A Technologist’s Thoughts on Police Reform
Disclaimer: My Father is a retired NYPD Captain, and he shares my name. He also wrote novels about the NYPD under that name. I’ve hosted his website for 20 years, but we have widely differing political opinions. My opinions are my own and represent neither my family nor my employer.
One more note: I wrote most of this article for a year or so, around the time of the murder of George Floyd. I didn’t want to be another privileged white person reacting in the crowd. I think now that things are a bit calmer, the time to say things might be clearer.
I have some interesting technological/legal ideas for how I’d like to see police reform work. I am not a city budget planner, nor a police officer myself. I am a regular citizen who has lived in fairly nice areas most of my life. I grew up in a law enforcement family (Father, Grandfather, cousins, many friends of the family), and some of my opinions may be formed by that.
I am also a technologist, and am fascinated that I currently have orders of magnitude more computing power on my wrist than what put us on the moon several times. I love the strides we as humans have made when we embraced technology: From art to brain surgery, to exploring the universe to splitting the atom. Embracing, extending, adopting and expanding technology moves us forward. But in order to make large leaps, I feel that sometimes, a radical change in thinking is necessary to allow tech to integrate with us as humans. The old must simply be discarded as “broken” and stepped away from.
The Police and media have a love hate relationship. From the fiction of shows like LAPD Blue, to Hill Street Blues and Law and Order; to comedic misadventures like Turner and Hooch, Police Academy, and Brookyn 99; to more reality focused shows like COPS and Real Stories of the Highway Patrol. The media largely wants to paint these folks as heroes — movies with corrupt cops are rarer, and sometimes it’s used as a “redemption arc”, such as in Person of Interest or Gotham. Police unions strongly protest when scripted media portrays law enforcement in a bad light. No city’s chamber of commerce wants you shooting in their city saying their cops are bad. We want them to be superhuman, or at least regular people. (Note well: Reality TV isn’t reality. It’s edited and lensed to tell the story the producers want to tell, and I guarantee you’re not seeing the whole thing.)
In a city of thousands or millions of people, some will prey upon others, and will do so with the benefit of anonymity. Crimes need investigation, and people who want to not get caught need to be. The police are necessary. Many officers also are absolute heroes. Many of them endanger themselves daily in the performance in their job in ways that normal people can’t comprehend. There are absolutely officers who will console rape victims, comfort children, and lock up abusive parents. There are the exceptionally skilled: hostage negotiators, cold case detectives, bomb squad technicians, evidence recovery specialists, and forensics experts. The average officer has seen way worse things in training than you’ve probably seen in a movie. Officers absolutely can and do put their lives in danger in the service of their job. In a high crime area, when there’s an injury with shots fired, the EMT’s wait until the police have given clearance.
I believe that in the routine performance of their duty — a traffic stop, when reporting a crime, when interacting at a police station, these folk should be treated with respect. I don’t believe the “ACAB” mentality, but I do believe there’s a broken system present. I don’t think tech is the full answer, either — but it’s the lens I have to see for improvements.
Often, the fight to convict a criminal comes down to technicalities: a provable break in procedure can throw a case out the window. Guilty people can, and do, get off on technicalities, and double jeopardy laws mean they cannot be tried a second time if found “not guilty”. Sometimes, a scant chain of evidence can work in favor of a conviction.
Unfortunately, “a conviction” may not necessarily be “a correct conviction”, and may be misproven. Human memory is faulty at best, brains fill in details more easily than admit they don’t know a thing, and police are often more believable in court than the accused, who is “presumed innocent”. Often, when it’s one person’s word against another, people have a bias to believe the fine, upstanding, erudite enforcer of peace before them in a sharp suit over the accused in a prison jumpsuit with no high school education. Juries are led to believe that the person on the stand is Kal-El: infallible representative of Truth, fighting for the good guys.
