Police officer Quinn Gatrell of West Valley City, Utah, makes a traffic stop on March 2, 2015, using a camera attached to his glasses. While police increasingly are using body cameras, basic procedures are hotly debated, such as when footage should be released to the public. (Getty Images/George Frey)
Controversial new technologies are transforming how police pursue suspects, monitor suspicious activity and seek to deter crime. Police departments are using computer algorithms to forecast where and when crimes might occur, sophisticated software to monitor social media posts, body cameras to record interactions with civilians, aerial drones to surveil neighborhoods and license-plate readers to find stolen cars and track criminal suspects. Law enforcement officials vigorously defend the technologies' overall effectiveness. But civil liberties groups say such tools raises troubling constitutional and privacy questions and that some police departments are using them without public notice, clear rules or proper oversight. While some cities have restricted the use of certain surveillance methods, others are under pressure to allow the public a greater say in formulating policies governing the technologies' use. Police maintain they are deploying high-tech equipment without violating individuals' rights and that opening its use to public review would play into the hands of criminals and terrorists.
Two years ago the Tacoma, Wash., Police Department began an ambitious effort to reduce burglaries, using computer analysis of crime data to tell officers when and where future burglaries might occur.
The results of this “predictive policing” approach, coupled with tactics such as educating residents on how to keep their homes safe, surpassed expectations. Burglaries plunged 22 percent in 2015, said Pete Cribbin, assistant Tacoma police chief. “We've exceeded the two-year goal in the first year by a wide margin,” he said.1
For Tacoma police, predictive policing deserved much of the credit. But civil libertarians see the practice as a potential tool for racial profiling and a violation of citizens' civil liberties. Predictive policing is “profoundly flawed: It is systematically biased against communities of color and allows unconscionable abuses of police power,” 17 civil rights organizations said in a statement last August.2
The controversy is emblematic of a larger and rapidly expanding debate over the role of technology in police work. From the use of license-plate readers that can monitor citizens' whereabouts to the deployment of aerial drones over crime-ridden neighborhoods, police departments are spending millions of dollars on high-tech equipment, software and technical support to fight crime, an investment they say is revolutionizing their work and making communities safer.
“We believe that we are the leading department in this country, if not the world, in our embrace of … technology,” William Bratton said last September, the day before he retired as New York City police commissioner. “And we are very mindful of the responsibilities that come with that, doing it lawfully, doing it constitutionally.”3
Police Sgt. Charles Coleman patrols an area of Los Angeles identified by predictive policing software as a potential crime hotspot. While many police departments say the sophisticated software and other new crime-fighting technologies are effective in fighting crime, civil liberties groups say the tools raise troubling privacy and fairness questions. (Getty Images/The Washington Post/Patrick T. Fallon)
But civil libertarians say these powerful technologies offer an unprecedented window into people's private lives and may actually hamper police work by adding a new layer of fear and suspicion of the police, especially in neighborhoods already wary of police misconduct. Critics also note that many police departments are purchasing and using the technologies without public notice, clear rules or judicial oversight. Visible body-worn cameras, which civil rights groups have promoted as a way to hold police officers accountable, may be the exception.
“As of right now, we have only a piecemeal understanding of intrusive technologies, based on investigative reporting or litigation,” says Rashida Richardson, legislative counsel for the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), a civil liberties advocacy organization. As a result, there has been little public discussion about their costs, benefits, proper use and necessary privacy and constitutional protections, she says.
In response to a Freedom of Information request by the NYCLU, the New York City Police Department disclosed last year that between 2008 and 2015 it had been using portable devices known as cell-site simulators in criminal investigations, and did so without obtaining search warrants. Dubbed Stingrays, they act like a commercial cellphone tower and retrieve a cellphone's identifying data, allowing police to pinpoint a person's location — including inside a home, where people reasonably expect privacy.
Instead of getting search warrants, the police were relying on so-called pen register orders, court orders with weaker privacy protections.4
In a pilot program in Baltimore, police tested an aerial camera last year for eight months without notifying the public or elected officials, according to a Bloomberg Businessweek investigation. A small airplane equipped with wide-angle cameras flew over the city transmitting images to crime analysts for real-time or future review. Jay Stanley, a privacy expert in the Washington, D.C., office of the American Civil Liberties Union, told Bloomberg such surveillance resembled “Big Brother” from George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, in which authorities keep constant watch over citizens.5
But after the article's August publication, a police department spokesman called the plane a “21st-century investigative tool” that had helped to solve a shooting. Then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who had been unaware of the test program, defended it as “cutting-edge technology aimed at making Baltimore safer.”6
In addition to predictive policing software, other advanced policing technologies that raise privacy and constitutional concerns include:7
Cell-site simulators: Besides pinpointing an individual's location, they sweep up information from nearby bystanders and in some configurations can intercept voice and text communications.
Automatic license-plate readers: Cameras that photograph license plates, digitize the images and compare them against a license-plate database. The readers can help locate stolen cars, among other uses. But the images can be stored for months or years, making it possible for police to track a car's movements over time.
Z Backscatter Vans: Developed for use in war zones, these mobile X-ray vans see through vehicle exteriors (and sometimes buildings) and are deployed to search for drugs, bombs or people.
Closed-circuit television cameras: Police can monitor 24-hour video feeds from buildings and public spaces in real time, or video can be stored for future examination.
Body cameras: Officers turn on these audio and video recording devices during encounters with civilians, and they can leave them on when patrolling street demonstrations or their beat.
Facial-recognition software: This technology allows a facial image to be compared against those in city, state or federal databases. When combined with body cameras and closed-circuit television cameras, facial recognition allows police to identify a person in real time or reconstruct a person's movements using stored footage.
Social media monitoring software: By searching usernames, keywords, hashtags or geographic locations, police can quickly collect and analyze public social media posts for potential threats or to gather investigative information.
Predictive policing software: Algorithms that analyze past crime data and other factors to forecast risk of future crime.
As the technology gets more sophisticated, the constitutionality of these devices is unclear, legal experts say. “Under what circumstances does an eye in the sky (or on a pole or inside your phone) constitute a search under the Fourth Amendment — and thus presumptively require a warrant — when it is used for public surveillance?” wrote Rachel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel for the Liberty and National Security Program at the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy and law institute.8
The Fourth Amendment guarantees protection against unreasonable government searches and seizures of property.9
Harris Corp., a technology company in Melbourne, Fla., that dominates the market for cell-site simulators, requires police departments to abide by nondisclosure agreements, often overseen by the FBI, when using the devices, according to Joh. As a result, the simulators often are referred to in court only cryptically, and police departments typically won't discuss them with the public. Prosecutors reportedly have dropped criminal charges against defendants when it appeared that Stingray details would be revealed during a trial.11
Media Sonar, a company in Ontario, Canada, whose software monitors social media posts, specified in a proposal to Fresno, Calif., that the police department “must use all reasonable care” to keep the company's brand and methodology out of the public eye because widespread media attention could decrease the software's “efficacy and [harm] the overall business model.” The ACLU of Northern California obtained the document through a Freedom of Information request.12
Police technologies aren't inexpensive. Body cameras may cost as little as $400 each, but the annual cost for storing the immense amount of footage they generate runs into the millions of dollars for some large police departments. A car-mounted license-plate reader can top $20,000, not including camera maintenance and data storage fees. One Z Backscatter van costs as much as $825,000.13
But local taxpayers often are not footing the entire bill. Police buy surveillance technologies with money from private foundations, property forfeitures from drug busts and state and federal grants.
As law enforcement agencies, elected officials, citizens and community and civil rights groups debate the use of advanced technology by police, here are some of the questions they are asking:
Is predictive policing effective and fair?
Police departments are increasingly employing so-called predictive policing software that uses mathematical algorithms to try to forecast when and where crimes are likely to occur. The goal is to position police resources in high-risk areas and prevent crime.
