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Connecting minds to keep the peace: The potential of brain-computer interfaces in law enforcement

This technology could unlock unprecedented levels of situational awareness and information

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Brain-computer interfaces could help officers read and analyze situations more accurately and respond more effectively to emerging threats and situations.

This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.

The article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it – creating, constraining and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.

Article highlights

  • The use of Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs) in law enforcement could potentially revolutionize the industry by enhancing officers’ abilities to analyze situations more accurately and respond more effectively to threats. BCIs can connect an officer’s mind with real-time information, improving decision-making in high-pressure situations.
  • BCIs can improve human cognitive and physical performance. They were initially developed for medical applications in the 1970s, but their use has since expanded. There are two types of BCIs: invasive (wired directly into the brain) and non-invasive (using sensors on the scalp).
  • In the context of policing, BCIs could allow officers to access real-time surveillance feeds and identify potential threats instantly. With advanced AI, BCIs could prioritize relevant information and enhance communication among officers and dispatchers.
  • While there are no current examples of law enforcement agencies using BCIs, there is an increasing acceptance of their potential use in the public safety sector. A 2021 Pew Research Center survey found that 60% of Americans would find the use of brain implants more acceptable if they could be activated or deactivated at will.
  • BCIs could improve situational awareness, reduce human errors, increase officer empathy, and help identify and reduce implicit bias. However, law enforcement agencies will need to address legal, privacy, and safety concerns.

By Deputy Chief Brian Miller

In a world where data and information hold the key to power, we can harness cutting-edge technology to make informed decisions and drive innovation. The rise of artificial intelligence, brain-computer interfaces and machine learning is poised to revolutionize industries, including law enforcement.

While that may read like a science fiction novel, the reality is that the technology is coming, and quickly! This article explores the potential benefits and challenges of using brain-computer interfaces in policing, including how they can help officers read and analyze situations more accurately and respond more effectively to emerging threats and situations.

Brain-computer interfaces

In recent years, policing has become increasingly complex, and law enforcement agencies are turning to new technologies to help officers assess and respond to situations more quickly and effectively. [1] One tool gaining attention is the brain-computer interface (BCI), which can connect an officer’s mind with real-time information and analysis, enabling them to make better-informed decisions in high-pressure situations. [2,3]

Amid the intricate web of expectations and scrutiny that surrounds police officers, their margin for error is vanishing. Law enforcement leaders should turn to emerging technologies like BCIs in search of maximum effectiveness. The latest breakthroughs in this field envision enhanced situational awareness, instantaneous information access and the potential to minimize, if not eliminate human errors in high-stakes and rapidly evolving encounters. [4]

This is uncharted territory. Progressive agencies will have to grapple with legal, privacy and safety concerns, engaging stakeholders and opening dialogues that will shape the future. [5-7] From heads-up displays and Google Glass to virtual-reality headsets, though, these pioneers can integrate advanced technologies into the fabric of their operations. [8] In a not-so-distant future, with BCI at their fingertips, officers could unlock unprecedented levels of situational awareness and information. [9,10]

Expanding the human potential

A brain-computer interface is a pathway that serves as a direct or bidirectional communication link between a computer and the human brain. [11] The main function of a BCI is to substitute or strengthen the working capacity of the brain, allowing it to perform various tasks more efficiently and effectively. [10] As a result, a BCI can significantly improve humans’ cognitive and physical performance.

Early research and studies on BCIs beginning in the 1970s focused primarily on medical applications to rehabilitate patients with motor and cognitive impairments. [12] As the research evolved, applications for broader use began to emerge. BCIs diverged into two paths: those wired into the brain and those that used sensors on the scalp to facilitate the flow of data.

Invasive interfaces

Wires, electrodes or patches are commonly utilized in invasive BCIs to establish a connection between the computer and the brain. [3,11] These physical components play a crucial role in facilitating the transmission and reception of neural signals, enabling a seamless exchange of information and commands. [4,13]

In invasive BCIs, small and delicate electrodes are carefully inserted into specific regions of the brain. [3,11] These act as sensitive receivers, capable of capturing the electrical signals generated by the brain’s billions of interconnected neurons. [3,11,13] The placement of these electrodes is strategic and depends on the desired application. [11] These electrical signals are then transmitted through the wires to an external computer system. [3,11]

The wires themselves carry the electrical signals from the implanted electrodes to the computer, [3,11] ensuring the signals reach their intended destination for processing and analysis. The wires are meticulously designed to be safe and reliable, minimizing any potential interference or disruption in signal transmission.

