Armed and Dangerous: Does Technology Make for Better Policing?

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THE DAY AFTER Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, April 5, 1968, was Thomas Atkins’s 95th day as Boston’s first black city councilor. Riots had broken out all over the country, and Boston too was on the brink. A call to Atkins from Boston’s soul music station, WILD, seemed to seal the city’s fate: James Brown, Godfather of Soul, was scheduled to play that night at the Boston Garden, but the venue was canceling the show, fearing violence. That meant thousands of black youths would gather at the Garden only to be turned away. If their anger did indeed boil over into violence, it would not be in a segregated neighborhood like Roxbury, but in the heart of downtown.

When Atkins brought the issue to Mayor Kevin White, he also proposed a preemptive response. Instead of canceling the concert, he said, why not televise it? Even black Bostonians not attending the concert would then stay home for the rare opportunity to watch the era’s most beloved entertainer of color perform. White and his chief of staff, future congressman Barney Frank, were skeptical. Brown was asking for quite a lot of money to break a preexisting TV contract, and neither politician had even heard of the singer — White kept calling him “James Washington,” and Frank thought he was a football player. But after much negotiating, Atkins brokered a deal. The end result: While rioting erupted that night in over a hundred cities nationwide, the singer known as “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” kept Boston relatively peaceful.

The James Brown incident is the story of a leader using knowledge of his own community to come up with an unconventional plan to defuse an explosive situation. Atkins’s response was relatively low-tech but nonetheless innovative.

Today, almost every situation police face seems potentially explosive. Officers are under increased scrutiny thanks to a slew of high-profile deployments of lethal force against disproportionately black and mentally ill men. Meanwhile, the opioid epidemic and decades of budget cuts to social services have altered the police’s role, making it far more intimate and precarious.

It’s hardly surprising that modern police departments often turn to new technologies to solve their problems. If lethal force is overused, then why not introduce non-lethal weapons? If police transparency is limited to YouTube and Cops, why not have police wear body cameras? James Brown may not scale, but technologies like Tasers and body cameras do. Critics of this approach, however, counter that these technologies often fail because they optimize for oversimplified or inaccurate theories of crime. So-called technological solutions, they argue, can do more harm than good, framing crime in a way that discourages mindful, situationally “responsive” policing.

These two arguments — techno-optimist and techno-skeptic — are represented in The End of Killing: How Our Newest Technologies Can Solve Humanity’s Oldest Problem by Rick Smith, CEO of Axon (formerly known as TASER International), and Thin Blue Lie: The Failure of High-Tech Policing by Matt Stroud, a Pittsburgh-based journalist. Both books focus on law enforcement, their antithetical views reflecting a larger debate about technological solutionism. The late Canadian economist Gilles Paquet said, “Solutionism [interprets] issues as puzzles to which there is a solution, rather than problems to which there may be a response.” Today, solutionism is a powerful force not only in policing, but also in transportation, health care, education, and almost every public-facing sector. All of this investment by governments and the private sector raises its own question: when should we turn to technology to solve our societal ills, and when should we look for our James Brown?

Techno-solutionism

When it comes to policing, Rick Smith is a proud technological solutionist. “Killing is a technology problem,” he says. His solution involves a cocktail of non-lethal weapons with a smattering of cameras and data analytics. Smith’s ideas are worth considering, even if they do have a Koch-esque synergy with his own financial interests. (Axon has a robust body camera business and what amounts to a monopoly on Tasers.) Certainly it’s hard, at least at first blush, to argue against his goals of “policing without killing” and “military operations without bloodshed.” If it’s a win-win for both police and civilians, what’s not to like?

Smith illustrates his points with evocative stories, mostly about Tasers. In one, a Florida woman brandishes two butcher knives at police in an attempt to commit suicide-by-cop after the social services department removes her two children from her custody. Instead of deploying lethal force, the officer uses a Taser. Several years later, the woman runs into that officer while serving him at a local restaurant. “See that guy?” she says to another waiter. “He saved my life.” In another vignette, it’s 2001 and Cincinnati has broken out into riots after police kill 15 black men (and no white men) in a span of six years. In response, the Cincinnati Police Department adopts Tasers. Officers do not fire a single shot for the next 27 months. Scott Greenwood, then-executive director at the Ohio ACLU and a Taser skeptic-turned-advocate, called the rollout “an absolute, out-of-the-park grand slam.”