But community and civil-rights groups, including the Brennan Center and the ACLU, question predictive policing's efficacy and fairness.14
“It's a vicious cycle,” said John Chasnoff, program director for the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. Many police departments disproportionately arrest minorities, and historical crime data fed into algorithms reflect that bias, Chasnoff said, leading to “even more arrests, compounding the racial problem.”15
At least eight vendors offer the software, including IBM and Hitachi.16 Industry leader PredPol, based in Santa Cruz, Calif., charges annual fees ranging from $10,000 for small police departments up to $70,000 for the largest, says PredPol co-founder and UCLA anthropology professor Jeff Brantingham.
Some companies, including PredPol, feed only a jurisdiction's historical crime data — crime type; crime location; and crime date and time — into their algorithms. Others, like IBM and Philadelphia-based Azavea, add dozens of other factors, such as weather, school hours or locations of ATMs, vacant lots and liquor stores, depending on the crimes being predicted.
The algorithms forecast when different types of crimes are most likely to occur within areas as small as 500 square feet. They typically show up as colored boxes on digital maps that police officers view on tablets or smartphones as they begin their shifts.
Police crime analysts have always focused resources on high-crime areas, but predictive software crunches more data, uncovers unexpected areas and gives greater detail, say vendors. “We know you know the areas where you need to patrol, but do you know the precise street you need to be on? Well, we can tell you,” said Cynthia Fay, IBM's sales manager for crime prevention and prediction.17
Police officials from Modesto, Calif., to Reading, Pa., say predictive policing gets results. The PredPol software “forces the officers to go to particular areas, conduct patrol checks and get themselves out there and talking with the people in the different neighborhoods,” said Brandon McIntyre, a police officer in Cocoa, Fla. “And that just causes the visibility to go up and less crime all together.”18
But skeptics say other factors could be at work. “We don't know if the drop in crime in these jurisdictions was because of the predictive technology or because of other environment or economic or social reasons,” says Andrew Ferguson, a University of the District of Columbia law professor who studies predictive policing. In addition, crime has been declining across the country, he says.
Randomized controlled trials are widely viewed as the best way to determine whether predictive policing works, but few such studies have been done, in part because they are time consuming. PredPol's founders conducted a 21-month study of property crimes across three Los Angeles police districts in 2011 and 2012. It found the software was twice as successful at predicting crimes as human crime analysts.
“Police are the ones who get out of the car and deal with the challenge that's on the street, and predictive policing provides guidance on where and when that precious resource can have a big impact,” says Brantingham.
But David Robinson, a principal at Upturn, a Washington, D.C., consulting group specializing in technology and social issues, finds the Los Angeles study unpersuasive: “The fraction of crime predicted is really small in either case.”
Meanwhile, an independent study conducted in 2012 by RAND Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif., think tank, found no statistical evidence that a predictive policing algorithm developed by the Shreveport, La., police reduced crime any more than traditional policing.19
“The promise of [predictive policing] is amazing, so I can see why everyone wants to believe in it,” said Jessica Saunders, a RAND study co-author. She and her colleagues speculated that perhaps police in Shreveport did not effectively use the algorithm-generated information.20 Most predictive policing software tells police where to go and when, but not what to do once there.
“Were officers assigned in those locations for the entire shift? Were officers put there for 10 to 15 minutes a few times randomly during the shift?” asks Jeremy Heffner, senior data scientist at Azavea, maker of HunchLab predictive software. “Those things all impact what the outcome would be.”
Efficacy is not the only concern about predictive policing. Critics worry that it perpetuates biased policing against poor and minority communities. Historical crime data used to forecast crime risk typically is pulled from reports that police officers file after collecting crime-scene information. It often reflects police decisions about where and when to enforce the law, which can be biased, critics say.
Narcotics is the best example, they say. “The normal way of policing drug crimes is going to be observing transactions in open-air drug markets or by putting your police in observation posts,” says Ferguson. “But there's obviously a lot of drug crime that goes on behind closed doors in fancy neighborhoods that isn't going to be policed, and that creates a distorted window into actual crime problems.”
That's why Predpol forecasts risk only for aggravated assault, including homicide; burglary; robbery; and car theft, says Brantingham. “We don't do narcotics and traffic moving violations, where the discovery of the crime is primarily at the discretion of the police officer.”
Heffner says HunchLab is not typically used to forecast drug-crime risk. But when it is, the company tries to minimize bias by not using historical crime reports, he says. Instead, it relies on the calls people make to police to report suspicious activity or a crime.
Civil rights groups also worry that predictive policing might encourage officers to be overly vigilant. Officers must have a reasonable suspicion to stop someone, but Ferguson notes that the Supreme Court has said that they can take an area's characteristics into account when determining reasonable suspicion. So an officer following a predictive map into an area marked high risk for robbery may feel justified in stopping anyone carrying a bag.21
“And so the Fourth Amendment,” which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, “can be distorted by these predictive technologies,” says Ferguson.
Are body cameras an effective policing tool?
Since 2014, high-profile deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police in New York City, Baltimore, Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere have led to calls for more law enforcement agencies to use body cameras to record encounters with the public.
For 2016 alone, the Justice Department committed $20 million to help police agencies purchase cameras and train officers in their use, and departments from San Francisco to Atlanta now have officers wearing them.22 New York City, plans to issue cameras to all 23,000 patrol officers by 2019 — the most ambitious program in the nation.23
In a rare instance of agreement, city councils, civil rights groups and police chiefs say the cameras can make police operations more transparent, hold police and civilians accountable for their actions and reduce police-civilian conflict. Yet stakeholders cannot agree on basic procedures such as where and when officers should record and when departments should release footage to the public. And research into body cameras' intended and unintended effects is barely keeping pace with their rapid deployment.
“I can assure you that if [the cameras] didn't provide these agencies a glimmer of improvement on changed behaviors, complaints against police and police use of force, they wouldn't be buying them,” says Steve Tuttle, spokesman for Axon, formerly Taser International, a Scottsdale, Ariz., manufacturer that is the market leader. More than one-third of the country's roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies have purchased the company's body cameras, Tuttle says.
As of two years ago, only eight empirical studies on body camera use in the United States had been completed.24 Since then, a few more have been published. “The results of the studies are really mixed,” says Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank.
Most studies indicate that formal complaints against police decline when officers wear cameras. “But we don't know why,” says Cynthia Lum, director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Individuals may be more satisfied, lodging fewer frivolous complaints or resolving complaints informally in the field as officers show them footage, Lum says.
While some studies show a decrease in police use of force with body cameras, others find no impact, including a study of eight police departments in the United Kingdom and the United States. But when the study's British authors did a deeper analysis, they found that “if officers turned cameras on and off during their shift, then use-of-force increased, whereas if they kept the cameras rolling for their whole shift, use-of-force decreased.” Based on these results, the researchers recommended cameras remain on “during each and every interaction with citizens.”25
However, that's not often the case, according to the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a research organization in Washington. “Of the police departments that PERF consulted, very few have adopted the policy of recording all encounters with the public,” it said in a 2014 report. Instead, most require officers “to activate their cameras when responding to calls for service and during law enforcement-related encounters and activities, such as traffic stops, arrests, searches, interrogations, and pursuits.”26
Officers need discretion “in sensitive situations, such as encounters with crime victims or witnesses,” said PERF. In addition, turning on a body camera when chatting with neighborhood residents can “seem officious and off-putting,” it said.27
Denver police officer Robert Greaser monitors license plates using an automatic plate reader. The devices can scan up to 1,800 license plates per minute. Typically mounted on light poles or in police cars, they connect to a computer database and can check if a car is stolen, the registration is expired or the owner has an outstanding arrest warrant. (Getty Images/The Denver Post/Brent Lewis)
The ACLU agrees that discretion is needed when officers are interviewing witnesses and crime victims, says Chad Marlow, the organization's advocacy and policy counsel, and it adds a third circumstance: Individuals should be able to ask an officer to turn off the camera when they invite police into their homes.28
However, many law enforcement agencies allow officers to record inside homes “as long as they have a legal right to be there,” said PERF.29
No matter a department's body-camera policy, officers don't always turn on cameras when they should. A November audit in Miami revealed that 63 of the 82 officers assigned body cameras had uploaded zero hours of footage over a two-week period. Departmental policy requires the officers to record all civilian encounters and upload the footage at shift's end, and the department is investigating why it's being ignored.30
But while body-camera footage can supplement witness accounts, the cameras have limits, say experts. If the point is to see what the police officer saw, then “in some cases the body camera footage might actually be misleading” because the human eye takes in less than the camera, says Seth Stoughton, a University of South Carolina law professor, who studies regulation of the police.