Noninvasive interfaces

Noninvasive BCIs, on the other hand, employ external sensors placed on or near the scalp. [3,11] These can take the form of electrode-containing caps, patches or arrays. They detect the faint electrical activity generated by the brain through the scalp and skull. This activity consists of the brain’s electrical impulses and patterns that result from the firing of neurons. The sensors capture these electrical signals and transmit them to the computer for further processing.

In the case of noninvasive BCIs, the wires act as connectors between the sensors and the computer system [3,11] – the link through which the captured neural signals are relayed to the computer. These wires ensure the accurate and efficient transfer of the captured brain signals, maintaining the integrity of the conveyed information.

Both invasive and noninvasive BCIs rely on physical components to establish a reliable and precise connection between the brain and the computer. 3,11] They serve as essential conduits for transmitting neural signals. The design and functionality of these components are critical to the effectiveness of the system.

The emergence of BCI in policing

Imagine a patrol police officer standing confidently on a bustling city street corner, wearing a sleek, high-tech headset that seamlessly integrates with their uniform. The headset, a state-of-the-art wearable BCI, is made of a lightweight, metallic material that hugs the contours of the officer’s head, with several sensors strategically placed to detect brain activity.

As the officer surveys the scene, they can access real-time surveillance feeds, which are instantly projected as holographic overlays within their field of vision. The BCI’s advanced AI assists in identifying potential threats and prioritizes relevant information to ensure the officer remains vigilant and well-informed. With just a thought, the officer communicates silently with fellow officers and dispatchers, coordinating a rapid response to an unfolding incident nearby.

For instance, imagine it’s 2032. River City PD Officer Jane Martinez steps out of her patrol car, her eyes scanning the dark alley before her. The city has been experiencing a sharp spike in crime. As she ventures deeper into the narrow passageway, her BCI ballistic helmet hums softly, connecting her to the central police database, providing real-time information and decision-making assistance.

Suddenly, she spots a young man standing in the shadows, clutching an object in his hand. Martinez’s BCI identifies the object as a potential weapon, but within milliseconds the advanced algorithms determine it is actually a can of spray paint. Her BCI connects this information directly to her brain, allowing her to make an informed decision without relying on her perceptions and instincts. As she approaches the young man, the BCI analyzes his body language, facial expressions and vocal tone, advising Martinez that he is nervous but not hostile. She decides to handle the situation calmly, avoiding the use of any force.

Suddenly Martinez’s BCI alerts her to another urgent situation unfolding nearby. She leaves the young man with a warning and sprints toward the commotion. When she arrives at the scene, she finds a distraught man wielding a knife, surrounded by a terrified crowd. The BCI immediately kicks into action, providing Martinez with nonlethal strategies and real-time updates on the man’s emotional state. With precision and expertise, the BCI enhances her negotiation skills to de-escalate the situation. The man ultimately surrenders, and Martinez takes him into custody without any injuries or force. As she watches the man being escorted away, she can’t help but marvel – the days of human errors that could result in tragedy are gone. Thanks to BCIs, officers like her can now serve their communities with confidence, accuracy and compassion.

Although some may read Martinez’s story and wince, there is an increasing acceptance of BCIs and the possibility they will be an option for public safety in the future.

The real possibility of BCIs in law enforcement

According to a 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center, approximately 60% of Americans believe the use of computer chip implants in the brain would be more socially acceptable if individuals had the ability to activate or deactivate their effects at will. Moreover, 53% of those responding would find brain implants more acceptable if the computer chips could be installed without surgical procedures. [14] The polling indicates some police officers today would be open to testing BCIs as an experiment, particularly newer officers who may be enthusiastic about cutting-edge advances and their potential benefits.

While there may not be specific examples of law enforcement agencies currently experimenting with BCI technology, some agencies have been receptive to adopting new technologies in general. For instance, departments in cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco have embraced various innovative tools and methods to improve their work, such as body-worn cameras, [15] predictive policing algorithms and social media monitoring tools. [16] It is plausible that agencies with a history of openness to technology may be more inclined to explore the benefits and challenges associated with brain-computer technology.

As we consider the broader landscape of public safety and policing, it is essential to acknowledge the tremendous responsibility law enforcement agencies bear in managing a vast array of situations. The National Emergency Number Association estimates police in America receive approximately 240 million service calls annually, equating to roughly 600,000 daily. [17] Despite the overwhelming number of service calls law enforcement handles appropriately and lawfully, we see increasing scrutiny and calls for reform as a result of a comparatively small number of violent incidents. [18] These instances are among the most critical reasons to consider BCI.

BCI offers the potential benefits of improving situational awareness, reducing human errors, increasing officers’ empathy and reducing and identifying implicit bias, thus improving their decision-making skills and efficiency. [11,19] Recent advances in the field of brain-computer interfaces show there are opportunities to increase situational awareness by instantly providing information and updates, making understanding and comprehension inherent, and decreasing physiological factors that may impact an officer’s response. [4,11] These advances should in turn provide officers with improved abilities to positively influence the outcomes of complex, stressful, or rapidly evolving incidents.

