Police chiefs debate the role of technology in policing

By Alison Martin

President Barack Obama called for improved police-community relations during his Tuesday speech at the 2015 International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) conference in Chicago. Meanwhile officers attending the conference said that technology can be both a tool for and an impediment to better interactions between police and residents.

Deputy chief Tim Shattler, a 21-year veteran of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, oversees patrol officers in Las Vegas. He said officers now know they will face civilians armed with cell phone cameras when they arrive at a scene.

“As soon as you get out [of the car],” he said, “they’re videotaping.”

When Shattler first came to the force, he relied on written reports for information about complaints of excessive force by police officers.

Now, he watches videos taken at the scene as well as body camera footage and compares the two. The differences between the written reports and videos are sometimes striking, Shattler said.

Earlier this month, the Las Vegas police department implemented a new policy of releasing a select amount of body camera footage to the public. Residents can request camera footage from lvmpd.com.

Too much technology and too many voices worry Chicago Sergeant Brad R. Williams. A supervisor on the South Side who came to the conference to purchase a new uniform, Williams feels that technologies, specifically body cameras, can be used effectively. But he said communities often misunderstand their uses.

“You know, the danger of technology has always been, for anybody paying attention, that it could go way out of hand,” Williams said. “The people need to be fully aware of what’s being developed and how it’s being used before it could be misused.”

The Chicago Police Department tested body cameras on its officers in the first half of 2015. In August of this year, Gov. Bruce Rauner authorized a $5 fee hike on Illinois traffic tickets that will help pay for police body cameras. But police departments statewide are not required to use them.

Rauner told the Chicago Tribune that the cameras are not meant to prevent altercations between officers and civilians but rather to train new officers in responding to incidents

In Canada, body cameras remain controversial, and police officers question their effectiveness, according to conference attendees. Jean-Michel Blais, Chief of Police of the Halifax Regional Police, believes that the public has an unrealistic expectation of the capabilities of body cameras.

“People thought technology can help with policing,” he said. “Technology is going to make policing more and more challenging and difficult in the years to come. Our challenge is to bridge that ingenuity gap between our ability to solve problems and the complexity of the problems that are out there.”

The internet especially changed how police do their jobs.

The anonymous nature of the internet troubles Blais and his department. He says it’s now much easier for criminals to commit crimes without ever interacting with victims. And with encryptions and coded information, it’s much easier for criminals to cover their tracks.

“If I were a criminal,” Michel said, “why would I even go out there and interact with people when I could just do it from a third country, so to speak?”

However police also use the internet and social media specifically to help their efforts, as officers said at the conference. Shattler said he monitors social media, which has become a major tool for Las Vegas and other law enforcement authorities. With software that tracks social media, Shattler can predict crimes by identifying specific blocks or areas where an incident may occur, and monitoring tweets and posts from people nearby.

“From a law enforcement perspective, that’s huge,” he said.

If technology is the answer to better policing and better police-community relations, Williams said that for it to work well in police departments, the people need to understand how police officers use body cameras, social media and other technologies. Officers want better relations with the communities they serve, and better relations start with better understanding on both sides.

“This is America so they gotta be involved,” he said.

Additional reporting by Misha Euceph Brendan Hickey, Kaitlin Schuler and Xuanyan Ouyang.

Photo at top: Jean-Michel Blais, Chief of Police of the Halifax Regional Police in Nova Scotia, believes that the public has an unrealistic expectation of the capabilities of body cameras, saying they will not solve all problems. (Brendan Hickey/Medill)