Is Technology Removing the Human Element From Policing?

Posted: January 27, 2014 in Law, Policing, Violence
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Several weeks ago, Jon Evans posted a great piece on TechCrunch about the techno-militarization of policing in the U.S.  Although he’s certainly not the first to raise such concerns, he provided a nice summary of the primary issues involved.

He made the point, for example, that even though crime is at historically low levels nationwide, police departments everywhere are investing heavily in new crime-fighting technology. Everything from high-tech mass-surveillance systems and other types of security software, to drones, and even military tanks, are being purchased for use in everyday domestic law enforcement situations.

Image courtesy of Victor Habbick /

Image courtesy of Victor Habbick /

Evans isn’t bashing the police or their need for safety equipment, either. It’s subtler that that:

It’s not that it’s bad for the authorities to use new technology. A lot of the time it’s an excellent idea. The NSA wants to listen in on high-confidence bad-guy cell-phone conversations in Yemen and Somalia? Fair enough. You can make a case for many aspects of Oakland’s Domain Awareness Center. And I’m a big fan of always-on chest/helmet cameras for police and others, for example, at least in theory … although of course, in practice, the authorities don’t like it at all when that footage gets out to the public.

But simply transposing military technology into the civil realm — or foreign surveillance techniques and tech into the domestic arena — seems really hard to justify to me, especially when violent crime is at a 40-year low across America… which is probably because of less lead, not more cops (Emphasis added).

One of his points here is that more gear, more tech, and more weaponry is hard to justify in a time of tight budgets and low crime. But that’s only part of the story.

On the other side, of course, are those who say that military gear is the right way to protect police officers who go into highly volatile and dangerous situations, as SWAT officers often do. If the federal government is willing to fund a tank or armored personnel carrier for such situations, then it makes perfect sense to buy them. Never mind that the equipment will be rarely used – it’s there if and when we need it.

One driver of the ever increasing perceived need for high-tech police equipment, though, is almost certainly related to human factors within police culture itself, especially the para-military nature of many departments. A thread of militarism exists and is encouraged among many officers from the very start of their careers. And the dangers – both real and perceived – of police work can certainly lead to an “Us versus Them” mentality that lends itself to an increased desire for more equipment to combat the bad guys. That’s the human side of policing.

The spectre of terrorism, as remote as the likelihood is in most jurisdictions, is another driver of this phenomenon. Even in small towns, where crime rates are extraordinarily low, fear of terrorism has lead agencies to seek federal grants to purchase military equipment for use by local police. According to one article from 2011 about the Fargo, ND, police department:

Every city squad car is equipped today with a military-style assault rifle, and officers can don Kevlar helmets able to withstand incoming fire from battlefield-grade ammunition. And for that epic confrontation—if it ever occurs—officers can now summon a new $256,643 armored truck, complete with a rotating turret. For now, though, the menacing truck is used mostly for training and appearances at the annual city picnic, where it’s been parked near the children’s bounce house. “Most people are so fascinated by it, because nothing happens here,” says Carol Archbold, a Fargo resident and criminal justice professor at North Dakota State University. “There’s no terrorism here.”

Ultimately, though, it’s not about the overkill of using such resources in relatively safe jurisdictions. Military equipment does probably provide some added margin of safety for officers in certain situations, which is definitely a good thing.

The more concerning problem – to my mind at least – is the increasing potential for over-reliance on technology as a replacement for using soft skills and de-escalation techniques to resolve incidents in ways that avoid using physical force altogether. Why waste time talking with protesters and trying to solve the problem peacefully when you can show up in intimidating military-style riot gear, riding on armored personnel carriers and blasting the crowd with nausea-inducing sound cannons that end things quickly and decisively.

Top 5 Mind Blowing Weapons Police Use on Protestors | Think Tank

Technology too often becomes a way to avoid doing difficult tasks and sharpening critical skills. And, dealing with human beings is among one of the most difficult, skill-based tasks out there.

As we go down this path of technology development, however, we can’t forget that criminal justice work of all types, including policing, is at it’s heart a human endeavour. To the extent that we allow technology to replace the need for human skills and the human touch, the public will actually have lost a substantial margin of safety and accountability.

What are your thoughts?

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  1. Brittius says:

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    Back in “the Good Old Days”… The men that comprised the police department were not only from a different generation, but a different lifestyle. I would say that maybe three-quarters were veterans. Women came on the job as Police Matrons, and later on, as police officers. Times were changing. Realization that officers needed to be better rounded off, as what normally was acceptable years ago, particularly when thinking of military, did not apply to policing, and there was a better way of doing things. That brought about a better educated cop. Fewer conflicts while dealing with people. Then society became more liberal, and the educated cops are viewed as cops of my generation, and the newer breed of cop, does not deserve the negativity. The new breed of cops, for the most-part, are doing a very good job. Society wants to replace service weapons with disposable diapers in adult size. Limits are stretched. The federal government, to get more contracts into the hands of campaign donating corporations, sends armored vehicles to police agencies, and will train personnel in tactics. Para-militarization is leaning heavily towards full militarization; But consider this, what would happen, if police administrators, said “No”? What if police administrators said that, they do not want, armor vehicles, assault weapons, BDU combat uniforms, military training. I have my own views for considerable time, that if, a police agency wants to get back to basics, then put them into something that is a police vehicle but, appears a bit more hardened, like a patrol car painted in the old black & white scheme. Police can go back to wearing proper uniform attire. Why waste budgets on high capacity semi-automatic pistols when police have lost their basic shooting skills. Years ago, a police involved shooting on average was one, maybe two, bullets fired, and all rounds fired, hit the intended mark. Do not want to clean the gun? Then put them back into .38 Special, revolvers, and the cleaning is less, and the practice shooting is less. Being smarter means doing more with the weapon secured to your neck.., your brain. This is only the tip of the iceberg, and it would also conserve budgeted funds.


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