- Predictive policing algorithms and artificial intelligence
- The future of biometrics in policing
- Smart devices, vehicles, and stations
- Are RoboCop and Iron Man coming true?
- Drones are being used by police forces all over the world
- Virtual reality – a game-changer for police training or a new frontier for crime?
Technological developments are playing an increasingly important role in law enforcement, as they help improve efficiency and safety for law enforcement agents as well as for civilians. Some advanced technologies, like artificial intelligence (AI), biometrics, robotics, and virtual reality (VR) are already in use, while others will soon be implemented. And while robotic law enforcement rushing to a crime scene – before a crime has been committed – may seem like something out of a sci-fi movie, the fact is that this is already happening in various parts of the world.
Predictive policing algorithms and artificial intelligence
Artificial intelligence (AI) is making waves in policing, and various algorithms and associated technologies have already been developed that can predict the likelihood of future crimes. One algorithm comes from the University of Chicago, where scientists have developed a model that uses public data on violent crime and property-related crime to learn time-and-location-based patterns, and “predict future crimes one week in advance with about 90 per cent accuracy”. The same research team also developed a model that analyses the number of arrests in different neighbourhoods, and could potentially be used to determine where best to allocate resources. A similar concept has been explored by Peel9, a startup backed by the University of Cincinnati. The company has developed software that gathers and analyses data to identify particular geographic locations for police forces to focus their attention and resources on.
“That’s the goal of Peel9, to use our built-in analytics to identify where problem crime areas are, so they can help prevent it… If crimes do happen, (it will) help them solve it better through sharing of data.”Todd Levy, CEO, Peel9
In the UK, law enforcement uses a tool called DASH – or “Domestic Abuse, Stalking and Honour-Based Violence” – to predict the likelihood of these types of crimes happening. The data is based on the answers to questions asked of victims of previous crimes. Some police forces in the US use a similar method and then analyse the data with an AI tool called VioGén, which uses machine learning (ML) to predict the risk of known individuals committing violent crimes, such as domestic abuse. Factors like prior arrests and convictions are also considered by the algorithm.
While proponents of such predictive algorithms cite increased efficiency of resources and greater ability for police to prevent crimes and keep people safe, critics express concerns about deepening inequalities and human rights violations. Algorithms are only as accurate as the data they analyse, and can replicate the biases that already inform human behaviour. There are concerns that this could create ‘vicious cycles’ of overpolicing based on racial or class-based biases. When applied to specific individuals, the potential implications of predictive policing are also troubling. The concept of people being arrested for a crime they’re only expected to commit – as popularised in dystopian fiction like the 2002 film Minority Report – is fraught with ethical issues.
In China, vast amounts of data on the public are gathered by authorities. Surveillance methods such as public cameras with facial recognition software are used routinely, and the data collected by them is now being processed by increasingly-powerful AIs. This data is used to target those seen as ‘troublemakers’, ranging from people with criminal records to political activists and vulnerable groups. Such concerns have been addressed by other governing bodies, such as the EU Parliament, which has published a Draft Report on the Artificial Intelligence Act. The report includes a complete ban on using individual risk assessments for predictive policing, as well as various regulations on how AI should be used.
The future of biometrics in policing
Facial recognition software is not the only biometric technology with the potential to transform law enforcement. The UK’s Police Digital Service (PDS) is carrying out a programme called Transforming Forensics, which uses digital fingerprint technology to identify suspects much more quickly than previous forensics methods could. For example, fingerprints found on stolen goods can now be digitally scanned and identified in “hours rather than days”, enabling law enforcement to determine the identity of suspects and apprehend them before they can offend again. Forensics teams can scan and send fingerprint data back to the laboratory for analysis in real-time, so that they can “spend longer in the field without the need to return to base”. The PDS Xchange platform includes “a digital suite of tools” that can improve the speed and accuracy of gathering and analysing fingerprints, as well as automate compliance processes (such as data deletion when appropriate) with data regulations and standards. The UK’s Metropolitan Police force is using fingerprint recognition technology called Rapid ID, which enables officers to digitally capture fingerprints of apprehended suspects on the spot and verify their identities. Biometric technologies such as these are likely to significantly streamline the logistical aspects of biometric identification for law enforcement agencies in the future.
Smart devices, vehicles, and stations
Smart devices are becoming more and more advanced, and police forces increasingly make use of these devices in their law enforcement efforts. In the US, more than 120 city police departments have implemented systems that can detect gunshots and alert police to their precise location within one minute. While some systems rely mostly on sound and can mistakenly identify other loud bangs as gunshots, more advanced systems use the sounds as well as the flashes of gunshots to identify them. Other smart devices can restrain individuals – a device called the BolaWrap, which discharges “lasso-like tethers to temporarily wrap up a person’s arms or legs”, has been used by California’s Mountain View police department as a safer alternative to the taser. Incident reporting software is also being transformed. Apps like Axon’s Citizen and LexisNexis’ Coplogic are already being used by community members to upload photos, videos, or other crime-related information to police department systems from their own personal devices.
With self-driving cars becoming more and more advanced and closer to widespread use, it’s no surprise that police forces are interested in implementing them. Electronics firm Motorola has submitted a patent for self-driving police vehicles that can not only catch suspects but detain them as well. The concept also includes a live video feed that can be shared with a judge and the suspect’s legal representatives. The patent itself explains the intended benefits of the technology – “by performing law enforcement processes and proceedings within a vehicular environment, an officer is able to remain in the field, thereby advantageously preserving law enforcement resources”.
