Posts Tagged ‘technology’

At first I was disappointed that this week’s episode of This American Life was a rebroadcast from 2010. I’m glad I listened anyway, though, because it was an excellent podcast about people who refused to remain silent, even when it was in their best interest to simply shutup.

Image courtesy of Simon Howden /

Image courtesy of Simon Howden /

Of the two stories, the most riveting was about Adrian Schoolcraft, a former New York City police officer who secretly recorded his conversations with fellow officers and police administrators for nearly a year and a half back in 2008 and 2009.

The aftermath of that — multiple internal affairs investigations, a book about corruption in the NYPD based on the recordings, and Schoolcraft himself being thrown into a mental hospital by a deputy chief to silence him — is incredibly compelling.

The tapes also figured prominently in the recent court decision declaring the NYPD’s stop and frisk practices to be unconstitutional.

Graham Rayman wrote about the tapes and their content in a series of articles for the Village Voice back in 2010:

They reveal that precinct bosses threaten street cops if they don’t make their quotas of arrests and stop-and-frisks, but also tell them not to take certain robbery reports in order to manipulate crime statistics. The tapes also refer to command officers calling crime victims directly to intimidate them about their complaints.

As a result, the tapes show, the rank-and-file NYPD street cop experiences enormous pressure in a strange catch-22: He or she is expected to maintain high “activity”—including stop-and-frisks—but, paradoxically, to record fewer actual crimes.

This pressure was accompanied by paranoia—from the precinct commander to the lieutenants to the sergeants to the line officers—of violating any of the seemingly endless bureaucratic rules and regulations that would bring in outside supervision.

In other words, the tapes reveal the dysfunctional backdrop against which policing occurred in at least one New York City precinct in recent years. Other retired NYPD officers have confirmed the same types of issues in their precincts as well, but the overall scope of any problems in the NYPD isn’t clear.

An unexpected driver (for me, at least) of this reported dysfunction is the use of statistical information to predict and prevent crime. Compstat, the NYPD’s ground breaking approach to so-called “hot spot” policing, turns out to be one of the villains in Schoolcraft’s tale.

Image courtesy of  nokhoog_buchachon /

Image courtesy of nokhoog_buchachon /

What should be a tool to effectively manage police resources and direct them at trouble spots in the city became instead a weapon wielded against police officers to control and monitor their work on the one hand, and as a set of troublesome facts to be manipulated and minimized by administrators on the other.

It’s a troubling reminder that research, technology, and information is rarely neutral in its application. Political interests often trump the truth, and Schoolcraft’s ordeal is a graphic example of that.

Society too often views technology as a saviour. Unfortunately, it can’t replace the human element, at least not in policing.

What are your thoughts? Can we use technology to reduce police corruption (police body cameras?), or is that just yet another blind alley?

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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?