims, who are able to use online resources to communicate. There are drawbacks and concerns as well—the internet now makes it easier than ever for criminal organizations to coordinate. Because a lot of technology is still in the early stages, methods of use—as well as laws surrounding them—are still being developed to avoid abuse of power and privacy invasion.

Body-Worn Cameras

A lot of controversy lately has stemmed from body-worn cameras (BWCs). According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 32% of local police departments equipped at least some of their officers with body cameras in 2013. Body cameras are applauded for their transparency into police work; they not only capture footage that can be used as evidence, but they also ensure police are not abusing their power by harassing innocent citizens or using unnecessary force. This works conversely by making sure citizens cannot make false claims against a police officer as well. Footage can then be used to train officers and studied on a scenario basis. While more research is necessary to develop a better understanding, two 2017 studies show contrasting claims on the effects of BWCs: The Lab @ DC‘s results showed that body cameras had no effect—positive or negative—on the use of police force nor civilian complains, while the Center for Crime and Justice Policy found an optimistic decrease. There is also the question of privacy laws and the taxpayer money that funds BWCs.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) face concerns of privacy as well, but must also overcome their early stages to determine how their use will be regulated; laws concerning when and where they are used are still being written. UAVs are most effectively used to observe a scene that may be unsafe to enter or even impossible to get to. In one example, officers were able to use two UAVs to monitor an armed woman who was barricaded inside her vehicle demanding officers to shoot her, according to The Washington Post. The use of UAVs successfully de-escalated the incident, allowing officers to get close enough to stop the woman, as cameras from above displayed clear video of her actions. Additionally, UAVs are commonly used to document scenes, search and rescues, and determine the safety of a situation; flying above fatal accidents is a faster and safer alternative to observing in person.

Facial Recognition

Facial recognition technology uses auto-focusing cameras to detect and identify faces using biometric identification to match faces in a system. Private companies like Google that use facial recognition have a higher accuracy rate of 99.63% in comparison with the FBI (85% accuracy) says The Washington Post, but algorithms are imperfect and can lead to bias by disproportionately and poorly identifying certain demographics like African-Americans. Lawmakers are still determining new policies on facial recognition, both within law enforcement and private companies concerning privacy and consent.

Mobile Technology

Sometimes it is the simpler innovations that make the most difference. Police officers are increasingly using essentially the same technology as citizens, making their reports more easily accessible by keeping technology in their squad car. Booking custody, calling for additional support, capturing digital evidence and accessing files are all made simpler and faster with programs that allow officers to report and record their work efficiently. Law enforcement can collaborate remotely on cases and court proceedings.

Crime Analytics

With the age of the internet and the abundance of the population that uses it, it’s no wonder that modern police work relies on the wealth of data and information available. Crime analytics involves predicting crime threats using algorithms to determine potential threats. Picking out patterns enables officers to see areas that are high in crime, determine potential criminals by behavior and even potential victims. Such predictive policing may help law enforcement in the long run, but there is a high risk of misinterpretation of data and profiling due to outdated, wrong or biased data.

While it may take years for technology’s place to be fully realized and regulated in law enforcement, there’s no doubt it is changing the field of police work forever, and the world is watching. Issues of privacy, consent and police brutality will pave the way for the future of these technologies and how—or whether or not—police continue to take advantage of the latest innovations to solve crimes and keep the people safe.

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