And that tendency, that reputation, that viewpoint is key: When you put on a uniform and carry a gun you are given a public responsibility and an implicit public trust. You are held above the standards of normal citizenry. You represent not only your own city, but police forces everywhere. “A few bad apples” have eroded that trust to the point where I feel it should be reexamined. This reexamination could also lead to better policing, better gathering of evidence, and better definitions of procedure. But it could also put evidence of misconduct or corner-cutting procedures in the hands of defense attorneys who don’t want their clients to go to jail. That’s the story we’ll be told: Adding too much logging and technology will hinder the performance of their job, and will make the public less safe.
Rather than saying “Our government should do these things”, let’s instead say tomorrow, a flying saucer lands, and the aliens tell us “Unless you change a whole bunch of stuff to stop killing and maiming your own people, we’re going to vaporize you before you figure out how to pollute outer space with your nonsense.”
Here’s the Utopia I would build based on modern law enforcement. It hinges on discarding a bunch of existing thinking, and accepting a new way, period.
Let’s start with a basic one, from personal experience: Paper Sucks. It fades, it rips, it gets wet, carbon copies are awful, and paper gets misfiled, lost, or shredded. It relies on handwriting written by flashlight in the seat of a car, and often 1970’s era carbon copy technology. It’s hard to store, hard to archive, and hard to search. Paper is done.
One personal example includes being given a speeding ticket (I was speeding, no argument) somewhere between Gilroy and Fresno, California. There was nobody on the road. I joked that I was pulled over only because Law Enforcement couldn’t believe a Smart could do 83. On a major road like I-5, at that hour of the night, it might not even have been a head-turner.
In California, above a certain speed in excess of allowed, you are automatically summoned to court, and to be on your way from the traffic stop, you are expected to sign the ticket that says “I promise to appear on such and such a date”, which in my case was about a month later.
Where I had promised to appear was at the courthouse was in the middle of Los Banos (a three hour drive from Silicon Valley in AM commute traffic), where I drove down the night before, stayed in a hotel, went in the morning to the courthouse, waiting on line for two hours for it to open, to be told “Oh, that’s not in the system yet, we can’t help you.” I was still waiting for some clerk to transcribe it. Meter-maids have portable printers, but officers don’t. The whole ticket could have been entered on a tablet, printed for me to sign, with a second copy for me to take; or I could sign on the tablet. Nice QR code linking to my court date. No data entry task required. Let me put this another way: The police we trust with guns and tanks should be at least as advanced in document handling as FedEx. I can get more info about my pending pizza delivery than about a possible criminial conviction.
In the end, I was able to opt (without a second court visit) to take traffic school and pay a fine and it was off my record. My time was wasted, however. Technology could have made this better. Paper files have the same problem.
This is the 21st century. What we’re looking to do here, with a looming alien threat, is set some nationwide guidelines that are game changers. This will mean writing new software that’s open-source.
Let’s use an example: If I had a dental exam last year, and ask my old dentist to send the files to my new dentist, at the very least, the X-rays are compatible between systems. Dentists are smart and stopped using film decades ago. Everything is digital. I can download my entire health history into my iPhone, because we’ve developed an integration model that works.
Courts are still using paper. If you go on the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) system, to look up cases, the files and transcripts you download will be SCANS of things that were transcribed from a stenographer’s keyboard, printed out, then scanned and NEVER OCR’D. Things like social security numbers are unredacted. And of course, we’re talking about thousands of systems in thousands of jurisdictions, many written in ancient languages. The entire system, from traffic stop, to court date, to sentencing to release to parole to probation to case sealing, needs an overhaul.
As a dreamy technologist, I feel like software like this (delivered as a Linux appliance that handles its own website, patches and updating, with a pay-for-support model) could be used to drive every court’s website from the same basic system, with independent auditing for both privacy and security. It would mean making it so that data is easily searchable and easy to remove personal information from and easily intercompatible between districts. And that’s just a start. This will not be easy. But there needs to be a flag day where the new system is used, and the old is retired, except for archival purposes. That day needs to come, soon.
And then we come to the real reason lots of people are writing about this: Police killing people with excessive force.