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Smith, however, loses his credibility as a conscientious authority on policing technology when he recounts a series of science fiction hypotheticals, each a futuristic parable with a Taser-shaped solution. One such puzzle is set in Raqqa, Syria, in 2045. The city is being patrolled by an army of 120,000 small American drones called “Dragonflies.” In one interaction, a squadron of Dragonflies prevents a terrorist from carrying out a public execution by shooting him with two electric barbs (Tasers in all but name). The drone then announces in the terrorist’s dialect, “Do not move. You are being detained for human rights abuses.” A second drone brings him to a nearby base, where soldiers scan his brain to determine whether he is indeed a homicidal criminal. (He is.) For a seven-page story, Smith’s cast of autonomous wonders is expansive. “GroBots” clear terrorists from buildings. “Krakens” manage transportation. “Shepherds” ferry non-combatants using screens with friendly local avatars. The drones have come to this war-torn country to break the cycle of violence once and for all. Peoples of the world rejoice.

Or would they? As outlandish as this utopian-dystopian scenario may be, it highlights the problem with technological solutionism in the real world: it over-optimizes for only a few metrics. For Smith, there is in fact one metric alone: the preservation of life. No one dies in his 2045 Syrian conflict, but the costs are privacy, autonomy, and liberty. As Evgeny Morozov wrote in To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism,

Recasting all complex social situations either as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized […] is likely to have unexpected consequences that could eventually cause more damage than the problems they seek to address.

Nothing epitomizes this kind of over-optimization better than Facebook, a platform designed to maximize connectedness that wound up creating filter bubbles that have torn apart the social fabric of entire countries. For Smith, putting an end to killing is worth any cost. For the Syrians of 2045, the calculation may not be so simple.

Technological solutions almost by definition have to make design trade-offs. In other words, they’ll always have shortcomings. Tasers, for example, now use a stronger electric current and allow officers to hold shots for longer than the default five-second cycle. This optimizes Tasers to protect police over the person they are shooting. The point here is not that the trade-offs are wrong but that Smith downplays or ignores their existence. Indeed, throughout The End of Killing, he uses his considerable rhetorical skills to deflect criticism of policing technology. He lists counterarguments instead of addressing them, casts himself as a pioneer-rebel and critics as change-averse attention-seekers, and wields empty talking points used by both the left (“we need to have a conversation”) as well as the right (“protecting lives and property”).

While his prescription for world peace may at times sound like a teenager’s pitch for a Call of Duty game, his rhetorical skill suggests he is no fool. And his biography speaks for itself: by the time he founded TASER at age 23, he had already graduated cum laude from Harvard and earned two MBAs, including one from the University of Chicago. He brought Taser from operating out of a garage to a $4 billion public company, staving off countless controversies along the way (more on those later). A hardened warrior in the battle for public opinion, Smith knows what he’s doing.

It’s therefore worth dwelling further on his most troubling stratagem: omission. Consider his account of the Active Denial System (ADS), a non-lethal heat ray manufactured by Raytheon. Smith tells a heartbreaking story of how in 1995, Marines shot and killed a Somali child who approached a convoy looking for food because enemy combatants had threatened to send child suicide bombers. If the Marines had access to an ADS, which Smith notes had by then been tested over 10,000 times for safety, they could have better enforced the security of their perimeter and saved the child’s life. But “counterproductive” activists and the “sensational” media fomented controversy, and after years of development and tens of millions of dollars spent, the ADS was never used in the field. For Smith, the failure of ADS lays bare a common fallacy: new technologies often get measured against imaginary concepts of perfection rather than existing alternatives. The ADS was not perfect, but it was better than a gun, he writes.