Unveiling the perils and promises of BCI

While controversial, our story of Officer Martinez shows a possible future where BCI may eliminate human errors in law enforcement. A lot of recent controversies surrounding police interactions are associated with such errors. They include pulling out guns instead of Tasers, excessive or misapplication of force, mistaking replica guns or other items as real weapons, stopping people without reasonable suspicion, failure to administer tests correctly and making mistakes in threat assessments. [11,19] In spite of the possible advantages, there are significant social, ethical, legal and privacy issues associated with the use of BCIs. [5-7,20] BCIs could allow law enforcement agencies to monitor their officers’ thoughts and emotions or could be hacked and compromise safety, [6,20,21] which means safeguards must be in place before the first BCI is worn in the field. Nevertheless, BCIs have the potential to revolutionize law enforcement, provided they are used responsibly and ethically. [5,7]

Help is on the way

In a world where law enforcement faces increasing scrutiny, the potential benefits of BCIs are undeniable. [9,10] Agencies willing to be early adopters should prepare themselves by starting foundational discussions concerning legal, privacy and safety concerns with stakeholders such as community organizations, labor associations, legal counsel and the judicial system. [5-7]

Such was the case in 2012 when NASA began using BCIs to detect when pilots and air traffic controllers were at increased likelihood of making errors. [22] Data suggests police officers make significant errors in judgment during prolonged lethal-force situations. Studies suggest improved outcomes when the physiology of police officers can be modified to reduce stress and their bodies’ response to threats.

Assuming BCIs could be used to reduce or mitigate stress factors, then the outcomes of police officers encountering those same incidents but utilizing brain-computer interfaces could potentially be influenced positively, [11] even potentially assisting officers in regulating their emotions during stressful situations and increasing their empathy toward individuals, reducing implicit bias or a prevalence to use force. [23] BCIs may help police officers avoid costly errors that often result in the loss of civilian life and may increase the level of trust between civilians and law enforcement agencies.

A way forward

Agencies should prioritize an incremental approach to integrating BCI into policing. It is clear based on current polling of the American public that to ensure a smooth and ethically guided transition, it’s important to start with less invasive technologies that can build a pathway for more advanced applications in the future. [14]

Before considering full-scale BCIs, agencies should first explore the use of monitoring devices, such as those that assess stress or cognitive load through physiological measures like heart rate variability, skin conductance or eye tracking. [15] Through the gradual evolution and introduction of other situational awareness technologies, agencies can methodically and strategically familiarize their staff and communities with the increased use of and reliance on technologies. [8] These technologies, while not as direct as BCI, can provide insights into an officer’s state of mind during critical incidents. [11]

Simultaneously, agencies could also experiment with wearable devices like electroencephalography (EEG) headbands, which are less invasive and read brain waves from the scalp. [13] While these devices have limitations in the level of detail they can provide about cognitive processes, they offer a safer, less intrusive first step into the world of brain-computer interfaces. [1]

As agencies plan for the future, they should actively collaborate with researchers, technology developers and policy experts to establish guidelines and best practices for the responsible use of brain-computer interfaces in policing. [1] These guidelines should consider the ethical implications of monitoring officers’ thoughts and emotions, address concerns about hacking and safety and provide a clear framework for balancing the benefits of enhanced situational awareness with the protection of individual privacy and civil liberties. [8,24]

Furthermore, law enforcement agencies should prioritize transparency and open communication with the public, building trust and fostering a mutual understanding of the potential benefits and challenges associated with the use of BCI in policing. [13,25] By engaging the community in these conversations, agencies can ensure the development and deployment of brain-computer interfaces reflect the values and expectations of the society they serve. [1]

Topics for discussion

1. How can our law enforcement agency begin to integrate artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies into our current operations for more informed decision-making? 2. What potential ethical concerns or challenges do you foresee as we introduce brain-computer interfaces and AI into our law enforcement practices, and how can we address them?

3. Given the fast-paced growth of these technologies, what steps should we take to ensure our workforce is adequately trained and prepared to use these tools effectively?


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About the author

Brian Miller began his career with the Petaluma (California) Police Department in 2005 and currently serves as the Deputy Chief of Police. Brian has a Bachelor’s degree in History and a minor in International Relations from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and a Master’s degree in Homeland Security and Counter-Terrorism Studies from American Military University. Brian is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and POST Command College Program. Brian currently serves on the California Police Chiefs Association’s Board of Directors.

Police1 is using generative AI to create some content that is edited and fact-checked by our editors.