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How Technology Can Make Police Departments Less Racist and More Effective

Only about 13 percent of burglaries in the United States ended in arrests in 2015, according to the FBI. The clearance rates for more serious crimes were low as well: 20 percent for arson, 38 percent for rape, 54 percent for aggravated assault and 62 percent for homicide. Statistically speaking, your chances of getting away with murder are better than 1 in 3.

Policing in America is a huge and expensive enterprise that clearly isn’t very effective, and I think a big part of the reason is the misdirection of resources resulting from racialized policing. Two provocative papers by Bennett Capers, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and a former federal prosecutor, convinced me of that. Capers uses both statistics and his own experience as a black man and prosecutor to make a compelling case both for how pervasively racialized our policing is and for how we might use technology to de-racialize it.

Paradoxically, Capers writes, the principal problem for people of color when it comes to serious crime is not over-enforcement but under-enforcement. “The best way to counter that problem,” he writes, “is by first addressing racial profiling tactics so that resources can be directed to tackle actual crime.” He cites the New York Police Department’s aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics, whose stated objective is to get illegal firearms off the street. According to the NYPD’s own data, police find just one firearm in every 1,000 of these stops, and blacks stopped by police are actually less likely to have a weapon than whites stopped.

It’s hard to know the magnitude of the resources misdirected because of racialized policing. But the case of Philando Castile, the black man who had been pulled over by police 49 times prior to the traffic stop in which he was killed by an officer in a St. Paul, Minn., suburb, gives us reason to believe it is huge.

Capers describes three uses of technology to improve policing while decreasing its racial bias: more public surveillance cameras, increased use of facial recognition technology and equipping police with so-called terahertz laser scanners, small devices that can detect concealed firearms. He recognizes the pushback that will come from these ideas, acknowledging that “all of this may sound precariously close to George Orwell’s Big Brother [in 1984].” But he makes a forceful case that it can help to de-racialize policing. “After all,” he notes, “cameras and terahertz scanners do not have implicit biases.”

Our racialized system of policing is not just morally repugnant. It is appallingly ineffective. In a paper published two decades ago, the British Society of Criminology found that reallocating resources for solving burglaries could produce a clearance rate approaching 50 percent. If we could get from 13 to 50 percent for burglaries, imagine what we could do with more serious crimes and how much safer our communities would be.

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