In addition, a camera may provide little useful information during a struggle. “The officer's body is likely to be very close to the suspect and to be moving rapidly and in different directions in a way that's going to jostle the camera,” Stoughton says.
Another problem is that most police officers wear body cameras on the chest, not at eye level, so the camera's lens is pointed upward. “As a result, people captured on camera, particularly people close to the officer, look taller and broader, and that makes them look more threatening,” says Stoughton.
Police departments often struggle with how to respond to public demands for footage. In high-profile police shootings of citizens, “the public wants to see the footage, and they want it yesterday,” says La Vigne. “But it's crucial evidence in a criminal case, and most law enforcement agencies and most state statutes say that type of evidence is exempt from public release.”
Nevertheless, more departments are releasing the footage because not doing so causes too much community strife, she says.
Educating the public about the cameras' limits is crucial, says Stoughton. Tuttle agrees and says Axon has a toolkit, with sample videos, for that purpose. “You're setting up the community for false expectations if you don't,” says Tuttle.
Should police be able to monitor social media?
Most people who use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit or other social media platforms know that corporations mine the public data found there. But they may not realize that police departments do the same.
Police look for posts during emergencies from people who might need help, scrutinize the accounts of criminal suspects, track gang activity and search keywords and hashtags for potential threats. In a 2016 survey of 539 law enforcement agencies from 48 states, 70 percent said they used social media for intelligence gathering for investigations.31
Some police departments still do it the old-fashioned way — by searching and scrolling themselves. But an increasing number have been using monitoring software, which automates the process and can follow real-time posts and quickly search archived posts of thousands, if not millions, of people at once.
“But the technology can also be used to monitor political and social justice movements, posing risks to First Amendment-protected activity” on free speech and assembly, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Over the past six months, law enforcement agencies that used such software were dealt a blow after civil liberties groups revealed that police were not only monitoring the social media activities of criminal suspects but also of political activists. In response, Twitter in November and Facebook and its Instagram platform in March strengthened their prohibition against vendors mining their data to develop tools for police surveillance.32
Others say police have every right to comb through public social media posts. Law enforcement is no different from businesses that gather such information, “except they're using it for public safety, not to market the latest and greatest coffee to somebody,” said former police cybercrime officer Ryan Duquette, who heads Hexigent, a cybersecurity firm in Ontario, Canada.33
The actions of Facebook and Twitter were precipitated by the ACLU of California. Last September, after making public-records requests, it received thousands of pages of documents about the social media monitoring of dozens of California police departments, sheriffs and district attorneys. Forty percent of the responding agencies, or 20 in total, had acquired social media monitoring tools, many in the past year.34
“None of those agencies had engaged in public debate, and none produced any kind of policies about how the systems would be used or how civil rights would be protected,” says Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director at the Northern California ACLU chapter.
That was particularly worrisome because of the alarming nature of some of the marketing materials that the ACLU discovered, she says. Chicago-based Geofeedia “was marketing its product to monitor protests and activists, and it characterized protests and unions as ‘overt threats,’” Ozer says.35
In a statement last October, Geofeedia CEO Phil Harris said the firm works to ensure “end-users do not seek to inappropriately identify individuals based on race, ethnicity, religious, sexual orientation or political beliefs, among other factors. That said, we understand … that we must continue to work to build on these critical protections of civil rights.”36
Geofeedia was not the only problem vendor, says Ozer. The year before, Ozer's organization requested records from Fresno police and found marketing materials from Media Sonar containing a list of suggested search terms that included hashtags for activist groups and their slogans, such as #Blacklivesmatter.37
Records also show that San Jose police used Geofeedia to monitor South Asian, Muslim and Sikh protesters “only a few days after acquiring it,” according to Ozer.38
Last fall, the ACLU of Colorado received documents from the Denver Police Department revealing that it briefly used Geofeedia. A media relations official with the Denver police told CQ Researcher in an email that the department used the software to monitor large public events, with key words filtering results to identify possible threats of violence, and to identify possible witnesses or suspects after a violent crime. “Thankfully, no such activities or incidents were identified during the time we used it,” the official said.
Police do not have to obtain a warrant to monitor public social media posts. But Mark Silverstein, legal director at the ACLU of Colorado, says the monitoring software amasses so much data — or did before the Facebook and Twitter crackdowns — that it allows the police to “track our movements, our associations, our networks, who we know, who we talk to and how often.” It is far different from just seeing a few posts online, he says, and has a chilling effect on free speech and association.
“There needs to be very strict safeguards and oversight in place to make sure those powers are not misused,” says Ozer. The actions of Facebook and Twitter are a start, but now cities need to form oversight committees and pass legislation, she says.
But Detective Chris Adamczyk of the Mesa, Ariz., Police Department calls the Facebook and Twitter actions a “sad state of affairs.”
His investigative unit is responsible for covering downtown and had been using Media Sonar software to investigate cyberbullying, human trafficking and some stabbings and drive-by shootings. Adamczyk says the software was used only when officers suspected criminal activity. But the social media platforms' crackdown has rendered the software practically useless, so his unit hasn't used Media Sonar in months, he says.
Denver has asked Geofeedia to cancel its contract after Twitter and Facebook specifically banned it from using their data streams in the fall. Geofeedia, Media Sonar and two other social media tracking companies, Liferaft, in Canada, and San Francisco-based Meltwater, did not respond to requests for interviews.
Before the mid-19th century, full-time police forces did not exist in the United States. The agrarian South had armed slave patrols, which hunted escaped slaves and enforced slave codes; the Northeast relied on night-watch patrols, which rounded up drunks and focused on petty crime; and frontier areas used vigilantes and private police-for-hire.39
But as the country urbanized, cities began organizing formal police departments. New York City was the first, establishing its department in 1845 with 800 officers. Boston and Philadelphia soon followed.
These early departments quickly became bastions of patronage, however. “The only qualification for becoming a cop was a political connection,” wrote journalist Radley Balko in Rise of The Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces. “Training was nonexistent, beatings were common, and … the system had little effect on crime.”40
During the first three decades of the 20th century, reformers worked to professionalize policing and distance it from political meddling. August Vollmer, police chief in Berkeley, was the nation's pre-eminent reformer, introducing forensic science in 1907, creating the Berkeley Police School in 1908, helping to establish the School of Criminology at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1916, and using the newly invented lie detector in 1920.41
Police departments across the country adopted entry requirements and personnel standards, and crime specialists began using technology — photography and fingerprinting — to investigate crimes and track suspects.42
Some police officials and politicians wanted to fingerprint everyone. In a 1936 campaign in Berkeley, Calif., the police chief and local businesses set up fingerprinting stations in public buildings, in shops and on street corners, and merchants offered discounts to citizens if they produced a police-issued “I have been fingerprinted” card, wrote sociologist Christian Parenti in The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America From Slavery to the War on Terror. The police had a clear goal: Fingerprinting enabled “us to follow the movement and activities of Communists, Anarchists and Radicals,” according to a contemporary account.43
Professionalizing police departments “wasn't easy,” wrote New York University law professor Barry Friedman in Unwarranted: Policing Without Permission. Many departments were corrupt, and vigilante justice, especially against African-Americans during the Jim Crow era, continued to pervade the rural South and West.44
“The facade of professional policing crumbled entirely during the turbulent 1960s,” wrote Friedman. Violent crime more than tripled, from 288,000 in 1960 to 1,040,000 in 1975. Riots also engulfed the nation's inner cities over a five-year span in the 1960s. Angry over, among other things, racial prejudice, poverty and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., rioters looted stores and burned city blocks. A presidential commission in 1967 blamed the riots, in part, on deep hostility between police and impoverished inner-city communities.45
Massive protests against the Vietnam War, meanwhile, swept across the nation. Police in Chicago and other cities reacted harshly to the riots and protests, further raising tensions. But the takeaway for numerous “law and order” conservative politicians, including Richard M. Nixon in the 1968 presidential campaign, was a demand for police and courts to crack down on gangs, protesters and drug usage.