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This point is often overlooked and certainly worth keeping in mind. But here’s another omission: while Smith does mention that then-Secretary of the Air Force had said the ADS should be used on American citizens first lest the United States be “vilified in the world press,” he fails to mention that the domestic test subjects were inmates in Los Angeles County’s Men’s Central Jail, hardly a beacon of accountability. Men’s Central Jail, according to Mother Jones, is one of “Ten Worst Prisons in America,” a place the ACLU has called “a modern-day medieval dungeon, a dank, windowless place where prisoners live in fear of retaliation and abuse apparently goes unchecked.” [1] Smith also fails to note research by non-lethal weapons expert Jürgen Altmann, which found that although the ADS is safe if turned off immediately after use and not retriggered, leaving it on for even two extra seconds causes “second- and third-degree burns with complete dermal necrosis.”

Techno-skepticism

If Smith swerves around the drawbacks of high-tech policing, Matt Stroud slams headlong into them. Thin Blue Lie is a technological history of modern American policing. For each new popular gadget, Stroud tries to explain the social forces behind its adoption and design as well as the technology’s harmful side effects. He, too, is an adept storyteller, exploring specific law enforcement stories as well as larger trends in popular culture. He takes on so many different technologies, however, that each story ends up feeling incomplete. Though he is keen to illustrate how history shapes technical design, he rushes over the critical step of explaining how those designs capture or fail to capture the social context of crime.

Consider the example of CompStat, a software intelligence-gathering tool built in the 1990s by the NYPD under Commissioner William Bratton and Deputy Commissioner Jack Maple. On its surface, the tool seems as apolitical as policing technology can get: police report where crimes occur, CompStat analyzes the data to find patterns, and officers adjust their strategies accordingly. In part, CompStat is an artifact of New York City’s vertiginous crime rate in the 1980s and the NYPD’s lack of internal accountability. But it also reflects Maple’s personal beliefs about crime. From his years as a cuff-happy transit cop, Maple believed criminality was an innate quality that expressed itself in predictable behaviors. If he could uncover those patterns and arrest congenital criminals, even for relatively small infractions, then perhaps his beloved city would no longer be the country’s murder capital. For Stroud, building this now-controversial approach to crime into CompStat is self-evidently wrongheaded. He therefore fails to name its pitfalls, like encouraging police to systematically downgrade crimes in order to hit their quotas, or targeting racially based “impact zones.” Nor does he show us how it set the stage for predictive policing systems, which would later combine CompStat’s approach with machine learning, magnifying its proclivity for racial bias and over-policing.

Only in the case of Taser does he more thoroughly capture the social forces surrounding its design, adoption, and societal impact. Invented by Jack Cover in the wake of the Watts riots, the Taser did not catch on until 1979 when Eula Love, a black woman disputing a gas bill was shot eight times by the LAPD for throwing a butcher’s knife. A small Taser pilot worked as a PR salve for the LAPD, but the device did not help with the source of its new crisis, the narcotic PCP. In police encounters, PCP users were often unarmed yet uncontrollable, too sweaty (and often naked) for police to be able to use a chokehold, and too pain-resistant for Cover’s seven-watt Taser. Frequently, these encounters ended with gunfire. In response, Cover simply increased the Taser’s power to 11 watts. The LAPD called the increase an “immediate success” and promptly ordered 700 more Tasers. When Cover’s original Taser company eventually went under and was reborn under Smith, the weapon’s power would more than double to 25 watts.

Stroud relentlessly relates the systematic failures of the Taser technology and the company itself. Tasers are not used instead of guns, but in addition to them, he argues, and what’s more, they are more dangerous than they appear. Although Axon asserts that only 24 people have died from Tasers (due to fires or injuries from falling, not from the Taser’s shock itself), an ongoing project by Reuters documented nearly 1,081 deaths of tasered people in the last 20 years. Celebrating the investigative reporters and whistleblowers who brought this new information to light, Stroud uses their work to detail the death of a nine-year-old who was tasered while in handcuffs and of a 66-year-old woman tasered for honking at a police car blocking her driveway.

