Unintended consequences of technology in policing
While technology has undoubtedly been beneficial for policing, many of these advancements have also had adverse—and often overlooked—impacts on policing
By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University
Technological advancements have caused major changes in policing in the past several decades. Compared to past generations, officers today are surrounded by technology that is intended to increase productivity, officer safety, and agency efficiency.
Communication, for example, has been dramatically improved. The days of communicating with dispatch only through the traditional police radio or tracking down a pay phone to call the station are long gone. Today, officers have cell phones and are responsible for monitoring communications through advanced police radios that can scan many channels or districts at one time. Police vehicles are also equipped with advanced computer-aided dispatch systems. These dispatch systems improve how quickly officers respond to calls for service, assist in the collection of investigative data, and clear calls without radio communication.
There have been many other advancements as well. For example, conducted energy devices such as Tasers have been deployed in more than 7,000 police agencies. Research shows that these devices have contributed to a reduction in officer injuries by 25 to 62 percent (MacDonald, Kaminski, & Smith, Michael 2009). Other technologies have also helped officers be more efficient and effective. For example, traffic-light cameras have enabled patrol officers to focus on problematic areas and assisted them with traffic enforcement.
Challenges of Adopting Technology
While technology has undoubtedly been beneficial for policing, many of these advancements have also had adverse—and often overlooked—impacts on policing. There is an inherent amount of stress involved with learning and applying many of these advanced technologies. Officers are expected to embrace technology and, unfortunately, do not always receive the proper training needed to use it at a mastery level. Many officers feel that different technologies are pushed on them, creating an unmanageable number of things to learn and remember. It is important for agency leaders to realize that adapting new technology often causes stress for officers so they need to take steps to help alleviate some of that stress.
Dangers Caused by Technology
Technology can have unintended consequences when officers must pay attention to so many different devices. For example, even though computer-aided dispatch systems, cell phones, and other communication devices each have their benefits, they can be extremely distracting for officers and even dangerous when their full attention is needed on a single situation.
For example, while an officer is driving a patrol unit, calls for service are typically pushed to the officer’s in-vehicle laptop through the computer-aided dispatch system. Referring to this technology while driving puts officers at an increased risk for vehicle accidents. Having to constantly divide their attention between different devices can result in a potentially dangerous situation and cause officers ongoing stress.
Another source of stress for officers is that some of these technological advancements won’t work when they need it. Officers are now equipped with less-than-lethal advanced weapons like Tasers and ammunition that includes bean bags, pepper rounds, and rubber projectiles. If these devices don’t work as expected, officers may be hurt.
How Agencies Can Reduce Stress from Technology
At a time where stress management in policing is critical to promote resiliency and good health in officers, steps can be taken to reduce the stress that is associated with technology. Examples include:
- Enacting administrative policies or personal goals designed to reduce distractions. This can include ignoring alerts through social media and non-work-related cell phone calls while on duty.
- Set a standard for communication with dispatch and supervisors while on duty. For example, supervisors can require patrol officers to respond only to the dispatch radio rather than through computer-aided dispatch communication tools or cell phones. Minimizing the number of devices that must be monitored can help reduce an officer’s stress.
- Permit officers to use the technology they’re comfortable with, when possible. Some officers, often younger ones, may find technologically advanced tools extremely helpful. However, other officers may find trying to learn new technology difficult and stressful. When possible, allow officers to use the technology they’re comfortable with. Forcing an officer who is uneasy about using advanced technology, like camera systems mounted in police units that monitor passing vehicles for stolen plates in real-time, should not be a requirement.
- Provide proper time for training officers on new technologies. When officers have thorough training they will feel confident using new devices. Training can help reduce stress by improving the officer’s proficiency in using the equipment.
In conclusion, technology has resulted in many advantages for law enforcement. Advanced technological equipment can reduce manpower shortages, increase officer safety, and help officers do their job more easily. However, technology can also become a stressor for officers. It is important that agencies recognize this stress and take steps to help officers become proficient and comfortable using technology.
About the Author: Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an adjunct professor with American Military University. He has spent more than two years studying police stress and its influence on the lives of police officers. In particular, Sadulski has conducted a review of approximately 300 peer-reviewed scholarly articles that focused on topics associated with police stress and officer wellness. In addition, he conducted a two-year qualitative study on how successful police officers effectively manage stress throughout their law enforcement career. With a Ph.D. in Criminal Justice, he continues to research effective stress management strategies for police officers to promote resiliency. In addition, Sadulski has 20 years of policing experience between both federal and local law enforcement. To contact the author, please send an email to IPSauthor@apus.edu.