The 1970s saw New York and other states pass stringent anti-drug laws and tougher, mandatory sentencing rules for repeat offenders.46
But by the late 1980s, progressive reformers and some police chiefs were embracing the notion of community policing: getting police officers out of their squad cars and walking neighborhood beats, where they would get to know residents, rebuild trust and devise creative solutions to improve public safety. Today, it is a “key component of policing efforts in most mid- and large-sized law enforcement agencies across the United States,” according to an Urban Institute report.47
Some law enforcement officials, however, complained that community policing was a vague hodgepodge of policies that asked too much of beat cops, turning them into social workers who were expected to help residents with their problems.
Others said community policing and its emphasis on deterrence had a dark side: encouraging police officers to engage in discriminatory practices, such as New York City's stop-question-and-frisk policy.48 The tactic involved temporarily detaining, questioning and sometimes searching individuals on suspicion of carrying weapons or contraband.
A related strategy — the “broken windows” theory of policing — required officers to show zero tolerance toward minor crimes such as vandalism and public drinking. Defenders of stop-and-frisk and broken-windows strategies said it made New York City safer in the 1990s and early 2000s by creating an atmosphere of order, preventing more serious crimes. But a judge in federal District Court in Manhattan ruled in 2013 that New York's stop-and-frisk violated minorities' constitutional rights.49
Despite the criticisms, law enforcement agencies were looking for new, cost-effective tools to enhance community policing efforts, according to the Urban Institute. One such tool was closed-circuit television.50
Although businesses began using closed-circuit cameras for security in the 1970s — and in 1973 the New York Police Department installed cameras in Times Square as a crime-fighting tool — law enforcement agencies didn't begin to deploy them widely in public spaces until the 1990s. A 2001 RAND survey found that 41 percent of local police departments and 66 percent of state police departments used “fixed-site video surveillance cameras.” In 2002, the District of Columbia started building “a centrally monitored, citywide closed-circuit television surveillance system — the first of its kind in the nation,” according to Parenti.51
Today, closed-circuit television “has become a ubiquitous tool of policing,” according to a report from Data & Society, a think tank in New York City. That's despite studies showing that closed-circuit television may merely displace crime to other areas; has likely had a negligible effect on violent crime; and can even increase petty theft, since cameras give potential victims a false sense of security so they guard their belongings less diligently.52
Body cameras began their ascent in 2013, when police in Rialto, Calif., reportedly became the first to outfit all its officers with the cameras.53 Before taking that step, the department completed a yearlong study in which it randomly assigned the cameras to some of its police shifts. The results were dramatic: “Shifts without cameras experienced twice as many incidents of use of force as shifts with cameras,” the researchers reported.54
A demonstrator is arrested during a protest in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 10, 2015, marking the one-year anniversary of the controversial shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer. Brown's death in Ferguson ignited street protests around the country and calls by citizens and civil liberties groups for police departments to adopt body cameras to record officers' encounters with the public. (Getty Images/Scott Olson)
The small study — the department had only 54 frontline officers at the time — generated tremendous attention from police departments interested in reducing police use of force and citizen complaints. In a 2013 survey of 254 police departments, more than three-quarters reported that they were not using body cameras as of July that year.55
Public interest in the technology exploded in 2014, after Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., shot to death an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown. Wilson suspected Brown of shoplifting at a convenience store and stopped him as he walked on a nearby street. Wilson said Brown charged him after a short chase, and he opened fire in what he said was self-defense. Some witness accounts supported Wilson's version of events, but others said Brown had his hands raised in surrender.56
When a grand jury declined to indict Wilson, Brown's family issued a statement: “Join with us in our campaign, to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera.”57
In a 2015 survey of 70 major police and sheriff's departments, 97 percent “indicated that they were moving forward with body camera systems.”58
In the past decade, city police and county sheriff departments have adopted a wide range of powerful technologies, from license-plate readers to aerial drones to cell-site simulators. And the spread of these high-tech tools has raised an important question about whether using them would require a warrant under the Fourth Amendment.
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads in part: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause.”59 The amendment has been interpreted as specifically protecting citizens from unwarranted searches by government agents. It does not guarantee a right to privacy in general — such as protection from corporations spying on one's online purchasing activity.
If something is a “search” within the meaning of the amendment, law enforcement can do it, “so long as they have probable cause and a warrant,” wrote New York University's Friedman. “But if it is not a ‘search’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, there are no limits on what the government can do. To any of us.”60
The Supreme Court has been grappling for decades with what constitutes a search. In 1967, the FBI wiretapped a public phone booth to try to catch Charles Katz of Los Angeles, suspected of placing illegal sports bets from the phone. The agent did not get a warrant for the wiretap, reasoning that it was not a search because any member of the public walking by the booth, even with the door closed, might overhear Katz. But in Katz v. United States, the Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that the Fourth Amendment protects people, not places.61
Marchers in Los Angeles' Skid Row area protest police brutality on Oct. 22, 2015, joining other demonstrators in New York City and some 30 other cities. A placard calls for the release of police body camera footage taken during the police shooting death of an unarmed, homeless Cameroonian immigrant, Charly Leundeu Keunang. Los Angeles County's district attorney found that the three officers involved reasonably believed Keunang posed a lethal threat during attempts to arrest him. (Getty Images/David McNew)
The decision established what became known as the “Katz test.” Whether something is a search or not “depends on whether the government invaded a person's ‘reasonable expectation of privacy,’” according to Friedman. At the same time, the court said that “what a person knowingly exposes to the public, even in his own home or office, is not a subject of Fourth Amendment protection.”
But place still mattered. In the early 1980s, the Supreme Court ruled that the police were within their rights to attach a beeper — a radio transmitter that acts as a tracking device — to a suspect's car without a warrant, but then ruled a year later that placing a beeper inside a home was a search and required a warrant.62
Today's modern technology has advanced far beyond beepers and is “effectively erasing the distinction so critical to Katz: between what we knowingly expose to the public and what we seek to keep private,” said Friedman. And this presents a challenge to the courts.63
In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled in Kyllo v. United States that police must get a search warrant before deploying any kind of “sense-enhancing technology” to obtain information from inside a home. Without a warrant, the police had used a thermal heat detector to measure infrared radiation emitted from a roof, indicating the use of grow lamps inside to cultivate marijuana plants. However, the court said its ban on the warrantless use of such technology holds only as long as “the technology is not in the general use.”64
“Given the current pace of technology, soon everything law enforcement possesses might be ‘in general use,’” wrote Friedman. For example, many hobbyists fly drones. “Does that mean the government is now free to hover them outside our windows and over our backyards?” he asked.65
No court has yet ruled on law enforcement's use of drones, said the Brennan Center's Levinson-Waldman. And court rulings on other examples of the latest technology are infrequent. For example, no court has ruled on law enforcement's use of body cameras inside a home.
While the Supreme Court has ruled that drivers cannot expect their license-plate numbers to be private, no case to date has challenged the creation of license-plate databases of presumptively innocent people. At least two courts, however, have said that police need a warrant to use a Stingray device. “Absent a search warrant, the government may not turn a citizen's cellphone into a tracking device,” said a federal judge.66
Meanwhile, municipalities began taking the matter into their own hands earlier in the decade. After the Seattle police department's controversial acquisition of a drone, the city became the first municipality to adopt an ordinance requiring some kind of oversight before the police or any city department purchases surveillance equipment. The 2013 ordinance requires the Seattle City Council to assess “the technology's impact on privacy and anonymity and propose steps to be taken to mitigate those impacts,” wrote the University of California's Joh.67
Legislatures Weigh In
Lawmakers in Maine and California are considering legislation to make the use of surveillance technology more transparent.
Ten Maine legislators, a mix of Democrats and Republicans, introduced a bill in March that would require “a state entity to hold a public hearing and obtain legislative approval prior to engaging in certain activities relating to the acquisition and use of surveillance technology.”68
And legislative committees in California are considering a bill — introduced last December by two California Democratic state senators — that would require any city or county public agency to provide, at a public hearing, a proposed plan for “the use of each type of surveillance technology and the information collected.”69
The California legislation does not give city and county elected officials veto power over equipment purchases. Nevertheless, it has drawn criticism from law enforcement.