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The most unsettling aspect of the Taser story is how thoroughly the company has undercut potential oversight. Tasers are not regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives because they fire darts using compressed air, not explosives. Few police question the weapon’s efficacy because the company pays celebrity cops and “master instructor” insiders to promote it. And when medical examiners say a Taser contributed to a victim’s death, Taser has been known to sue for defamation.

The seminal text on Taser controversies is not Stroud’s though, but Reuters’s award-winning six-part investigative series “Shock Tactics.” One example from this series (also covered in Thin Blue Lie, though in less detail) is so egregious that it is worth noting. Smith and many of his colleagues at Axon claim that the majority of deaths occurring after Taser shocks have nothing to do with electricity-induced cardiac arrest, instead resulting from an entirely unrelated syndrome called “excited delirium.” Dr. Charles Wetli, a forensic pathologist who has served as an expert witness for Taser in over a dozen lawsuits, coined the term in the 1980s. Reuters describes excited delirium as an “irrational rage induced by drugs or mental illness that can end in sudden death.” Wetli says it is responsible for the “vast majority” of Taser-related deaths, even though the diagnosis is recognized by neither the DSM-5 nor the American Medical Association. [2]

It is recognized, however, by the chairman of Axon’s Scientific and Medical Committee, Dr. Mark Kroll (who has a PhD in electrical engineering, not medicine). In 2007, he famously said, “You have Tylenol in your home? As far as an electronic control device killing you, this stuff is safer than Tylenol.” According to a checklist published by Dr. Kroll for determining whether someone is experiencing excited delirium, red flags include a “history of violence or drug related arrests, mental health histories and treatments,” and “suspicion of impending death.” Typical comments include, “I’m dying,” “Please save me,” or “Don’t kill me.” [3] According to Reuters, when Axon learns someone has died after being Tasered by an officer, the company often sends a confidential email recommending that the police department send the victim’s brain tissue to Dr. Deborah Mash, a protégé of Wetli and expert witness for Taser, to be tested for “excited delirium.”

Is there a “best” approach?

For all of Stroud’s criticism of high-tech policing and, in his conclusion especially, his praise of nuanced, community-focused policing, he offers his readers just one success story of the latter approach — about police quelling a rumor-fueled riot in Harlem by keeping their weapons out of sight and having nonwhite officers lead the de-escalation effort. Why might Stroud have focused so much on criticism and so little on providing alternatives? Smith might argue that it’s part of the media’s thirst for a grabby story. In a way, he would not be wrong.

Barring anomalies like the James Brown incident, nuanced responsiveness in law enforcement is boring. It is time-consuming, resource-intensive, and difficult to measure in terms of success. It does not make for good headlines and does not hold many opportunities for companies to make a profit. And it certainly is not as conducive to evocative storytelling as, say, a weaponized bolt of electricity or a heat ray.

In reality though, nuanced responsiveness and technological development are not mutually exclusive approaches. New tools do not inherently have to be blunt one-size-fits-all solutions to stop crime from escalating. They can also be used to synthesize information about communities to better understand why problems are happening. Stroud and Smith illustrate how our concepts of crime get engineered into the technology used by law enforcement. For now, many of these concepts are regressive and wrong, leaving us with dangerous tools that may short-circuit more responsive policing. But if technology comes to embody concepts of crime that are less focused on stopping it with weapons and more focused on preemptive responsiveness, then surely there is hope for high-tech policing in the 21st century.

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Gabriel Nicholas is a joint fellow at the NYU Information Law Institute and the Center for Cybersecurity. His work has appeared in WiredSlate, and The Boston Globe.

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[1] Between 70 and 80 percent of inmates in Men’s Central Jail are not convicted of a crime.

[2] Axon is often quick to point out that the National Association of Medical Examiners recognizes excited delirium. According to Reuters, former president of NAME Michael Graham has been a paid consultant for Taser since at least 2007.

[3] The citation for this last point is “Unpublished observations of 150 excited delirium cases,” once again by Dr. Kroll.



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