Police policing themselves has failed. In the hypothetical future, all deaths by police are investigated at the federal level. If we’re going to overmilitarize the police, let’s treat a death by an officer as though a soldier in uniform had shot a civilian. Ideally this investigation would be by an independent, bipartisan group, who have full access to all documents, witnesses, and staff, and who report in the clear. Departments’ current IAD [Internal Affairs Divisions] are more than welcome to stick around to help gather paperwork and play an entourage role, as well as investigate HR complaints, staffing issues, and union disputes. But when a human dies, we need oversight that’s free from comraderie, unions, and professional courtesy. The public has lost faith in the current method.
Bodycams are absolutely required. Wearing a uniform without a body cam, wearing a bodycam with a dead battery, cause for criminal prosecution, just as if you were carrying a loaded weapon and impersonating an officer.
Badge number visibility absolutely required. Better still, rather than a tiny number on a silver badge when facial recognition is impossible due to helmet/goggle/riot gear, print it real big — as in, as large as the name on a football jersey — and make it visible from three directions. Since we’re talking about the future, let’s also add the possibility of machine-readable identification as well (qr code or something similar). Failure to do so, see above.
Full documentation of all shots fired outside the range. Yes, this gets a little bit into the techno-shadowy Judge Dredd world. Or Shadowrun, if you’re a gamer of a certain type. But then, this is in the world where aliens have landed and threatened to make us all dust if we don’t fix this.
We already have the technology to detect and triangulate gunshots. (One company that does this is ShotSpotter, I am not linking) Those should be correlated with the firing officer. In a world of smart-weapons, that’s done immediately, on the fly, automatically.
If that means weapons have to get smarter and log when fired and in which direction, along with a camera that looks down the barrel, along with GPS tagging, so be it. This is NOT hard to do — attaching such a thing would be no more difficult than attaching a laser sight, and developing better sights could come along with this. Carrying a sidearm not capable of doing this…well, you get the idea.
And then, there are how suspects are treated in custody…
In my alternate timeline, any time a suspect is taken into custody, for any reason, they are fitted with a bio-monitor. Ideally, such a device covers heart-rate and O2 sat, worn about the wrist. This goes on as soon as the cuffs do, the first time. These can be easily made tamper-proof and easily sterilizable for fairly cheap in large numbers, and economies of scale will only serve to make them cheaper. As a bonus, they can also be used to track chain of custody. Failure to practice this is considered tampering with evidence (i.e. the suspect’s formerly-alive body, is evidence).
While we’re at it, why aren’t officers wearing bio-monitors? Statistics here are useful, if nothing else: Are the long-term effects of sitting in a squad car taking a toll? Are officers getting enough cardio? What were your stress levels in this situation or that one? In an officer-down situation, would we be helped by getting vitals immediately?
Camera coverage of the full path a suspect takes in custody: holding cells, cells, squad cars, paddy wagons, etc. A police precinct should be at least as camera-covered as an Amazon Fulfillment Center is today. If cameras don’t function in a vehicle, treat it as though it has a bad fuel pump and find another vehicle. Logging is as critical as bullets. As a bonus, adding thermal cameras with heat-accurate logging could let departments track feverish patients during an outbreak scenario.
Voice recorders in squad cars. Airplanes require this, why doesn’t the enforcement of the law? Ideally, such things would be running whenever the vehicle is occupied — front OR back seat (thermal occupancy sensors are easy), and syncing automatically to a central point. Note well that recording of anything a suspect says there is also potential evidence. I would think this would be easily embraced by officers and DA’s alike.
If an officer feels this level of recording is unconstitutional, he or she would do well to remember that they are a city employee riding in a city-owned vehicle representing the city, acting as an extension of it. If you want to say racist things to your partner, to a suspect, or to civilians; if you want to threaten murder to civilian protestors over your PA system; if you yell at the innocent until proven guilty in your custody, be prepared for that to come into evidence as you represent that city.
Tampering with any camera pointed at you while in uniform is out. Be it the news media, a civilian’s dashcam, a bystander’s cell phone, or another officer’s body cam, fireable offense. Filming you is as legal as filming the Brooklyn Bridge — you represent the city, you are part of it. You are its white blood cells. You should expect to be under a microscope. If you’re doing something that is not something you should be doing, then you shouldn’t be wearing the uniform.