Sheriff's deputy Dave Durbin prepares to fly a drone during a demonstration of a search and rescue operation in Dublin, Calif. Police typically use drones, which are equipped with cameras, to document crime scenes, assist SWAT teams and locate suspects. Some cameras also have night vision equipment. More than two-thirds of Americans believe police should be able to use drones to solve crimes. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
“If we put out there the type of surveillance we use, what data we are collecting, how the surveillance technology is monitored for security … we're really setting it up to expose the utility and the security of [the technology] to those who would seek to defeat it or manipulate it,” said Cory Salzillo, legislative director of the California State Sheriffs' Association.70
Shahid Buttar, director of grassroots advocacy at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco group that champions user privacy and free expression in the digital world, argues the bill would not undermine public safety but instead would provide some transparency. In fact, he says, it doesn't go far enough because it contains too many loopholes.
“If a law enforcement agency wants to propose a new use for an existing technology, it doesn't have to go through the transparency process that the bill requires for new technologies,” he says. In addition, the bill's language might permit nondisclosure agreements that allow the secret use of equipment like cell-site simulators.
“It has a lot of holes, so many in fact that we fear it could become a pathway to legitimizing the use of surveillance technology to monitor communities without … community control over their police departments,” says Buttar.
The Maryland General Assembly is considering creating a taskforce to study how police deploy its surveillance technology. The bill's sponsor, Delegate Charles Sydnor, D-Baltimore, said transparency is important as more departments throughout the state use facial recognition, cell-site simulators and aerial surveillance. “”It seems as if we are moving toward a surveillance state with the type of surveillance used by law enforcement,” he said.
The Maryland Image Repository System, for instance, allows investigators to cross-check digitized images against driver's license photos or police booking photos.71
Cities Seek Oversight
In early March, New York City Democratic City Council members Dan Garodnick and Vanessa Gibson introduced the Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology Act, or POST Act, that they say would remove the shroud of secrecy under which the New York City Police Department (NYPD) surveils residents.
The bill would require the department to display its surveillance policies on its website, explaining the capabilities, rules and guidelines for the use of various surveillance technologies, how the NYPD would safeguard collected data and whether that data would be shared. The police would not have to reveal operational details or get permission from the City Council to purchase technology.72
The NYPD has “quietly amassed” Stingrays, Z Backscatter vans, license-plate readers and a Domain Awareness System “that integrates data from thousands of security cameras, license-plate readers, E-ZPass readers and MetroCard swipes to track New Yorkers' travels,” all without public notice, debate or oversight, the sponsors said. The NYPD shares the data with the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force, which includes representatives from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.73
“The NYPD has a strong capability for surveillance, as they should” in these uncertain times, Garodnick says. But decisions to purchase and deploy new and powerful surveillance technologies should not be made in secret, he says. “Even local elected officials, like me, are kept in the dark about what technologies the NYPD is buying and how they're being used.”
The bill would allow the public and elected officials to comment on the impact and use policy, and the police department could take those comments into consideration.74 Because the policy would include only general information about each technology's capabilities and use, the bill strikes a balance between “significant law enforcement and national security concerns with transparency and democratic accountability,” says Garodnick.
But Police Commissioner James O'Neill said the bill overreaches and “would not be helpful to anyone in New York City.” Defenders of New York's robust surveillance capabilities also note that the city is a popular terrorist target, most horrifically on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists crashed two jetliners into the World Trade Center, destroying the two towers. Larry Byrne, NYPD's deputy commissioner for legal affairs, said Garodnick's bill would be a boon to terrorists, who would love to know the NYPD's surveillance technologies.75
That latter argument drew a retort from Jim Bueermann, retired police chief in Redlands, Calif., and president of the Police Foundation, a research and police training organization in Washington. “Dude, don't you think terrorists know all about these technologies?” he says. “I don't know why anyone would object to this. Getting community input is one of the underpinnings of community policing.”
Seventeen other cities and counties have introduced similar measures, and some give elected officials the right to approve or reject each type of surveillance technology. The cities include Oakland, Palo Alto, Fresno, Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz, all in California, as well as Cambridge, Mass., and Providence, R.I.
Last year, Santa Clara County, Calif., which encompasses Silicon Valley, passed a surveillance oversight ordinance giving the Board of Supervisors veto power over county agencies' surveillance technology purchases. Agencies now must develop board-approved use policies that protect civil rights and civil liberties. Agencies also must send annual reports to the board on how they are using the surveillance equipment.
“The legislative veto is key. It gives legislation some teeth,” says Buttar of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “New York City's POST Act unfortunately does not have a veto, but we do support it.” New York state law doesn't permit such a veto, Buttar adds.
A number of states have enacted technology-specific laws, creating a nationwide patchwork of regulations. As of February, at least 13 states have laws regulating the use of license-plate readers or the retention of the data they collect, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The laws typically specify how long the data can be stored — from three minutes in New Hampshire to three years in Colorado; whether it can be shared with the public; which kinds of law enforcement officers can access the data; and how they can use it.
None of the state laws require the kind of public scrutiny and oversight mandated by Santa Clara County's more general measure and others like it, and they don't give local governments veto power over use of the equipment.76
Thirty-two states and Washington, D.C., have laws governing body cameras as of August, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Again, the laws don't give local governments veto power over camera use or require periodic public hearings. Instead, they deal with issues such as where body cameras can be used, whether officers need to notify people that the cameras are turned on and whether the footage is exempt from state laws requiring the release of records to the public, says the Urban Institute's La Vigne.77
According to La Vigne, several notable trends are emerging. States have begun to recognize the complex issues around body cameras and several have initiated pilot studies. And while most state laws “dictate when cameras should be turned on, more recent legislation dictates when they should be turned off,” she wrote. In addition, some states, such as Oklahoma, are mandating the release of footage in high-profile cases, recognizing the growing public demand to view such video.78
Nevertheless, local law enforcement agencies in many of these states still have wiggle room to develop their own body camera policies, says La Vigne. “State laws are not very prescriptive on camera use, with the exception of ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ and a few recent state laws that prohibit body camera use in schools and hospital settings,” she says.
The pressure to be smarter in fighting crime will increase the likelihood that predictive policing software will become the norm in American policing within the next 10 years, says Ferguson of the University of the District of Columbia.
But he would like to see cities send in social workers, construction crews and other service providers, and not just police officers, to high-risk areas. For example, if a particular parking lot is experiencing a rash of stolen cars, city workers should figure out the root causes, such as poor lighting, and fix them, he says. “The problem is that all the funding goes through the police, and so we are in this police paradigm.”
HunchLab's Heffner says his company is encouraging police departments to do things that might be a bit outside their comfort zone, such as repositioning intervention services in areas flagged as high risk for narcotics crimes.
“Something that we've talked about with Chicago is if we can accurately predict where the shootings may be,” Heffner says, “we can reposition ambulances so that we reduce the response time, which increases the likelihood of saving the life of the person who ends up getting shot.”
Body cameras also are going to be “increasingly commonplace” in five to 10 years, says the Urban Institute's La Vigne. “This is going to be a standard piece of equipment on sworn officers who interact with the public.”
Tuttle of Axon says a growing number of the cameras will be automatic. Axon has just introduced a model that has a side-arm signal. The sensor is mounted to the officer's holster, and all body-worn cameras within 30 feet automatically turn on when that firearm is drawn. The sensor can be used in other ways too, says Tuttle, including “if you turn your lights on, turn your siren on, open your car door or remove a gun from the car's electronically locked rifle rack.”
“It will be really interesting to see how the effectiveness of body-worn cameras changes when agencies start adopting these more higher-tech models that automatically turn on,” says La Vigne.
Lum of George Mason University says researchers need to look into the unintended effects of body cameras on police behavior. One study has shown that officers might become more legalistic and choose to “arrest an individual as opposed to use their discretion” and issue a warning, she says.
Studies are also needed on whether the cameras “can reduce implicit or explicit bias and differential treatment based on race, sex, age, ethnicity or other extralegal characteristics,” according to Lum. After all, a federal judge ordered New York City to get body cameras as part of a ruling that found the NYPD's stop-and-frisk practices wrongly targeted minorities.79
As sophisticated technologies become more common over the next several years, civil liberties and community groups expect greater civilian oversight of the police.
