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Could new police technology reduce abuse?

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Police Technology

New technology is changing law enforcement. Whether it’s body cameras or facial recognition technology, policing is getting more sophisticated.  Not only can new tech empower cops to better enforce the law, it also offers new constraints on police abuse. (Click here to watch our full interview on police technology.)

A lack of trust

2015 was a watershed year for the way most Americans view police – and not in a good way. Numerous videos surfaced showing law enforcement using excessive or deadly force on unarmed or apparently nonthreatening suspects.

But what changed last year? 2015 wasn’t the first year when police shootings occurred. The difference last year was driven more by the fact that so many questionable shootings were captured on film.

While citizen technology (smart phones with cameras) exposed the problem, police technology may offer the solution – a tool powerful enough to improve not just the effectiveness, but also the quality of law enforcement.

A look at the technology

At TalksOnLaw, we sat down with expert Bennett Capers, a former federal prosecutor and a law professor at Brooklyn Law School, to discuss his take on the latest in police tech and its effect on accountability of American law enforcement. (Click here to watch our interview with Professor Capers.)

Cameras – giving voice to victims of abuse

Body Cameras. When it comes to a dispute, courts will generally choose to believe an officer of the law and discount the claims of a victim, who in many cases may be suspected of criminal activity. But cameras empower the victim, despite previous accusations or a criminal history. Police use of body-worn cameras (BWCs) has been widely touted as an effective method to reduce abuse.

BWCs can provide a neutral source in cases of alleged discrimination or excessive force by law enforcement, and since they’re attached to police uniforms, they travel with law enforcement wherever they go. But the effectiveness of BWC surveillance alone is limited. Significantly, police officers may turn their cameras on or off at their discretion or may know how to manipulate the cameras to show only a limited field of view.

CCTV. Adding to the surveillance of BWCs, police can also draw on closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras. With multiple recording points linked together into a surveillance network, CCTV can also reduce bad policing by recording abuse. CCTV cameras (common in most cities and along some roads) can provide a more objective, third-person vantage point, and can’t be turned off at the discretion of the officer.

Footage for the people

Even when incidents are recorded via CCTV or BWCs, police departments are not obligated to release footage to the public. Citizen advocates like Professor Capers argue that this should be improved. By expanding citizen rights to such footage, camera technology can help to empower victims who currently lack a voice.

Legal issues yet to be resolved

These added cameras come with their own set of legal concerns that need to be worked out over time. Here are a few questions discussed in the interview:

  • When is a warrant needed to record on private property?
  • Who has access to footage and under what circumstances can it be used?
  • Does CCTV in poor neighborhoods exacerbate the over-representation of minorities in prison?

Technology to replace bias

Beyond cameras, other technologies have opened up avenues for improved police accountability and new developments in jurisprudence. Facial recognition software, for example, can be used to scan crowds for known criminals or their associates. While facial recognition software may trigger false positives, its use may ultimately reduce the overall number of individuals being stopped by police. It may also help to tighten the focus, for example, reducing a search from “black male in his twenties” to a particular person.

Clearing the innocent

As technology advances, facial recognition may be a powerful tool in reducing harassment of the innocent.  A black man standing outside of a Manhattan hotel, for example, may be properly identified as tennis star James Blake rather than being thrown into handcuffs as a suspected criminal. By using technology to accurately identify individuals beyond their skin color or clothing choices, facial recognition may be a tool to reduce the problem of racial stereotyping in law enforcement.

Nevertheless, there remain potential negative consequences. Plausibly, such information could lead to a more focused form of preferential treatment. Police could avoid giving minor traffic tickets to law students or lawyers because they cause too much trouble. Or police may target the wealthy for certain fines, as they are more likely able to pay up.

Reducing the need for deadly force

Another technology, terahertz scanners, may help reduce the chances of a cop unnecessarily reaching for her gun. Terahertz scanners can be used from a distance to determine if someone is carrying a firearm. Knowing that a potential perp isn’t carrying a weapon should provide an additional tool for police to more accurately determine the appropriate level of force to apply.

According to Prof. Capers, we shouldn’t be focusing on what police technology can do for police – we should ask what police technology can do for civilians.  While the legal implications are yet to be fully worked out, technology can and should be a powerful weapon in improving the quality and accountability of policing.

To watch the complete interview on Police Technology – From Body Cameras to Facial Recognition, visit Talks on Law.

Joel Cohen Joel Cohen is the founder and CEO of TalksOnLaw, a legal media and education company based in Manhattan. He writes and speaks on contemporary and controversial legal issues. Prior to TalksOnLaw, Joel worked at Skadden Arps, where his practice focused on cross-border transactions, corporate strategy, and mergers & acquisitions. A student of public speaking and policy, Joel has worked as a speechwriter and strategist both in the US government and within the UK parliament. He also has a passion for the environment and was appointed by the Government of Argentina as an economist on international environmental matters