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Can new technology mitigate the largest threat to police legitimacy?

Automated less-lethal technologies may relieve officers of their most difficult decisions

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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.

By Lieutenant Chad Morris, BS, MBA

It’s Sunday at 10 p.m., and you are getting mentally prepared for the coming week as you get into bed and prepare to fall asleep. Suddenly you receive an urgent text message on your work phone. It advises you to respond immediately to a rapidly unfolding civil unrest incident at the state capitol. You are to respond directly to the command post located at 123 J Street. The text advises you to be prepared with your mobile field force gear and ready to deploy immediately.

You do your best to quickly switch gears. You work to get your mind right and control the adrenaline response that has just overwhelmed your nervous system. Finally, you calmly tell your wife that you got a call and need to head into the office, not wanting to scare her.

While driving to the command post downtown, you recognize a sense of fear and anxiety clouding your mind – fear that you will be forced into a controversial use-of-force situation; anxiety that strangers, who have no idea of the realities and dangers of your job or the situation you’ve been called to serve, will judge you. You know that “a sizable portion of the American public disapproves of police use of force in situations in which such action would be legally and professionally reasonable. The tension between the legal standards on one side, and the evolving and sometimes legally unreasonable expectations of the public on the other, makes the job of policing extremely difficult for frontline police officers.” [1] Often you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

As you near the command post, you find yourself reflecting on Paul Harvey’s famous speech “Policeman,” where he asserts, “the police officer must know every gun, draw on the run and hit where it doesn’t hurt. He must be able to whip two men twice his size and half his age without damaging his uniform and without being ‘brutal.’ If you hit him, he’s a coward. If he hits you, he’s a bully.”

According to criminologist William Terrill, “The consequences of comprised legitimacy are far-reaching, as citizens who view the police as illegitimate are less likely to obey the law, comply during encounters with the police and cooperate as victims and witnesses. The paradox for police is to maintain control of encounters while also treating citizens with dignity and respect.” [2] You prepare yourself to be judged from the security of people’s couches and through the lens of what their media and politics believe is just and unjust.

You then flash back to the last time you were called to assist with riots at the state capitol. You recall protestors throwing objects that could hurt or even kill you or a partner. You also recall rubber bullets being deployed to overcome one of the antagonists in the crowd. While this antagonist was clearly breaking the law and putting your life in danger, he later sued the city and the department because he felt the force was excessive.

The thought of losing your life and being civilly sued and losing your home has you questioning what you’ve gotten yourself into. Is this the same profession you signed up for? A profession that asks you to protect the rights of the very people who intend on doing you harm? There has got to be another answer.

The fear and anxiety build as you approach the J Street off-ramp and see plumes of smoke in the air and helicopters circling. As your adrenaline high begins to level, you find yourself in a daze. As your mind begins to wander, you envision a less-lethal technology that allows you to do your job and apply the exact level of force necessary to overcome resistance. This technology would automatically identify furtive movements (prefight indicators) and assess the adversary’s biometrics to produce the precise level of force needed to overcome the resistance.

Effective less-lethal alternatives

A 2022 Gallup Poll on policing reform revealed that 32% of adults wanted police stripped of lethal weapons and armed only with less-lethal alternatives. “The development of future alternative weapons could reduce lethal force encounters and improve perceptions of racial disparity,” noted Terrill. [3] As modern-day technology continues to evolve, the presence of autonomous weapon systems is also evolving. With advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning, weapons are being developed that remove some, or even all, of the decision-making from the human operator. The role of these autonomous weapons systems for use in domestic law enforcement, however, is a source of great controversy.

Autonomous weapons systems have enormous potential in police use-of-force applications and could dramatically reduce civil and criminal liability and exposure to officers and their agencies. However, public sentiment varies on whether they are a move in the right direction. On the one hand, taking the guesswork out of when to use force, and to what degree, seems like a welcome advance. On the other hand, many cannot comprehend a machine making decisions to use force on a human being.

