Why you should care

We’ve been hearing much about police militarization, but gadgets — ranging from drones to something called a Puke Ray — are changing police forces, too.

This story was originally published on August 23rd, 2014. It has been updated as of November 25th in the wake of the grand jury decision.

From the shooting to the demonstrations, the controversial grand-jury decision to the riots, Ferguson, Missouri wasn’t a nice place for anyone in November — except for perhaps Taser, Inc. whose stock almost doubled since Michael Brown was shot by Officer Darren Wilson on August 9. The reason: Taser’s side business in officer-worn cameras, which observers believe is a big selling point these days.

By now, we’ve heard much about the militarization of police forces, but not so much about other advances in cop-tech that could be as consequential. With national attention lingering on the issue of police brutality — some 400 police killings take place per year, according to USA Today — questions around new policing technologies are pressing. Some of the new gadgets, like Taser’s officer cam, are meant to foster accountability. But others aim to keep pace with increasingly connected and tech-savvy criminals. The civil libertarians are fretting.

It’s easier for police to adopt new devices without asking permission, and then force legislators to take them away and risk looking ‘soft on crime.’

— Dave Maass, of the Electronic Freedom Foundation

About that Taser cam? After hearing the verdict, Michael Brown’s family issued a statement calling for every officer to wear an on-body camera, echoing conclusions by the nation’s chiefs of police in a forum last month. While Obama has yet to mention the cameras personally, the White House has proclaimed its support for the technology in response to a petition posted online. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is on board, too, as long as they are adopted transparently.

They first gained prominence after a year-long experiment with the Rialto, California, police department in 2012. In that time, the department saw use of force reduced 2.5 times compared to the previous year. Taser claims the cam has since spread to more than 1200 departments — and that “in 2 to 5 years … [body-worn cameras] will be as common as carrying a radio,” Chief John Hutto of the Fort Collins PD told USA Today.

But growth prospects for cop-cams are modest compared to non-lethal or “soft-kill” weapons — a global market projected to reach $1.63 billion in 2014. While Taser’s stun gun is currently the most effective person-to-person immobilizer, various “crowd-control” weapons have also found a home in police departments nationwide, thanks to the Pentagon’s combat surplus.

The results of military R&D can be bizarre. There’s the LRAD acoustic cannon (used in Ferguson), which blasts intense sound waves that cause immediate headaches. A “Ray Gun” shoots excruciatingly hot beams of electromagnetic radiation. And the infamous “Puke Ray” emits flashing, multi-color light pulses that induce nausea.

Soldier holding up gun with laser beam

Source Corbis

They certainly fire the imagination. When and where they should be fired is another matter. Because despite their denomination as non-lethal, “every tool in law enforcement is going to be used in an arrest-related death,” says Taser spokesperson Steve Tuttle. “If not, [officers] aren’t doing their job.”

Although advanced weaponry has gotten most of the press lately, it’s surveillance and data mining that are having the greatest — and maybe scariest — effect on police operations.

Stingray is a device that mimics a cell tower to indiscriminately trick nearby phones into transmitting metadata (location, call duration, etc.) and even call content. It’s one of the police’s latest ventures into NSA territory, to “Collect It All, Know It All.” Police departments that use Stingrays must sign non-disclosure agreements with the Harris Corporation, Stingray’s manufacturer; so far 42 law enforcement agencies in 17 states use them, according to the ACLU. It complains that the police have tried to deliberately conceal the practice from judges during criminal investigations.

The dominant trend is to ‘armorize and weaponize’ law enforcement, but products that de-escalate by providing greater situational awareness are gaining traction.

The problem with Stingray — and similar devices that mass-compile data, such as license plate recognition, biometrics, predictive policing algorithms and drones — is its propensity to violate privacy rights, says Dave Maass, of the Electronic Freedom Foundation. Essential questions, like who can use them and on whom and when, are not discussed in courts or with the public, Maass says. Which just makes it easier for law enforcement to adopt early and often: “It’s easier for police to adopt new devices without asking permission, and then force legislators to take them away and risk looking ‘soft on crime,’” he told OZY.

cops in riot gear with fire in foreground

Source Getty

While police are keen on gear intended for heavily-armed adversaries, there is a growing demand for “soft” tech, too. Social media is a natural fit; police are using it not just for crime fighting, but also for branding and community outreach. Soft hardware like throwable cameras are in, too. They’re meant to give police a wider surveillance range. The dominant trend is to “armorize and weaponize” law enforcement, but products that de-escalate by providing greater situational awareness are gaining traction, says Francisco Aguilar, CEO of Bounce Imaging, which makes a throwable camera.

Body cams are soft tech, too, but even they have critics. Cams could make police skittish about engaging in complex situations for fear of reprisal, says Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former NYPD officer. Video gives the public the benefit of hindsight, and the public sometimes misjudges police officers’ use of force, O’Donnell told OZY.

And though cops can be quick to adopt new gadgets, they tend to be sluggish to change tactics. Drone technology might sound fancy, but it just enables strategies (like nabbing crooks before they commit a crime, whatever the cost to civil liberties). Put another way: Drones don’t violate civil liberties; government officials violate civil liberties. So while technology is transforming almost every facet of police work, from intelligence gathering to routine paperwork, policing remains the same at its core: “law enforcement isn’t different than it was 30 years ago,” claims O’Donnell.

Which may be why the scenes from Ferguson unnerved so many. Antiquated, war-hardened mindsets and norms are meeting new 21st-century technologies.

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