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Gadgets for Gathering Evidence Are Not Evidence of Better Policing

Technology and the Mythology of Progress in American Law Enforcement

The Statue of Liberty appears on one screen and a map of New York on another in the New York Police Department's surveillance helicopter, Tuesday, May 6, 2008, in New York. SOURCE: AP/Mary Altaffer The Statue of Liberty appears on one screen and a map of New York on another in the New York Police Department's surveillance helicopter in New York.

Progress in policing is often judged in terms of technology. Media stories focus on police acquiring “new and better” ways to test DNA and crime scene evidence, detect movement in buildings, record information using mobile computer terminals and handheld devices, and employ effective yet non-lethal weaponry. These advancements captivate both the citizenry and the police themselves as exciting crime-fighting innovations. Likewise, when the police fail, a lack of technology and outdated weaponry is often blamed, and that becomes the impetus behind the call for more funding and resources.

Yet while police forces around the country have been advancing technologically over the past three decades, we also know from rigorous scientific field research that the mainstays of American policing tactics and strategies remain fairly ineffective in reducing or preventing crime. These mainstays reflect the reactive nature of policing: rapid response to 911 calls, general beat patrols, case-by-case investigations, and reactive arrests. Technologies intended to improve efficiency in responsiveness, such as 911 and even investigative case management information systems, solidified a reactive organizational culture and ineffective approach by inherently emphasizing the importance of response over prevention. Proactive strategies that we know from field evaluations can reduce crime are not used regularly. Thus, while it may seem police have advanced because of improvements in technology, the reality in terms of crime control effectiveness is much less optimistic—hence there is a mythology of progress. Indeed, the notion that police work should be evidence-based, or use the best available scientific research about “what works” to guide decisions, is still a relatively innovative and radical concept.

How did this contradiction and mythology come about? Certainly, technological advancement in policing is real, and not simply the stuff of television drama. The last 30 years in policing has seen a move from call boxes and signaling to advanced radios, computer-aided dispatch systems, and the use of global positioning devices. Teletype was replaced by faxes, then by email, and now by texting, webcasting, and other communications innovations. Six-bullet revolvers with clumsy manual feeds have been traded in for semi-automatic weaponry with multiple rounds and easy-to-load magazines, coupled with advancements in body armor and other protective gear. And computerized records and powerful information systems and databases have replaced written reports and tape-based or mainframe record systems.

Of course, many technological adoptions have occurred only recently. At the time I was a patrol officer in the late 1990s, we were still using “look out lists” as our main approach to address car theft. These were lists of license plates of recently stolen automobiles on dittoed sheets of paper that patrol officers were charged with locating. A decade later, we saw police using license plate reader technology, which can continuously scan hundreds of plates in minutes, automatically checking them against a database of stolen automobiles. Additionally, the only crime map I ever saw while on patrol was a big push-pin paper map that was on display at the entrance of the station house. Now, in a few agencies, officers can do their own crime mapping from their mobile terminals.

Yet such technological advancements can be misleading indicators of progress. In some industries, efficiency and effectiveness are closely aligned. But with policing, improvements in efficiency through technology can create an illusion of advancement. This illusion can shroud the reality of a lack of progress in the actual ability of the police to prevent and reduce crime. Hence the contradictions created by this mythology of progress in policing: Technological advances increased efficiency, but did not necessarily improve crime control effectiveness, an important measure of progress. Either they are not used in ways that lead to crime prevention and reduction, or they have reinforced practices and cultures that contribute to ineffective crime control methods.

Computerized crime mapping is an excellent example. Despite its rapid and recent diffusion as a law enforcement innovation and despite the strong evidence that hot-spot policing using maps will reduce crime, the vast majority of American police agencies continue to deploy patrols in a manner less connected to the geographic concentration of crime than old political beat boundaries. Furthermore, despite technological advancements in information systems and other investigative technologies, rates of crime clearance, as measured by the percentage of offenses that result in arrest, have not much improved for many years.

The bottom line: Technological advances are only a small part of the measure of the progress in American policing. The core of this progress instead lies in the transformation of police organizational culture and infrastructures, in all of its manifestations (tactical, strategic, supervisory, administrative, and missions), into forms that can support the use of technology for evidence-based, proactive, and analytically based crime control effectiveness. Without such infrastructure, technology can reinforce—and even strengthen—the reactive nature of the police. Strengthening reactive efficiency is not progress, given that research has continuously shown that these reactive methods are much less effective in achieving measurable crime reductions than more proactive tactics and strategies, such as targeting police resources at well defined and analyzed community problems or hot spots patrol at geographic concentrations of crime. Furthermore, this mythology can mislead the police to believe they are advancing in their efforts, shield them from scrutiny, or distract them from pursuing other activities that might help them be more effective.

Of course, changing these cultural norms is an incredibly tall order in policing that is no doubt obfuscated by also having to learn how to use technology safely and wisely. Nor am I arguing that the police should pay less attention to new tools. On the contrary—the use of technology in policing is necessary to achieve many evidence-based strategies that research has proven effective. Technology is not the problem—but the context for these tools matters, as does their perceived purpose in the police mission. “Better,” “faster,” and “stronger” is no match for “smarter,” “effective,” and “evidence-based.” For police to wield technology to achieve the latter requires more than just new gadgets; it requires a new mindset, culture, and proactive and analytic approach.

Dr. Cynthia Lum is Deputy Director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy and Assistant Professor in the Department of Administration of Justice at George Mason University.

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