At least one researcher has concluded that fully automated weapons systems (AWS) have no role in law enforcement. “One of the problems presented by computer algorithms that determine when AWS will be allowed to release force is that they do so in advance, on the basis of hypotheticals, while there is no true and pressing emergency rendering such a far-reaching decision unavoidable,” noted human rights expert Christof Heyns. “Even if it may be permissible in a real emergency to take far-reaching measures, it does not follow that such decisions can be taken in the abstract.” [4]

While automated decision-making technology provides great possibility, the lack of human input and a perceived lack of compassion and humanity inherent to these tools makes their widespread implementation challenging. Even considering the adverse perspectives, law enforcement should be focused on developing and adopting technology to help officers make better decisions that result in fewer fatalities. One weapons platform worth considering has already moved from science fiction to reality: lasers.

Lasers and AWS for policing

The development of laser technology for tactical applications has been viewed more as science fiction than fact. “However, more current developments have short-cut the process,” observed security specialists Robert Bunker and Dan Lindsay. [5] “Around 2018, laser pistols configured to give the appearance of rifles or submachine guns, like the Chinese ZKZM-500, appeared.

“[Traveling at the speed of light] … no time of flight exists for it to hit a target,” wrote Bunker and Lindsay. “As soon as the trigger of the laser weapon is pulled, the target has been engaged.” [5]

The United States military has been testing laser technology for many years. The intensity of these lasers can be adjusted to incapacitate a human or temporarily disable a vehicle. The technology is still in its infancy, and most variants require large units that lack portability. However, it is likely that in the future, high-powered laser technology will be deployable in smaller devices the size of a modern handgun. This alternative to firearms should result in better outcomes and far less lethality than using a handgun to do the same job.

Additionally, “smart imaging systems” that utilize AI technology are advancing rapidly. Smart imaging systems use AI technology that assesses human behavior by analyzing biometric data and furtive movement. Research by the RAND Corporation indicates, “Behavioral science has identified many nonverbal behaviors that are statistically associated with emotional and psychological state and with deception or violent intent. These can be roughly categorized into 1) kinetics (including gross motor movements) and 2) observation of physiological state.” [6]

AI technology programmed to scan for these human “nonverbal prefight behaviors” is currently being tested in drone-based surveillance. “Scientists have developed an experimental drone system that uses AI to detect violent actions in crowds,” wrote Engadget’s Jon Fingas. [7] “The team trained their machine learning algorithm to recognize a handful of typical violent motions (punching, kicking, shooting and stabbing) and flag them when they appear in a drone’s camera view. The technology could theoretically detect a brawl that on-the-ground officers might miss or pinpoint the source of a gunshot.”

Building a less-lethal platform

The merging of laser technology and AI-based smart imaging systems could produce a less-lethal platform that takes the guesswork out of when and how much force an officer should use to overcome resistance in a given violent encounter. Additionally, blending a third technology, such as the TrackingPoint guided trigger technology produced by Talon Precision Optics, into this hypothetical platform could ensure precision accuracy in all encounters.

The TrackingPoint rifle scope has been aptly referred to as a “shooting platform that cannot miss.” TrackingPoint technology uses computer processing and advanced optics to lock on targets – including moving targets – and correct for wind, humidity, Coriolis effect, rifle cant, cartridge weight and the absence of light. [8] It even allows shooters to share their scope view in real-time with others via smartphone or tablet. According to research by law professor Drury Stevenson, J.D., high-end models can “hit a moving target in the dark at 1,400 yards (about eight-tenths of a mile), even with an unskilled shooter. They also enable an operator at a remote location to fire the gun while another person merely carries it on location and points it toward the target.” [9]

Writing on the topic of smart guns, the law and the Second Amendment, Stevenson also noted that “Automated recording, memorializing and archiving events for subsequent replay … can enhance accountability (say, for police shootings of unarmed suspects) and justification, corroborating an otherwise disputable claim that a shooting was in self-defense.” Stevenson asserts that TrackingPoint and similar AI technologies are potentially disruptive for the laws governing firearm possession and use, an area of law “already fraught with intense controversy.” [9]

Ethical challenges to less-lethal technologies

The biggest challenges surrounding the use of smart, even autonomous weapons are the impending ethical concerns. Most Americans cannot fathom the idea of a machine making the sole decision to use force on another human being. There would need to be extensive training to accompany the implementation of these technologies to overcome privacy concerns, abuses of power and the reliability of facial recognition systems. Other considerations would include the system’s overall accuracy. What if the technology platform mistakenly interpreted a harmless gesture for a prefight indicator? A performance failure like this could have dire consequences, leading to a public outcry and restriction of this potentially valuable tool.