Other advancements in vehicle technology have also been adopted by police forces. Automotive giant Ford, for instance, has developed the Police Interceptor Utility – a version of its 2020 Explorer SUV designed specifically for law enforcement. To reduce fuel consumption the vehicle is a hybrid, but this increase in efficiency doesn’t come at the expense of speed. The hybrid powertrain is believed to be the first advanced enough to generate power to match traditional combustion engines. Volkswagen has also unveiled a fleet of police patrol cars with high-tech data terminals that provide various electronic functions useful to law enforcement. Over 2000 of these vehicles have been successfully used across Australia.
And it isn’t just police vehicles that are becoming ‘smart’. Dubai’s police force has recently opened the Al Khawaneej ‘Smart Police Station’ that provides automated services to the public without human intervention. The station also has a fleet of smart patrol vehicles equipped with cameras that automatically scan for details like number plates belonging to suspects, and AI algorithms that instantly process the data gathered.
“The new facility reflects Dubai Police’s keenness to provide a safe and secure environment that contributes to making Dubai the safest and happiest city in the world. It is proof of the force’s endeavour to enhance security in all areas around the emirate with police stations equipped with smart solutions and services to ensure community happiness and fast response to emergencies.”Lieutenant General Abdullah Khalifa Al Merri, Commander-in-Chief, Dubai Police
Are RoboCop and Iron Man coming true?
In addition to AI, robotics is also becoming increasingly important in – and relevant to – policing. The San Francisco police force, for instance, has been granted the power to deploy remote-controlled robots to emergencies – much to the dismay of civil liberties groups and campaigners. As a result of concerns over excessive force and the militarisation of the police, a law came into effect in 2022 that requires all law enforcement departments in the state of California to seek approval for the use of these types of military-grade technologies, and keep a clear inventory of such devices. The South Korean police force also plans to implement a variety of futuristic policing strategies, such as the use of ‘suits’ of robotic armour that increase the wearer’s strength and include built-in AI assistants to advise on potential threats. Autonomous robot ‘police dogs’ are also being developed for use as part of the project. And in China, a government-funded study found that AI-powered ‘robocops’ could patrol 80 km and check more than 200 suspects a day, which is more than ten times what a human police officer is capable of. These conceptual robots could also automatically detect ‘unlawful gatherings’, track suspects to new locations, and raise fire alarms.
Traffic stops are a particularly dangerous aspect of policing, for officers and motorists alike. Reuben Brewer, senior robotics research engineer at SRI International’s Advanced Technologies and Sciences Department, describes how “every year 16,915,140 drivers are pulled over in traffic, 195,078 motorists have physical force used on them, 4,488 officers are assaulted, 89 of those motorists die, and 11 of those officers die”. The solution developed by Brewer and his team is a police robot that can carry out traffic stops safely without placing an officer in harm’s way. “With such dangerous interactions between people, maybe it’s time to send a robot in between them, one that can’t hurt or be hurt… It’s only part of the solution, but I hope one day it could save lives”.
Drones are being used by police forces all over the world
While advanced humanoid (or canine) robots are still at the conceptual stage, drones have been used by police forces for a while. In Australia, Tasmania Police have been implementing drones since 2019 to detect and discourage antisocial behaviour on public roads. Adrian Bodnar, the force’s assistant commissioner, describes how “the use of drones has assisted in tracking evading motorists, searches for missing persons and stolen property and providing investigators with an aerial view of crash scenes”. Similar drones are being used in the US; the Beverly Hills Police Department has introduced a tactical drone that can read a number plate from 800 metres away and ‘see’ in the dark. And in 2022, police officers in Kentucky used a drone with a thermal camera to find a missing person.
Autonomous drone technology is also rapidly developing. The Israeli police, for instance, have used the FlightOps autonomous system to operate a drone that acts as a first responder. For example, when the Modi’in-Maccabim-Reut station received a report of a traffic incident, the drone was sent to the scene ahead of rescue teams in order to grant situational awareness to the control room. The same drone was also deployed to locate a suspected terrorist by sending infa-red video to officers on patrol.
Virtual reality – a game-changer for police training or a new frontier for crime?
Virtual reality (VR) is providing improved training experiences for organisations in many sectors, and law enforcement is no exception. In Florida, US, the Tequesta Police Department is using a VR training system that includes “approximately 800 preset virtual scenarios” including “shooting exercises, traffic controls, hostage situations, domestic violence incidents”, and more. Systems like Axon’s VR Simulator Training and Apex Officer’s solution focus more on simulating interactions in the community and teaching techniques such as de-escalation.
“We identified VR simulations as something that would benefit the Criminal Justice programme about five years ago, but the technology wasn’t where we wanted it to be. Now, the technology has advanced considerably and we’re very excited to be able to offer the Apex Office programme to our students. This technology will allow students to practise and hone their skills in a safe, virtual environment before they ever step into a real-life scenario”.Chris Gerstbrein, Criminal Justice programme coordinator and professor, Iowa Lakes Community College
However, besides providing opportunities, VR technology also leads to challenges for law enforcement. As the metaverse grows in popularity, it is increasingly being used to facilitate cybercrime as well. Money laundering, phishing scams and other types of data theft, and even sexual crimes like grooming and the trading of ‘revenge porn’ and abuse images in the metaverse have all drawn the attention of authorities. To combat these worrying developments, Interpol has designed a metaverse space where police officers can spend time to learn how the metaverse works and attend training sessions. Police departments in France and Norway have even conducted online ‘patrols’ of virtual spaces. With VR and the metaverse likely to increase in relevance, police activity in the metaverse is likely to increase in the years ahead.
As the world that we live in changes, so does policing. Police forces are often among the first organisations to implement new technologies, and sciences like forensics were largely born from policing. However, any new technological or scientific breakthrough can have varying effects depending on its implementation. Using powerful and potentially dangerous technologies requires great responsibility, and this can be said to be especially true for those with authority over others.