Any time lethal force is used, be it a bullet or a baton or something else, it is logged and investigated. Every single time — human or pet, whether you connect or not, we ask “why didn’t you use pepper spray or a taser”. Every time, we ask “Were you being cognizant of the innocent until proven guilty suspect’s wellbeing?”, Like we say in grade school, this goes on your permanent record. This record keeping is shared with other agencies that an officer may work with, and made available to the federal agency covered in the first suggestion.
Finally, in all the situations where this data is gathered by police hardware, it synchronizes immediately to a central point. As soon as an officer is back in his squad car, his body cam syncs to a central server. This data is immutable — cannot be edited from it’s original form. It is “write only” — files are checksummed upon upload, and any edits (say, to remove personal information) do not delete the original but produce a revised copy. Access to it is carefully controlled. It is available by subpoena for both sides in a case, but to preserve individual privacy, it’s not simply viewable by the public.
I mention cameras and recording a lot in this article. I mention long-term archiving of film footage. Privacy advocates will argue that all bodycam/squad car cam footage will create a data mine of tracking people that federal agencies and hackers alike will mine and use. The reality is: this data is already being gathered. If you trust a Ring doorbell or Siri or Facebook, you’re already in the game. Your face is out there already, at every convenience store, ATM, traffic cam, automated license plate reader, and it will only be more so moving forward.
You can’t put the surveillance genie back in the bottle. I just propose to actually *use* that data on the people we trust to run around with lethal weapons and tactical training, who we expect to act in the best interests of everyone.
Finally, a word on budgets. How did your tax dollars come to buy rubber bullets, tear gas, and armored urban assault vehicles? These weren’t ordered overnight from Amazon. Those were bought and departments have been waiting to use them. This is the result of discretionary spending, without regular review by civilians. (And to be clear, the markup on some of these things is insane, because you can do that when you’re selling to state and local governments).
There are lots of calls out there to “defund” the police. In Amber Hughson’s article “But Actually Imagine Transformative Alternatives to Policing”, it’s suggested (with a series of very optimistic posters) that “Public Safety” is what’s required, rather than an armed response. When a school child is arrested for throwing a book at a teacher, we have a problem with the use of force, certainly, but there will be violent crimes that require tactical and armed responses — active shooter situations, armed home break-ins, and the like. That said, our current departments seem to feel like they have arsenals begging for use. (UC Davis stands in my mind as an example.) Our law enforcement systems have backups at the state level, at the national guard level, and the federal level.
I’d love to see a model where 51 percent of the voting public has to vote yay or nay on a budget that includes assault weapons, military-grade pepper sprays, sticky foam, Long Range Acoustic Devices, and mob control weapons. I would love to see actual peer review and audits of the devices (gun locks, weapons, tasers, cameras, software) of the devices that are keeping us safe, and for those we call “lethal” and “less-than-lethal” we need clear definitions for systems in which they’re used, and training in those methods. Or the budget doesn’t get approved. I’d love to see everyone who signed a budget or purchasing order held accountable when a weapon that would be illegal for our military to use, is used on the press or civilians.
Or, as suggested in the set-up for this story, the flying saucer will land, and say “Guys, we couldn’t have made this any more clear” and turn us all to sludge.
I have an Amateur Radio license. One of the rules we need to follow as operators is “use the minimum power required to get your message across.” As an engineer who works with core internet protocols, I follow the rule of “be gracious in what you accept, conservative in what you send.” As a system administrator, I believe in extensive logging and health checks, both of individual processes as well as of my system as a whole.
I believe technology, properly applied, may not solve all of today’s problems, but a rethink of where it is useful and necessary, where it can be suggested, or warranted, or mandated, could be the start of some ground-breaking thinking.
I also believe that the problems we face are far more social than technological, and that in general, if we legislate technology, or the use of it, technology ofen unfortunately moves faster than the law does. If we pass a law banning junk faxes, criminals use email to send spam. If we ban telemarketing, criminals learn to spoof callerID over voip. These laws and policies would require continuous review. But as a thought experiment, this is a world I would want to live in.
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