“In this spirit, a powerful coalition of national organizations is launching a multicity legislative initiative, Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS), to introduce more local laws to bring transparency and community control to the acquisition and use of local police surveillance technologies,” the Northern California ACLU chapter's Ozer said in September.80
Ferguson proposes that cities and counties hold annual surveillance summits. Residents, technology experts, elected officials and the police would discuss, before a technology is adopted, “how are we going to protect against racial bias, how are we going to address transparency concerns, how are we going to make sure that it works so we're not wasting money that could be used on building better schools,” he says.
Advocacy and Policy Counsel, American Civil Liberties Union. Written for CQ Researcher, April 2017
Throughout America, police have acquired advanced surveillance technologies and trained them on communities of color and other unjustly targeted groups, from Muslims to political activists.
Not surprisingly then, as the local use of surveillance technologies continues to increase, so have questions about what limits should be placed on their use, or if they should even be used at all.
But in most U.S. cities, when it comes to acquiring and using surveillance technologies, public concern is irrelevant. So are the concerns of elected officials. The only stakeholder with a voice in the matter is the local police department, and when it decides to use surveillance technologies, it generally keeps those decisions secret.
Modern surveillance technologies now enable the police to monitor tens of thousands of people at a time. Considering that these technologies have the broad ability to undermine civil liberties, and have been used to do so in the past, allowing police to secretly make decisions about their use with no public knowledge or input not only is unwise, it also is dangerous to our democracy.
Fortunately, an effort to change that is underway in 17 cities. The effort, called Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS), seeks to modify local laws to require open hearings and city council approval before any surveillance technologies are used or their data are shared with others entities.
Moreover, when approvals are sought, CCOPS' laws require the public to receive information about how the technologies work and what safeguards will be implemented to protect civil rights and liberties. The laws also include annual reporting requirements, so inappropriate uses can be quickly identified and corrected.
To counter such efforts, law enforcement likes to try to scare the public by creating a false choice between liberty and security. They tell the public that open hearings will let the “bad guys” know how law enforcement is watching them, but in truth, most police surveillance technologies can be purchased or researched online.
They also tell us that secrecy is needed so “terrorists” won't learn about our methods for preventing attacks. In reality, terrorists are well aware we are spying on them.
Surveillance technologies may have some beneficial purposes. Or maybe they don't. Ultimately, it should be up to the people and their elected representatives to make that call.
Board Member, National District Attorneys Association. Written for CQ Researcher, April 2017
In the past few years some well-meaning, if ill-informed, activists have urged and sometimes persuaded city governments to require that any use of what they call police “surveillance” be approved by the city council or governing municipal board.
The concerns are not entirely unreasonable, given that more than 40 years ago the federal government ran a highly illegal intelligence operation known an COINTELPRO. Its function was to infiltrate and often destabilize groups who strongly disagreed with government policies. But the key word in that description is “illegal,” and eventually people were fired and Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, presided over extensive hearings on the program.
Local police should not be tapping into people's phones, hacking their computers or using spy-like technology, at least not without a search warrant issued by a judge. But a reality check is necessary.
Police agencies in America simply do not have access to National Security Agency spy technology, nor should they.
Another reasonable question has to be, “What constitutes surveillance?” Is reading a public Facebook page “snooping”? The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has argued, with some success, that using the noses of dogs or even simple binoculars constitutes a “search” under the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches.
Beyond that, many intelligence agencies are so siloed that it is often impossible for them to share information, as we saw in the wake of 9/11.
But groups like the ACLU have convinced a few cities, such as Portland, Ore., and San Francisco, to drop out entirely of the Joint Terrorism Task Forces that have allowed a few local police to obtain security clearances and share information with their federal counterparts. The tragic murders in San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015 show that there are very real reasons police sometimes need to know about potential terrorist threats.
Those who demand that accountability lie only with a group of city councilors, none of whom likely have any law enforcement background or the interest or capability to get a security clearance, are ignoring an important fact.
The vast majority of chief prosecutors and sheriffs in America are elected, and if voters think they are overstepping the bounds of propriety, recent elections have shown they are not the least bit afraid to throw them out of office.
|1840s–1950s||Police departments become more professional. |
|1845||New York City establishes first police department with 800 officers. Boston and Philadelphia soon follow. |
|1905||August Vollmer, champion of a movement to professionalize policing, becomes police chief in Berkeley, Calif., and pioneers squad cars, police radios and crime labs. |
|1929||President Herbert Hoover establishes a national commission on law enforcement; it finds that brutality and corruption pervade Prohibition-era policing. |
|1950s||Most police now patrol in squad cars. |
|1960s–1990s||Police adopt community policing. |
|1965||Race riot erupts in the Watts section of Los Angeles, the first of many inner-city riots over the next four years. |
|1967||President Lyndon B. Johnson's Crime Commission recommends police improve community relations…. His National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders blames race riots on white racism and hostility between police and inner-city communities…. In United States v. Katz, U.S. Supreme Court says police need warrants to wiretap public phone booths. |
|1973||New York City Police Department (NYPD) installs closed-circuit television cameras in Times Square. |
|1979||Flint, Mich., police officers begin to walk beats; it is part of an emerging community policing movement that seeks to rebuild trust and improve public safety by deemphasizing vehicular patrols. |
|1983||In United States v. Knotts, Supreme Court upholds police's warrantless use of a hidden beeper to track a suspect's car. |
|1984||Supreme Court rules a warrant is required when police place a beeper inside a home. |
|1994||President Bill Clinton embraces community policing and vows to put 100,000 new police officers on the street. |
|2001–Present||Police adopt powerful technologies to deter crime. |
|2001||Survey finds 41 percent of local police departments and 66 percent of state police use fixed-site closed-circuit cameras…. Supreme Court rules police must get a warrant before using thermal-imaging technology to obtain information from inside a home. |
|2002||Washington, D.C., begins building one of the first centrally monitored, citywide closed-circuit television surveillance systems. |
|2007||Nineteen percent of surveyed law enforcement agencies report using license-plate readers. |
|2008||NYPD secretly begin using cell-site simulators — portable devices that allow investigators to locate individuals by capturing signals from their cellphones. |
|2012||Eighty-five percent of law enforcement agencies say they plan to purchase or expand the use of license-plate readers. |
|2013||Police in Rialto, Calif., are first to use body cameras…. Seattle ordinance requires city council to give police guidance when purchasing surveillance technology. |
|2014||Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., shoots to death unarmed black teenager Michael Brown and ignites street protests; civil liberties groups and citizens call for police nationwide to adopt body cameras to record encounters with the public. |
|2015||Ninety-seven percent of surveyed major police and sheriff's departments say they are moving forward with body cameras. |
|2016||Santa Clara County, Calif., gives elected officials the right to veto law enforcement purchases of surveillance technology. |
|2017||Several cities, including New York, consider measures to oversee police technology purchases and usage. |
| || |
Lt. Dan Zehnder says he looks forward to the day when patrol officers can walk the Las Vegas Strip, use their body cameras to record pedestrians' faces, stream the footage to the cloud and get back an almost instantaneous answer: “Hey, that guy you just passed 20 feet ago has an outstanding warrant.”1
Zehnder, who runs the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department's body-camera program, thinks that day is almost here — and so do civil libertarians, who worry about what this will mean for privacy.
Las Vegas police Sgt. Miguel Garcia attaches a body camera to his shirt collar at the start of his shift on Feb. 17. Civil liberties groups worry that body cameras, increasingly used nationwide, will be linked with facial-recognition software, turning them into mass-surveillance tools. (Getty Images/Chicago Tribune/John J. Kim)
As police increasingly use body cameras on patrol, civil liberties groups fear they will soon pair the cameras with facial-recognition software, turning them into mass-surveillance tools. That ability already exists. A Justice Department-commissioned survey found that 10 of 38 body-camera vendors offer models that allow facial-recognition software to be used with the camera or include an option for the software to be used later.2
Facial-recognition software analyzes someone's face and tries to match it against an identified face in a database.
