Posts Tagged ‘drones’

It slices, it dices, and it even stuns suspects!

Image courtesy of Victor Habbick /

Image courtesy of Victor Habbick /

Drones are everywhere these days, it seems. Hobbyists, researchers, photographers, students, and yes, the government, are all actively using drones for a wide range of purposes, both peaceful and violent.

From protecting wildlife and surveying damage in the aftermath of natural disasters, to killing people by remote control in foreign countries, drones are quickly becoming the platform of choice for a diverse array of activities.

Killing by drone is probably not going to fly here in the US anytime soon (we hope), but never fear; a less-than-lethal solution is close at hand.

Drones are now being developed than can deploy taser-like weapons to stun and temporarily disable interns and other suspicious characters.


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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Several months ago, and again this past weekend, I engaged in discussions about drones, how they’re being used, what the potential for abuse might be, and how we go forward from here. The perspectives run the gamut from those who say “no drones, no way,” to those who say “drones okay, but unarmed only,” to others who feel that literally the sky’s the limit.

If you haven’t read it yet, Daniel Suarez’s book, Kill Decision, is not only an excellent story, it’s also a fascinating look at the potential future of drone technology.  The book tends toward the dystopian, but it may not be too far off in terms of its predictions about how drones are ultimately used in the future.

Daniel Suarez’s TED Talk from June 2013 on the topic of lethal autonomous drones

I personally have a complex position on drones. I love technology and feel that drones hold significant promise for so many fields, policing being just one. At the same time, however, the technology is outstripping society’s ability to understand and regulate its use. This would be especially true of the lethal autonomous drones that Suarez warns about in his novel and TED Talk.

The ACLU has also raised concerns related to the privacy implications of drone use by the police. For this reason, some communities, such as Seattle, have declared a moratorium on drone use by police, pending further research. Other jurisdictions are going full steam ahead despite reservations.

But, police aren’t the only ones using drones. The group, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) announced they’ll begin using drones to monitor hunters. And, there are any number of individuals and hobbyists who enjoy using (and abusing) drones for their personal enjoyment.

So, what’s your opinion on drones? Technological marvel or sinister tool of Big Brother? Vote in this week’s poll!

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I just wrapped up teaching a course called Technology in Criminal Justice, and it was a real eye-opener for both me and my students. One theme that became absolutely clear was that technology cannot replace human intervention, no matter how much we’d like that to be the case. At least not yet, it can’t. It also can’t save us from our inherent human fallibility.

system error

Everywhere we look, though, we see governments and vendors touting technologies as a primary way to thwart crime. The downsides of any of these technologies are rarely discussed, except when something goes wrong. For example, ARS Technica recently reported on thousands of paroled sex offenders easily disabling the GPS tracking devices they were ordered to wear. Ugh.

But, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Debacles such as the Department of Homeland Security’s failed multi-million dollar program to use technology to secure the US-Mexican border highlight the sometimes overwhelming management challenges of developing such complex technologies.

Smaller failures, such as have occurred with  facial recognition technology, emergency dispatch systems, tasers, drones even police radio systems – highlight the many ways that an over-reliance on technology can cause as many problems as it solves.

In fact, the false sense of security these technologies engender is making society less safe, not more.

We trust that any technology the criminal justice system employs is not only going to work, it’s going to be an improvement over what came before. In other words, more technology equals more safety in many people’s minds. The fact that technology is so fallible and can fail at the worst possible time puts us at increased risk.

I’m no Luddite, but I am a proponent of thoughtful and careful implementation of new technologies. I’m also a staunch proponent of accounting for the human component of any new endeavor, be it a technology or any other innovation.

So, what are your thoughts on technology in criminal justice: boon or boondoggle?