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Is your department ready for RoboCops?

The technologies are here – our policies and outreach efforts must keep up


AR is a graphical interface with the real world that contains digital overlays that minimize cognitive load, allowing wearers to make better 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 Brent Y. Kaneyuki

The 1987 movie “RoboCop” emerged from the desire to create the perfect cop. As is evident, humans are far from perfect, so RoboCop combined man and robot. RoboCop had superior strength, armor, speed, connectivity and tracking capabilities.

Of course, RoboCop was science fiction; however, the reflexes, sensors and biometric capabilities are where augmented reality (AR) technologies are quickly coming to fruition and could soon become science fact. [1]

How AR can change a call

Imagine the year is 2029, and trust in law enforcement has risen since George Floyd’s death. AR glasses have become a fixture in policing, since they boost officer safety through enhanced optics, language translation and work efficiency, such as three-dimensional scanning of crime scenes.

Jared, a four-year veteran with a police agency, illustrates how much things have changed in just a few years. Before joining the force, he deployed on several combat tours in the United States Army. During his Army service, Jared became familiar with AR glasses. He witnessed battlefield dominance through enhanced optics, operational presentation capabilities, advanced mapping to deter friendly fire, and real-time information sharing.

With his lack of seniority and young family, Jared now works late watch patrol. As an AR trainer, he supports his agency’s stringent AR policy, as he saw in the Army how the technology could be abused. In particular, the ability to see through objects such as walls gives soldiers not only situational awareness but the ability to peer into private lives without people knowing. Jared’s agency aligned the capability with its deadly force policy to reduce privacy concerns. For transparency, any activations where a critical incident occurred are released to the community within 30 days.

One evening Jared and his partner responded to a 9-1-1 caller’s male neighbor yelling at a female with children crying. At the front door, officers heard a male voice yelling in Spanish. Their AR glasses translated his words into English, so they knew the male was upset his dinner was cold. Jared knocked on the front door and heard the male yell, “Who called the police? You’re dead!” A bloody and distraught female answered the door. As officers stepped inside, they observed broken furniture and detected the odor of alcohol. The male turned away from officers, refusing to show his hands. Against orders, he walked toward an adjacent hallway, disappearing from view.

Officers activated their AR glasses to see through the living room wall and saw the male retrieve a gun from a closet. The AR glasses audibly alerted officers and overlaid a red halo around the gun. Nobody was in the immediate background of the armed male. The suspect fired several rounds toward officers, prompting officers to return fire, killing him. The officers were unharmed. Although the glasses could be misused in other circumstances, this incident demonstrated exactly why they are valuable.

After the scene was contained, officers also obtained statements from the Spanish-speaking victim and children using AR. Another officer 3D-scanned the crime scene, allowing detectives to view it remotely from headquarters. Instead of hours, the 3D scan took five minutes. After the AR glasses were implemented in Jared’s department, controversial shootings declined, and public trust driven by the immediate transparency of AR rose.

What is AR?

Of course, these glasses are not here yet. The future, though, is not that far away. AR is a graphical interface with the real world that contains digital overlays that minimize cognitive load, allowing wearers to make better decisions. [2] Of the five senses, vision provides us with the most information, making AR technology promising. Positive AR implications include officer safety, work efficiency, costs and enhanced supervisory capabilities.

This technology will be a disruptor and force multiplier to policing. Consequently, AR technologies will guide significant changes to the patrol function’s staffing and deployment. The need for AR to support police work has perhaps never been greater.

The current state of policing

American policing remains at a crossroads. From abolishing the police to a police state, neither extreme is a viable solution. Instead, a probable resolution lies somewhere in between. In a 2020 Gallup poll, confidence and community trust in law enforcement reached a 27-year low. [3] Much of the public angst resulted from controversial uses of force by police that resulted in deaths.

Officers make split-second decisions in tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving situations. One incident was the shooting of 22-year-old Stephon Clark in Sacramento, California on the evening of March 18, 2018. Officers responded to reports of a male breaking vehicle windows and hiding in backyards. Ten minutes into the search, a sheriff’s helicopter observed Clark breaking a residential window. Ninety seconds later, two officers confronted Clark in a backyard, where he advanced toward them with his arms extended, holding an object that officers perceived as a firearm. Officers fired 20 rounds, tragically killing Clark in his grandmother’s backyard. Before the shooting, the body-worn camera footage showed a flash of light from the cell phone. [4] Even though bodycam audio clearly recorded the belief by officers that Clark had a gun, the tragedy caused significant public unrest and calls to further restrict the ability of the police to employ lethal force.

Reducing these tragedies is complex and complicated. Yet this has not discouraged advocates and legislators from enacting new laws. Less-lethal tools, changing tactics and new thought frameworks have been implemented to aid officers’ critical decision-making (CDM). AR technologies have the potential to enhance CDM and subsequently improve officer safety, enhance capabilities and provide work efficiency. CDM reinforced with AR technologies can build trust and produce preferred outcomes in ways not possible today.

In 2016, the Police Executive Research Forum codified a five-step decision-making process with a core of ethics, values, proportionality and the sanctity of life. [5] AR aids in all steps of that process by increasing officer effectiveness, efficiency and safety. One practical application is to deploy an AR platform with “advanced optics to provide zoom, thermal and infrared imaging for the location of fleeing criminals” for patrol officers. [6]

RoboCop technologies are here now

In the Clark example, a sheriff’s helicopter equipped with AR and capabilities that included facial recognition could have identified Clark as he ran through the backyards and alerted ground units he was in his grandmother’s yard. Additionally, enhanced optics may have warned officers that the perceived gun was, in fact, a smartphone. That type of technology is not in the future; it is in use now.