“By combining body cameras with tagging technologies [such as facial recognition], government agencies could take videos of and catalog every individual attending a protest, participating in a religious ceremony, going to a union meeting or entering a health clinic,” said a report from The Constitution Project, a bipartisan think tank in Washington.
Or a police department could send someone's facial image to every officer's body camera to track that person's location in real time. “Such a measure could occur on a mass scale, allowing police to place a digital ‘tail’ on hundreds of individuals without any suspicion of wrongdoing,” the think tank warned.3
A quarter of state or local police departments already use facial recognition with still photographs, according to a study by Georgetown University's Center on Privacy & Technology. For example, police officers run facial-recognition searches using photographs they have taken with smartphones or tablets of individuals who can't or won't identify themselves.4
Utah's Statewide Information & Analysis Center uses facial recognition to conduct about a thousand checks per year, according to Utah Department of Public Safety Director Maj. Brian Redd. “We've helped law enforcement agencies solve frauds and home invasions and bank robberies,” he said.5
Twenty-nine states allow facial-recognition searches of driver's license photos. More than 125 million American adults, or slightly more than half, are in databases that law enforcement can search with facial-recognition software, according to the Georgetown report.6
Utah once used its software to identify a man who was discovered badly injured on the side of a road. “It's very beneficial. It's been a great tool for us,” said Redd.7
But civil libertarians warn that police officers' motives aren't always so benign. Police in San Diego County have used facial recognition since 2012. In 2014, civil rights attorney Victor Manuel Torres started receiving numerous complaints from residents who had been stopped by police officers and photographed without their permission. The complaints stopped in 2015 after the county police adopted a formal facial-recognition policy to guide its use.8
“Changes in technology are likely to make suspicionless searches even more common,” Alvaro Bedoya, executive director of the Georgetown center, said in testimony before a congressional subcommittee last month. “The most advanced use of face recognition … scans the face of every man, woman or child who passes in front of a surveillance camera in or close to real-time.”
Law enforcement agencies in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York City and West Virginia “either have bought this technology, have announced plans to use it, or are actively exploring it” for use with closed-circuit television cameras, he said.9
But civil liberties groups worry most about pairing facial recognition with body cameras: the video images would be more accurate than those from fixed surveillance cameras because body cameras can be aimed directly at someone's face.
The ACLU recommends that police officers never use body cameras for routine filming of protests and rallies, in part because of the potential of facial recognition, says Chad Marlow, the organization's advocacy and policy counsel. Participants would know that the police could identify them using facial recognition and put them on a list of people to watch, Marlow says. “It would kill free speech.”
Civil liberties groups also worry about the use of facial recognition during routine patrols, when officers on the street could stream facial images from body cameras to databases to identify individuals or check for outstanding warrants.
Such outstanding warrant notifications, cautions Jake Laperruque, The Constitution Project's senior counsel, should be given only for serious crimes and not for misdemeanors, such as overdue parking tickets or loitering. “A lot of jurisdictions have a huge number of outstanding warrants for small misdemeanors, sometimes half the population,” says Laperruque.
Police officers could use those outstanding warrants as an excuse to arrest people they may not like, possibly including minorities or protesters, or simply to bring in someone who is giving them a hard time, says Laperruque.
“If you're going to give the government increased power that could be used in some ways for surveillance, it's really, really important that we get the policies right and put proper limits in place to make sure it can't be abused,” says Laperruque.
But so far, states haven't stepped forward to pass such facial-recognition legislation. “With only a few exceptions, there are no laws governing police use of the technology, no standards ensuring its accuracy and no systems checking for bias,” said Clare Garvie, a co-author of the report from Georgetown's Center on Privacy & Technology, where she is an associate. “It's a wild West.”10
— Barbara Mantel
When two bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, investigators immediately began screening footage from bystanders' smartphones and government and private surveillance cameras blanketing the area. It took several days, but they found what they were looking for: suspicious images of two men, one with a backpack, captured by a department store camera.11
The men were quickly identified as brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and over a two-day manhunt, Tamerlan was killed and Dzhokhar captured. Dzhokhar was tried, convicted and sentenced to death in the bombing that killed three and wounded more than 200.12
For some, the episode was a powerful example of the potential for public and private surveillance cameras to help law enforcement deter or solve crimes.
“They serve an important function for the city in providing the type of safety on a day-to-day basis — not just for big events like a marathon, but day-to-day purposes,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel, of Chicago, which has the nation's largest surveillance camera network.13
Nevertheless, studies of the cameras' impact have shown mixed results.14 And civil libertarians say street cameras and other surveillance equipment that indiscriminately scoop up broad swaths of information raise privacy concerns because they are trained on the general public as well as crime suspects. This equipment, said Jake Laperruque, senior counsel at The Constitution Project, a think tank in Washington, is “upending how we view surveillance and the limits the Fourth Amendment places on it in maintenance of a democratic society.”15
The number of closed-circuit television cameras monitored by law enforcement officials in the United States is unknown, but there are scattered reports about their spread. In Detroit, more than 100 businesses have invested in high-definition surveillance cameras since January 2016 and linked them via the Internet to a police command center.16
A New York City Police Department security camera is mounted on a light pole across the street from Trump Tower. The NYPD reportedly monitors 6,000 street cameras, of which two-thirds are privately owned. (Getty Images/Drew Angerer)
The New York City Police Department reportedly monitors 6,000 street cameras, of which two-thirds are privately owned.17 Chicago has 22,000 integrated surveillance cameras positioned throughout the city, including on trains and buses. The cameras employ facial recognition and automatic tracking, which means a computer can track an individual from one camera to the next.18
State and local police departments, including in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Texas and Washington state, also are using aerial drones equipped with cameras and sometimes night vision. Police typically use the equipment to document crime scenes, assist SWAT teams and locate suspects in real time.19
Automated license-plate readers can scan up to 1,800 license plates per minute. That means in a week, the Los Angeles sheriff's and police departments are able to collect data on about 3 million vehicles, according to the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights organization.20
These high-speed cameras, typically mounted on light poles or police cars, connect to a computer database and can check if a car is stolen, the registration is expired or the owner has an outstanding arrest warrant. The collected data are stored.
All these technologies trouble civil libertarians to varying degrees, but license-plate readers are one of the most disturbing “because they are truly a dragnet surveillance,” says Rachel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel to the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a law and policy institute in New York City. For example, the Virginia State Police used the readers to record the license plates of vehicles arriving from Virginia for the inauguration of former President Barack Obama in 2009, she says.
Police say the data are useful for finding stolen cars or even kidnapped children. “We've got numerous cases where this is used as an investigative resource,” said Sgt. Kyle Hoertsch of the Sacramento County, Calif., Sheriff's Department. “We use it in every aspect of the job.”21
Public involvement is the key to balancing privacy issues with the technologies' crime-fighting value, says Levinson-Waldman. Local and state officials, with public input, can pass measures about when and how the technologies can be used, how long collected data can be kept and whether search warrants are needed, she says.
Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, a group in Washington that provides training and technical assistance to law enforcement agencies, agrees and says police should also solicit public opinion directly.
Bueermann was police chief in Redlands, Calif., from 1998 to 2011 and oversaw the installation of a surveillance camera system on poles and buildings throughout the city. “We created a Citizens Privacy Council, which anyone could join,” says Bueermann, “and with each successive camera we wanted to install, we went to the council and got them to sign off.”
When he wanted to install microphones on some of the cameras, the council told him it was “too creepy, and so we created a policy to never put microphones on these cameras,” he says.
Redlands is a small city, with a population of about 71,000. But that doesn't excuse larger cities from doing the same, says Bueermann. “The police departments can hold precinct-level meetings about this stuff, and they can hold meetings in city council districts.”
— Barbara Mantel
Balko, Radley , Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces , PublicAffairs, 2013. An investigative journalist examines the militarization of U.S. police agencies' growing reliance on technology.
Friedman, Barry , Unwarranted: Policing Without Permission , Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017. A New York University law professor describes how the public can regain control over policing.
Parenti, Christian , The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America From Slavery to the War on Terror , Basic Books, 2004. A sociologist traces the long history of police and corporate surveillance of Americans.
