Jul 9, 2019
Pittsburgh Journalist's New Book Examines High Tech Policing
"It is a way to divert attention away from very real problems. And it is doing it with technology," Matt Stroud tells me. We're sitting at La Prima, a few blocks from his new Post/Industrial office, and we've met to talk about his new book, Thin Blue Lie: The Failure of High-Tech Policing (Metropolitan Books, 2019.) At the moment, he's telling me about an ABC Nightline segment he saw featuring the Chicago Police Department testing an actual thing that is actually called a 'Virtual Reality Empathy Machine.'
"There are very complicated things that need to happen so that they interact in a better way with the communities they serve. Sticking a virtual reality headset on 10 officers heads is not going to fix that problem," he says.
Though virtual reality empathy sounds like something ripped from a dystopian novel or an Onion headline, it is a perfect example of using technology as a salve for deeply and pointedly human questions. These kinds of issues are at the heart of his book.
"Today, the fundamentals of policing have been co-opted by industry -- by a corporatized approach to law enforcement that increasingly relies on weapons, software,and covert surveillance," he writes in Thin Blue Lie. "According to this school of reform, technological solutions are always preferable to others."
To understand high-tech policing, he meticulously takes the reader from August Vollmer, who shaped professional policing at the start of the 20th century, up through the Watts riots in LA, the Bernard Goetz subway shooting in NYC, all the way to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.
Along the way, he chronicles all the steps that led to the data-driven policing tool most often referred to as Compstat, or computer aided statistical analyses of crime employed by pretty much every large city police department in the nation. Or Moneyball for cops.
He also scrutinizes the manufacture, marketing and use of the Taser. For some civilians, our first knowledge of Tasers was the youtube video of the guy yelling, "Don't tase me bro!" (a 2007 incident at the University of Florida.) Tasers are marketed as a way to avoid a lethal confrontation but can cause cardiac arrhythmia, even in healthy people. According to a Reuters story in February, at least 49 people died after being shocked by police with Tasers in 2018. And that similar numbers died in 2017, and 2016.
Stroud gets deep into explaining problems with voltage (dangerously high) and shoddy construction (defective items arrive in police departments more often than you want to imagine.) In addition to all that, a number of police claim to have been injured in when shocked by the device in training sessions. It should all be enough to make us question Taser use as a safe police tool.
He recognizes that technology has a role to play, but as with every other aspect of American life, there is a rush to fix things with tech rather than digging for harder to come by solutions. And, of course, if technology is applied improperly it can make a bad situation even worse.
"Pennsylvania has passed rules that basically make it impossible to get body camera footage. North Carolina. Even Missouri, where Ferguson is," Stroud tells me.
The only way that the body cameras are an effective use of technology is if the footage is available to the citizenry. That transparency would lead to more accountability, which would in turn, lead to better, more humane policing. A body camera without that transparency is simply hand-waving away a real problem.
"So they've become -- where I think that body cameras could have been a solution, in those states and increasingly in other states -- they have become just an evidentiary tool that pushes back against the point," he says.
What the book wants us to think about is what are the actual problems we are facing? What are the problems that police departments can and should be fixing? And then to ask, are those problems being addressed? And who benefits from expensive, high-tech solutions? The people? The police bureaucracy? A private company?
"If there is one main idea that I try to get across in the book, it's that viewers, journalists, police, government leaders, need to look more skeptically at those kinds of decisions. Spending that is involved with technology, technology rollouts without spending -- why are we doing this and what is the actual problem we want to solve?" Stroud says. "If you are making decisions because you've found technology, as opposed to making decisions because you have a problem, that is a problem."
This story originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Current on July 9, 2019