Since 2017, Chinese police have used AR glasses with facial recognition to capture wanted criminals. Their hands-free technology provides them with real-time information. [7] Besides providing officers with enhanced night vision capability, the ability to peek around corners and be warned of firearms is vital. Much like when vehicles alert drivers that they are outside a lane or coming too close to another car, AR enhances the wearer’s optics, allowing for accurate shooting from around corners.

Elibit, an Israeli defense company, announced a system combining “gunsight, operating system and an AR display.” [8] The Elibit system provides a head-up display that increases accuracy, target identification and situational awareness as the operator’s field of view is widened. Xaver, another Israeli company, engineered a remote-based device, their XLR80, that sees through walls. [9] The Elibit and Xaver capabilities are only two of the many possible AR technologies that could bring law enforcement one step closer to a RoboCop reality.

Where do we go?

Technologies such as AR require a delicate balance between public safety and protecting the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. As police leaders contemplate which (if any) of the new tech platforms to acquire, they should consider three things:

  1. A commitment to early partnerships with technology companies;
  2. AR policy development;
  3. The exploration of alternate patrol staffing and deployments when AR technologies are implemented.

Law enforcement must develop early partnerships with AR companies to tailor to the needs of civilian law enforcement. law enforcement needs to seek these technologies and proactively provide them with law enforcement advisors. Additionally, collaboration with the U.S. military on existing AR technologies is crucial.

For example, the U.S. Army and Microsoft have a $21.9 billion contract for “mixed-reality headsets” based on Microsoft’s HoloLens, which utilizes an Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) that overlays holographic details over one’s field of view. [10] The U.S. Army recognized the importance of technical advisors, who have closely worked with Microsoft engineers from the start through an “integrated team” where soldiers provide engineers with feedback on prototypes. [11] Instead of waiting years for military-grade technology to trickle down to civilian law enforcement, however, agencies must partner with the military and technology companies now.

The next recommendation is that law enforcement begins early policy development to manage the deployment of AR technologies. This development should include legal assistance coupled with community outreach. This future-focused approach allows law enforcement to create the desired narrative and address citizen concerns while developing policy instead of waiting for a public outcry at its use. As Chief Paul Cell of the Montclair State University Police Department in New Jersey has said, “Technologies are useless, and perhaps harmful, if they are improperly implemented and deployed.” [12] The International Association of Chiefs of Police identified nine universal principles for policy implementation that LE leaders can easily use. [12]

A prime example of failure to outreach was the New York Police Department’s (NYPD’s) effort to deploy the Boston Dynamics robotic K9 in 2020. The NYPD intended to use the robot for surveillance and dangerous situations yet neglected to educate residents on the advantages. The result was that NYPD chose to wait until the public outcry waned and then reengage constituents to assess its use. Boston Dynamics explained the cancellation “reinforced the importance of education and dialogue when introducing new technologies.” [13]

The final recommendation is to explore alternative staffing and deployment of law enforcement with AR implementation. This also applies directly to policy development and outreach efforts. Building the desired narrative demands law enforcement showcase the implications of AR technology. One timely area is work efficiency, such as using AR to map crime scenes like homicides or officer-involved shootings. The current methodologies are time-intensive and require specially trained personnel. Imagine if responding patrol officers could 3D-scan the crime scene using AR glasses. The crime scene could be viewed remotely by detectives or later in the courtroom during a criminal trial. Furthermore, AR technologies provide language translation that streamlines preliminary investigations, such as crimes involving non-English-speaking victims. With these efficiencies, law enforcement can meet the staffing crisis while redirecting officers to critical areas such as violent crime reduction.


With violent crime rates up and ongoing recruiting and retention woes, law enforcement must rely on technology to move through the 21st century. Against threats of defunding or abolishing the police, law enforcement leaders must plan, forecast and utilize technologies like AR.

Additionally, community outreach is necessary for any technology’s success. Communities’ comfort and privacy concerns must be addressed. Law enforcement must promote the narrative that AR technologies’ benefits far outweigh any risks or pitfalls. Although perfection, like RoboCop, is improbable, AR technology can help move law enforcement closer to it.


1. RoboCop. RoboCop Wiki.

2. Porter ME, Heppelmann JE. Why Every Organization Needs an Augmented Reality Strategy. Harvard Business Review. Nov.-Dec. 2017.

3. Ortiz A. Confidence in Police Is at Record Low, Gallup Survey Finds. New York Times. Aug. 12, 2020.

4. California Office of the Attorney General. Report of Attorney General Regarding Criminal Investigation into the Death of Stephon Clark. Mar. 5, 2019.

5. PERF. ICAT Module #2: Critical Decision-Making Model. December 2016.

6. Seoane S. How Law Enforcement is Planning on Using Augmented Reality Technology. GovThink.

7. New smart glasses from Chinese AR company to aid police in nabbing suspects. Immersive Technology. 2017.

8. Atherton KD. This high-tech gunsight could allow soldiers to shoot around corners, Matrix-style. Popular Science. Sep. 17, 2021.

9. Owsinski S. New ‘See through Walls’ Technology for Law Enforcement Operations’ Situational Awareness. National Police Association.

10. Farkas I. U.S. Army Tags Microsoft in $22 Billion Deal for A.R. Goggles. Oct. 31, 2022.

11. Bach D. U.S. Army to use HoloLens technology in high-tech headsets for soldiers. Microsoft. June 6, 2021.

12. Cell P. The Role of Policy in the Use of New Technologies. President’s Message, Police Chief 86 (4)L5-6.

13. Abril D. Drones, robots, license plate readers: Police grapple with community concerns as they turn to tech for their jobs. Washington Post. Mar. 9, 2022.

About the author

Brent Y. Kaneyuki has been a sworn officer for over 20 years and is currently a police lieutenant. He is a 2023 graduate of the California POST Command College’s Class No. 69.