The technology helping America’s police fight crime


Technological change is happening across society at a rapid pace. From entertainment such as social media, to helpful resources such as essays online; things that seemed like science fiction only a few years ago are now a reality. Emergent technologies are disrupting traditional methods of doing things and are forcing people to change how they work.  This technological change is also taking place amongst law enforcement and like the wider technological change sweeping society it is also raising issues about how this change is changing us.

Futuristic law enforcement is a well worn genre within science fiction, from Judge Dredd to Robocop to the new hit TV series APB, people have written about how technology can change how law enforcement works and how that change can affect us as a society. In the real world technological change is also taking place. It may not be as over the top as the things concocted by sci-fi writers but the ethical, moral and legal questions it raises are as profound as anything they write about.  

One of the least controversial areas that technology is impacting in law enforcement is in the area of chemical detection. This can be anything from advanced analysis equipment for processing crimes scenes to field kits that can be used to test for gunshot residue or drug test kits both for testing suspect substances or for testing people for recent drug use like a breathalyzer tests for alcohol. These technologies are the least controversial because they can not only be evidence of guilt but can also quickly exonerate innocent people and rule them out as suspects.

Another area that is helping law enforcement is advanced gunshot detection systems. They are just starting to be field trialed by a number of police agencies but are raising eyebrows as they are not only helping police find the exact location of shots fired calls but are detecting incidents that are not even reported because the community has become so used to frequent gunfire or are reluctant to interact with law enforcement. It consists of strategically placed microphones and sophisticated analysis software that takes the sound detected and quickly cross references the location. This allows the police to quickly respond to the exact location as well as detect patterns in the incidents.

One of the most important policing tools is intelligence, everyday the police gather bits of information from police officers observations and tips from the public and confidential informants. While in the past police work often relied on the individual officer to analyse the information he had to detect and solve crime, technology is now used to gather and analyse the disparate pieces of information. A whole new science has grown up around using all this data to not only solve crimes but to use it as a tool to prevent crime. This new approach is a change from reactive based policing to a proactive place based policing. The use of big data and AI are probably going to affect law enforcement more than any other technology.

The most controversy that is found about the use of technology in law enforcement is when that technology is considered a threat to people’s rights to privacy. One of the most controversial is the use of police drones. While the police often like to highlight how they have successfully used drones to find lost children the public is worried about how easy it is for drones to be used to spy on someone even in places where they would have an expectation of privacy like in their own home. The laws around when the police can legally use drones to gather information are yet to be written and tested in courts and that is what is adding to the public’s unease.  

Another area of controversy is in the use of advanced facial recognition software. Police in the UK having been using facial recognition software in conjunction with their large surveillance camera network to detect fugitives amongst crowds of people on the street. The use of this technology will no doubt play a crucial role in the future of law enforcement and just like the police use cameras to detect automatically suspect vehicles using license plate recognition software the day is not far away when the same cameras will be scanning the faces of people on the street and looking to see if they have any outstanding warrants or if they match the description of suspects.

No doubt there are technologies that are emerging now that people have not even considered the ramifications of their use by law enforcement. The key to making sure these new technologies will be used in a lawful manner and not as a tool of repression will be the ongoing development of protocols and policies that prevent their misuse. Just like the use of Miranda warnings and prohibitions against racial profiling have changed how the police interact with the community there will be new policies that will grow out of the changes so that the community can still have trust in law enforcement.

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