Beebe, Drew , “Since January, police have been testing an aerial surveillance system adapted from the surge in Iraq. And they neglected to tell the public,” Bloomberg Businessweek, Aug. 23, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/ln4aoys. Baltimore police secretly tested aerial surveillance cameras after riots broke out in the Freddie Gray case.
Chammah, Maurice , “Policing the Future,” The Marshall Project, Feb. 3, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/hyf3ocd. A journalist rides along with a police officer who is using software that forecasts crime hot spots.
Hurowitz, Noah , “NYPD Blasts Surveillance Transparency Bill as a Boon to ‘Terrorists,’” DNAinfo, March 2, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/l7vluna. The New York City Police Department says a City Council bill to provide oversight of surveillance technology would play into the hands of terrorists.
Long, Colleen , “NYPD plans 23,000 body cams. Number on streets now: 0,” The Associated Press, Feb. 11, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/ktvbedp. New York City police plan to put a body camera on every patrol officer by 2019.
Timberg, Craig, and Elizabeth Dwoskin , “Facebook, Twitter and Instagram sent feeds that helped police track minorities in Ferguson and Baltimore, report says,” The Washington Post, Oct. 11, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/l7hjqto. Police reportedly have used social media-monitoring software to track minorities and activists.
Reports and Studies
“Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program: Recommendations and Lessons Learned,” Police Executive Research Forum, U.S. Department of Justice, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/lxdg7ej. A police research organization compiles best practices on police use of body cameras.
Ariel, Barak, et al., “Report: increases in police use of force in the presence of body-worn cameras are driven by officer discretion: a protocol-based subgroup analysis of ten randomized experiments,” Journal of Experimental Criminology, May 17, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/m2euptl. British researchers conclude that use of force increases when police are given more discretion over body camera use.
Garvie, Clare, et al., “The Perpetual Line-Up: Unregulated Police Face Recognition in America,” Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law, Oct. 18, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/mp2o2r9. Researchers find that a quarter of police departments use facial-recognition technology and urge Congress to regulate it.
Hunt, Priscilla, et al., “Evaluation of the Shreveport Predictive Policing Experiment,” RAND Corp., 2014, http://tinyurl.com/zm5xtf4. RAND researchers tested predictive policing software in Louisiana and say it comes up short.
Joh, Elizabeth , “The Undue Influence of Surveillance Technology Companies on Policing,” New York University Law Review, forthcoming, http://tinyurl.com/kkrgzjn. A University of California, Davis, law professor argues that vendors of surveillance technology exert too much control over policing.
Levinson-Waldman, Rachel , “Hiding in Plain Sight: A Fourth Amendment Framework for Analyzing Government Surveillance in Public,” Emory Law Journal, March 2017, p. p. 528, http://tinyurl.com/kuxb2tj. A civil liberties advocate proposes a framework for protecting privacy rights in an era of public surveillance.
Lum, Cynthia, et al., “Existing and Ongoing Body Worn Camera Research: Knowledge Gaps and Opportunities,” George Mason University, 2015, http://tinyurl.com/kxny5ge. George Mason University researchers review body camera studies and conclude more research is needed.
Ozer, Nicole , “Police use of social media surveillance software is escalating, and activists are in the digital crosshairs,” ACLU of Northern CA, Sept. 22, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/n5z4p7t. The ACLU of Northern California finds that some California police departments are using social media monitoring software without oversight from elected officials.
The Next Step
Goldberg, Ted , “ACLU Slams SFO's New License Plate Reader Policy,” KQED News, April 10, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/ml5d4gu. San Francisco International Airport's surveillance practices came under fire after airport officials adopted a policy propelled by new state legislation requiring data collected by license-plate readers to be safeguarded by its users.
Prabhu, Maya T. , “Charleston senator wants to charge police who erase body camera footage,” The Post and Courier, April 4, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/m3vjvpc. A South Carolina Democratic state senator introduced a bill that would make it a crime, punishable by up to a year in prison and a fine, for a police officer to delete body camera footage.
Wootson, Cleve Jr. , “A body cam captured a cop's violent encounter with a teen — but a new law keeps the video secret,” The Washington Post, April 6, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/kvd4n9b. A new North Carolina law requires those who want access to police body camera footage to pay a fee and plead their case to a Superior Court judge.
Eckhouse, Laurel , “Big data may be reinforcing racial bias in the criminal justice system,” The Washington Post, Feb. 10, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/kj8zkl5. Judges across the country are using data-driven estimates to set prison sentences for defendants based on their risk of recidivism, but opponents argue pre-existing biases in the justice system could skew the data and unfairly harm minorities.
Edwards, Ezekiel , “Predictive Policing Software Is More Accurate At Predicting Policing Than Predicting Crime,” The Huffington Post, Aug. 31, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/k6ql9hc. The director of the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project says predictive policing, which uses algorithms to analyze crime data, can result in racial profiling.
Blidner, Rachelle , “Southampton chief Steven Skrynecki plans to use data to help policing,” Newsday, March 30, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/mc5xm99. A police chief in a New York town proposed hiring an analyst and using more data to allocate its limited resources.
Kelly, Laura , “Smart cities becoming a reality,” Security Systems News, April 3, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/k9dwg7e. Cities nationwide are encouraging police and business owners to coordinate their video surveillance systems.
Rocco, Matthew , “Taser Maker Offers Free Body Cams to Police, NYPD Not Interested,” Fox Business, April 6, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/m2djdbv. A body camera manufacturer is offering police departments free body cameras, but a competing provider said the offer would come with “significant internal implementation costs.”
Fussell, Sidney , “NYPD's Proposed Body Camera Policies Are a Disaster for Police Accountability,” Gizmodo, April 10, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/lfpa77q. The New York Civil Liberties Union says the New York City Police Department's new body camera policies disregard transparency and accountability.
Hansen, Teri L. , “Body cameras promote trust, improve transparency for officers,” McPherson Sentinel, April 7, 2017, http://tinyurl.com/m6px2ny. Officers in a Kansas county say body cameras can promote transparency and public safety.
McGahan, Jason , “Are Police Body Cameras Pointless If the Public Can't See the Footage?” L.A. Weekly, April 7, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/mje74zr. Critics say plans to equip 7,000 Los Angeles officers with body cameras are useless without improved transparency.
Miller, Ben , “Exclusive: Predictive Policing Startup Publishes Code Online, Seeks to Address Bias,” Government Technology, March 20, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/kvb8n5d. CivicScape, a predictive policing company, aims to promote transparency by making its code public and addressing biases in its algorithms.
American Civil Liberties Union
125 Broad St., 18th Floor, New York, NY 10004
National organization that defends individual rights and liberties.
Brennan Center for Justice
120 Broadway, Suite 1750, New York, NY 10271
Law and policy institute at New York University focused on democracy and justice.
Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy
4400 University Drive, MS 6D12, Fairfax, VA 22030
George Mason University center promoting rigorous studies in criminal justice and criminology.
Data & Society
36 W. 20th St., 11th Floor, New York, NY 10011
Think tank focused on the intersection of technology and social issues, including the police use of body cameras.
Justice Policy Center
2100 M St., N.W., Washington, DC 20037
An Urban Institute think tank conducting research to improve national, state and local justice policy and practice, including in law enforcement.
Police Executive Research Forum
1120 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 930, Washington, DC 20036
Conducts research and provides management, technical and education assistance to law enforcement agencies.
1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 200, Washington, DC 20036
Researches policing and provides training and technical assistance to law enforcement agencies.
About the Author
Barbara Mantel is a freelance writer in New York City. She was a 2012 Kiplinger Fellow and has won several journalism awards, including the National Press Club's Best Consumer Journalism Award and the Front Page Award. She was a correspondent for NPR and the founding senior editor and producer for public radio's “Science Friday.” She holds a B.A. in history and economics from the University of Virginia and an M.A. in economics from Northwestern University.
Document APA Citation — See Alternate Citation Style
Mantel, B. (2017, April 21). High-tech policing. CQ researcher, 27, 337-360. Retrieved from http://library.cqpress.com/
Document ID: cqresrre2017042100
Document URL: http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre2017042100