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Technology Effects on Policing

Updated on December 26, 2012

Early Responsibility

In the early 1800’s, citizens were able to see that through the expansion of society and an increasing populous, the old style of keeping the peace by using citizen volunteers, night watchmen, sheriffs, and constables needed to make way for a more organized system. This organized system was called a police agency. Examining the historical changes over the eras, the expectations of the agencies have evolved it into a service organization that is hungry for technological developments.

In 1829, Sir Robert Peel created a unified police force called the Metropolitan Police in the United Kingdom. The first official police agency in the United States, the Boston Police Department was founded in May of 1854. These new agencies were the forefront of societies desire to have a network of organizations that would apprehend and hold accountable, criminals that violated the statutes of the people.


Policing at the Beginning of the 20th Century

The first era of policing was called the political policing era, a time when police were appointed by local politicians. During this era police were service oriented with close ties to business owners and people on their foot patrols, also known as beats. Local policemen were regarded highly as upstanding individuals in their cities and towns.

Some of the technological additions to the police agencies, at this time, included the telegraph and telephone. In addition, fingerprinting appeared during this time and greatly enhanced the ability of the police to solve crimes.

With additions of the police radio, automobiles, crime labs and other technology in the 1920’s, police were viewed as professionals. Thus creating an era called professional policing, which lasted until the 1970’s. During this era of policing a hierarchy developed that assigned more police management to enhance and oversee officer’s day to day activities. These managers were responsible for reducing response times and to clear investigations as quickly as possible. This increased the need and drives to improve technology even more.


'60s and '70s

During the 1960’s with newer technological advances police mobility and communications grew, but at a sacrifice of public trust. Now, police were in their automobiles most of the time, having less contact with the public. The police were starting to be viewed as someone that appeared when there was some type of trouble. Police were not accessible; they had to be called for service, which became the term for when a call came into the station. This overlapping era of policing was referred to as incident-driven policing, for during this time police were becoming very good at responding to crime, when requested to do so.

With the growing demand on the police agencies in the 1970’s it was a consideration that policing was getting further and further away from the people in their community. This was a time when dedicated research was done to establish new ways of operation, to reestablish a connection with the public. This started an era referred to as community-oriented policing. This era of policing encompassed a time of accelerated advancements in scientific technologies, and saw the computer become a vital addition to police agencies. They now had a tool that could manage the mountains of information that were gathered in the apprehension of criminals and the management of department records. Computers further enhanced the development of new areas of police science. This stage of development in policing paved the path for the modern technologies that are in use today.


Development of New Tech

In 1967, the Federal Bureau of Investigation created the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) which developed the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS). This service was tasked with organizing the 200 million fingerprint cards that the FBI had amassed through 1970. Over the next 30 years the AFIS system was researched and developed into a system that was to become the key database used in almost all criminal investigations then and now.

In the 1800’s the Criminal Justice System focused on the responsibility to search for and arrest an accused individual. At this time it was required that the individual be identified by a witness or the obvious existence of physical evidence linking them to a crime. This remained the norm during the early agency years. From the 1960’s forward intriguing changes and the addition of the new technologies, the CJS was able to uncover evidence that was microscopic, left only trace elements, or could be captured using electronic media. The result of all of this change has increased the amount of definitive evidence available in solving crimes, which only a few years prior, would have been unsolvable due to lack of evidence.

With so many technological advances it is hard to distinguish which technological advancement has had the biggest impact on policing. While fingerprinting and the AFIS systems are major advancements, there are a couple of modern day technologies that will soon have an impact, if not already, on police history.

One such example of these technological advancements is in area of advance vehicle locator technology (AVL), which is being used currently by the Hutchison Police Department in Kansas and 12 other agencies in the state. (Gray, 2011) This technology is being applied through the use of mobile automated-license plate recognition units, which have the ability to scan hundreds of license plate numbers in minutes, using infrared technology. The scanned information is then compared to NCIC databases and as it returns information on stolen vehicles the unit will alert the officers. There is only a matter of time before this technology can be modified to use other datasurviellance like facial recognition or other identifying systems to alert officers of individuals that have outstanding warrants or other issues. Issues like being in close proximity to parole or probation violators, or other individuals who have a desire not to be discovered or apprehended.

Officers are in the field where there are numerous chances that a person could be hiding around the next corner ready to use whatever force necessary to remain at-large. This can easily result into a deadly confrontation. Advance warnings would help the officer to become prepared and increase situational knowledge that could even up the adversarial playing field


Another Application

A second example of advancement in police technology is the use of automated surveillance systems, specifically a device called Shot Spotter, which enables police to hear with the sensitivity of owls or mice. This technology will listen for gun shots and once identified the software will then triangulate the location of the shots. Police and emergency medical personnel are then dispatched to the seen before 911 calls are made and many times before the perpetrator will have the opportunity to flee. (Buckley, 2009)

By reducing response times to different events and scenarios, these two technologies have already demonstrated that advance early warning helps to save lives. As future advancements are developed the efficiency and effectiveness of emergency services will improve.

One consideration in all technological advancement is the cost. Advancements have an initial outlay that is considered untouchable by many small police agencies. To counter act this higher expense, the services are being shared among two or more small police forces and are being networked together. This is only available to small agencies that have a close geographical proximity where the technology can be used in multiple jurisdictions.

With cost going down and usage increasing, another consideration has been that judges are disagreeing on the constitutionality of this technology and on the privacy rights of using this type of surveillance. In more and more instances judges are insisting that warrants are necessary for using these new technologies. Some cases have been dismissed for failure to do so.

In summary, the future of policing technologies will change at an exponential pace; a proven fact. Looking at an earlier statistical prediction, “The Technology Revolution seems destine to transform modern civilization.”(Halal, 1997) Examining the historical changes over the eras, the expectations of the police agencies have evolved it into service organizations that are hungry for technological developments. When we observe our past and our present, we see the future; an anthem that has rung true over time. We must observe that technology is only a tool, a tool that will never replace the human mind or emotions. That, is what makes us who we are and how we interact with each other.


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