Can Technology Address Police Reform?

While technology has been lauded for its role in advancing various sectors, the argument can be made that it has only served to cement old issues when it comes to policing. As police jurisdictions began adopting new technologies like facial recognition and predictive software, we have continued to see spikes in reports of unjust treatment, citizen harassment, and false arrests being made.

Just this year, Wired’s report on the role of facial recognition tech highlighted how officers’ blind dependence on this technology comes despite a 20% error rate with the best algorithms. This has left many innocent citizens (most of whom are women and people of color) fighting against false charges. Despite such obvious flaws, about $100 billion is still spent annually on policing. This has understandably left many people with a distaste for policing technology as a whole.

But, objectively speaking, is there room for this technology in police reform?

The Argument For Tech-Powered Policing

According to supporters of tech-powered policing, these innovations enhance overall efficiency and safety. For instance, in a GCN article on policing technology, it was noted that automated license plate recognition (ALPR) software can scan dozens of vehicles without contact. This frees up officers for more work, while also reducing the time and budget needed for the task. Some also argue that because this tech searches for vehicles—rather than humans—it eliminates any potential for profiling. This same “benefit” is similarly used to justify other examples of policing tech that are based on data.

Another big advantage of tech-powered policing is its perceived ability to uphold peace and justice in the digital age. As most transactions go online, for instance, so have criminals: Today, cyberbullying, hacking, and the like are among the most prolific crimes, with cybercrime in general having increased by more than 300% in the last decade. To combat this, Maryville University’s blog post on the future of the police explains that officers make use of monitoring tools. Notably, social media monitoring tools are said to turn to users’ feeds and online activity to track and identify threats, and prevent them from escalating. In the event that police need to acquire more evidence to build a case without infringing on privacy rights, meanwhile, related software can also help to compile said evidence. This initiative to use online platforms and monitoring technology is perceived by supporters to be a proactive effort against criminality.

Despite these arguments though, clear questions remain as to whether these technologies might do more harm than good.

Where Does Technology Fit Into Reform Now?

More than two years after cries to defund the police first gained worldwide attention, city governments continue to allocate huge sums to the police. In Bloomberg’s report on national police funding, it was revealed that most cities had only decreased their funding by a modest amount. For example, although Seattle had initially promised to cut its police department’s budget by 50%, general fund police spending only shrunk by 11.2%. Conversely, cities like Tampa and Sacramento even increased their police budgets by 11.9% and 3.6%, respectively. These actions reflect a lack of commitment to significant reform. Instead, we appear to be seeing band-aid solutions—some of which now involve expanded use of technology.

So, since it’s obvious that the police aren’t getting defunded soon, and tech solutions aren’t going away, it’s worth asking: Is there any reasonable way to marry the expanding use of tech with reform efforts? We say, absolutely. As discussed in Mike Feuz’s article on the subversion of police reform, part of what America needs is to rediscover the ideas of localism and subsidiarity. Rather than continuing to push for sweeping, centralized police form, a community-driven approach is more likely to bring about local solutions. This is something that the right technology can help make a reality.

Technologies like emergency communication tools, for instance, are among the innovations that can bridge communities once again. Efforts like the Next Generation 911 (NG911) and the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) aim to improve the clarity, accuracy, and accessibility of critical aid networks. This means that callers can now reach emergency hotlines faster and through a more diverse variety of mediums. Dispatchers themselves are now also able to streamline internal communications so that the correct first responders can be deployed more efficiently (which may decrease the frequency with which armed police are dispatched to solve problems that may not require their help).

Aside from this, technology can also spur police reform by creating accountability. Just as we’ve been seeing, smartphones and social media platforms have become tools for documenting misconduct. This has created an environment of heightened visibility wherein glaring issues can no longer be brushed aside or hidden as easily (though it still happens more than it should). This transparency and evidence are critical as we continue to work to better our law enforcement and reform policing actions and tendencies.

In conclusion, while technology itself may be unbiased, the datasets it works off of and the police ultimately utilizing tech solutions are not. This creates a misleading narrative and a dangerous environment wherein “advancing” police methods are still biased, but more detached from the realities of communities. With policing technology that only further reduces the need for police to get truly involved with their cases and citizens, the gap between police activity and just law enforcement and community service only widens. Where citizen empowerment is concerned however, there are smaller ways in which tech can and does play a role in reforming police activity.

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Amilyn Woods

Amilyn Woods is a journalist and advocate. Her current interests are the intersections of tech, social justice, and power. She lives in Virginia with her partner and two cats.

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