Technology and Law Enforcement: What It Really Means

Several years of debate over the proper uses of technology in law enforcement activities brings to light a multitude of issues for legislators to tackle. From body-cameras to license plate readers; REAL ID compliance and Prescription drug monitoring programs, all these issues conjure frightful thoughts of big brother watching and sacrifice of freedoms. However, technology in law enforcement can be used responsibly and effectively.

Opposing views on different technologies are difficult to deal with in philosophically consistent ways. For instance, many in the civil liberties camp hail body worn cameras by law enforcement as a great way to monitor the encounters of the enforcers and the citizenry.  Often, they forget that these systems are no different than say a license plate reader.  Both systems record time location and identifying characteristics of the citizenry.  Yet often those who argue for body cameras, argue against plate readers. Would you rather have your persons recorded during a traffic stop? Or a photo taken of your license plate? The answer remains up for debate but of course there is another side to the issue of the balance of privacy and effective law enforcement.

Technology in law enforcement or “tools in the toolbox” have been utilized in countless law enforcement scenarios to capture criminals, get them off the streets and increase likelihood of successful prosecution.  Additionally, technology has helped innocent men and women go free such as in the recent advancement of DNA analysis. Certainly, if one were to speak to anyone who had a crisis of a missing child or loved one they would demand any and all technology should be used to find that person. Additionally, if you spoke to anyone accused of a crime they didn’t commit they would demand all manner of technology be used to prove their innocence.  The trick is you can’t pick and choose what technology to use and when.  It should be done responsibly and universally.  The ACLU for instance can’t argue for the use of cameras on officers and then argue against the use of cameras in police cars such as those used to identify license plates. On the opposite side, law enforcement can’t argue for the use of license plate reader technology but oppose use of body cameras or DNA testing.

Data Data Data…

At the center of this debate inevitably we get to the issue of data.  The camera records footage, the LPR will tell you the time/location of a vehicle, the drug monitoring program tracks the prescriptions one takes and the REAL ID can tell you where you were born and that you are who you say you are.  The question for legislators shouldn’t be whether to use the technology but rather where does all this data go? How do we manage it? Who gets to see it? And why?

Once you peel back the mystique of the technology you soon realize there is no nefarious master database with someone in a dark room looking into the personal doings of every citizen.  There simply isn’t the man power nor the desire for law enforcement to do so.  Likely they could find out more about a citizen by looking up things they have publicly posted on the internet than anything they have gathered.  Rather these databases have strict rules and security measures in place mostly under CJIS (Criminal Justice Information System) rules created by the feds.  Inquiries are only to be used for law enforcement purposes and routinely audited to ensure that such is the case. As we have seen with body camera legislation in several states including Missouri, there was never any doubt that local law enforcement agencies should have the power to implement such systems but rather the issue was the data.  Footage of police encounters in all circumstances shouldn’t be public of course.  Thus, rules were established by the legislative and governed by the judiciary as to who should have access to the data and why. Similarly, this is the case of DNA testing.  Several laws are on the books in states to allow the collection of DNA by people arrested for felonies.  If they are found not guilty, the data is purged.  This collection, however, could clear an innocent person’s name currently incarcerated.  On the other hand, the analysis could show that the man just picked up for trying to steal a car is also a serial sexual predator. The importance is the balance between purging or securing the data at a logical time but retaining and utilizing it when there is a real criminal justice purpose.

Law Enforcement needs to explain and educate lawmakers and their constituents on the use of technology and security of data in better and more concise ways. Once there is further understanding of how the tech is used and how the data is handled there is no doubt that better legislation and public policy on these issues will be a result and that the public as a whole will feel more comfortable that their privacy is being protected while safety is being provided for. The answer to the use of technology in law enforcement is not to ban it out right or have it used with no regard for individual privacy. We need to embrace it and strike a reasonable balance for its appropriate use in order to produce a positive effect on the public’s safety.