Taking those concerns into consideration, the law enforcement profession would benefit significantly from advocating for additional research and development of autonomous weapons systems and laser technology in police field operations. Simultaneously developing transparent industrywide policies and procedures would help overcome privacy concerns and abuses of power. Police can embark on this development by utilizing available grant funding for research and development and working with their local political leaders and private sector firms interested in exploring this promising new technology that could revolutionize how police use force to overcome resistance. A future with fewer shots fired and far fewer inadvertent misses to stop an adversary intent on harm outweighs concerns as long as necessary safeguards are developed. Creating a foundation for those safeguards now is an excellent first step.

Conclusion

As you arrive at the command post, you imagine a world where new, cutting-edge less-lethal technology exists, is readily available and has full community and law enforcement support based on its effectiveness and proven safety. You envision laser technology paired with an AI sighting system that can analyze biometrics and furtive movements and identify threats before they materialize. A laser that, when fired, automatically adjusts its intensity to the precise level of less-lethal force needed to overcome the encountered resistance. You realize such an effective tool could revolutionize the current use-of-force conundrum, stop claims of excessive force and potentially raise public support for policing to all-time highs. As you approach the command post, you force yourself out of this sleep-deprived state of Pollyanna nonsense and force yourself to get your mind right.

Suddenly you hear the distant sound of what you believe is a wind chime. As the seconds pass, the chime becomes louder. Finally, your body begins to shake, and you slowly open your eyes. You are startled to see your wife lying next to you, pushing your body back and forth. She looks concerned and tells you your alarm went off and she’s concerned you’ll be late for work. You realize this was all just a dream, and you have not actually responded to any riots. As you transition out of your deep dream state, relieved, well-rested and inspired, you envision a world where technology provides an answer to the future of use-of-force encounters and a country where this technological advancement puts an end to negative public sentiment related to police use-of-force incidents.

References

1. Mourtgos SM, Adams IT. (2020.) Assessing Public Perceptions of Police Use-of-Force: Legal Reasonableness and Community Standards. Justice Quarterly.

2. Terrill T, Paoline EA, Gau JM. (2016.) Three Pillars of Police Legitimacy: Procedural Justice, Use-of-force, and Occupational Culture. The Politics of Policing: Between Force and Legitimacy.

3. Terrill T, Paoline EA. (2017.) Police Use of Less Lethal Force: Does Administrative Policy Matter? National Institute of Justice.

4. “Human Rights and the use of Autonomous Weapons Systems (AWS) During Domestic Law Enforcement.” Christof Heyns. Human Rights Quarterly. 2016. www.jstor.org/stable/24738054

5. Bunker RJ, Lindsay D. (2008.) Laser Weapons: An Emerging Threat. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin.

6. Davis PK, Perry WL, Brown RA, et al. (2012.) Using Behavioral Indicators to Help Detect Potential Violent Acts: A Review of the Science Base.” RAND Corporation.

7. Fingas J. (June 6, 2018.) Experimental drone uses AI to spot violence in crowds. Engadget.

8. How It Works. Talon Precision Optics.

9. Stevenson D. (2020.) Smart guns, the law, and the Second Amendment. Penn State Law Review.


About the author

Lieutenant Chad Morris, BS, MBA, has worked in law enforcement for 15 years. He began his professional career as a serial entrepreneur in the private sector, founding businesses in the real estate, finance and specialty food fields. He has worked numerous assignments throughout his law enforcement career, including patrol, detective, high-tech crimes forensic investigator, SWAT operator, public information officer, problem-oriented policing and professional standards and training/internal affairs. Morris has a Bachelor of Science from the University of California, Davis, and a Master of Business Administration from Texas A&M University. He is a graduate of the California POST Command College.

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