Tag Archives: privacy

The future of policing: Public trust

Before I go into this week’s post, I want to draw your attention to a new project being undertaken by a college professor acquaintance who, like me, has worked extensively with law enforcement. In his Jan. 1 blog, he writes:

Seeking LE organization willing to work virtually with supervised university students.

The goal is to give students more exposure to real officers and police administrators and fewer TV cops.

Are you willing to partner with a handful of students with retired-LE professor oversight on a small project tailored to your department/team needs? All project ideas considered, prefer those reated to mobile technology, with no anticipated cost to your organization.

I got excited about this even before Carter referred his readers to Cops 2.0, so please head on over, read the rest of his post and let us know if you’re interested. Thanks!

Policing for a future generation

Carefully balanced, technology can lead the wayI find Carter’s work — bringing younger citizens into active law enforcement research — especially important because, as 2012 begins, I think we need to take stock of where policing currently sits. In recent months I’ve seen a couple of opinions that indicate community policing, as we knew it in the 1990s, is dead; meanwhile, technology provides police with ever-increasing amounts of data about private citizens. Law enforcement, along with the societies it polices, is clearly in transition as technology and privacy collide at unprecedented rates.

This is not just true of the kinds and amount of data an investigator can glean from social media, surveillance video, license plate readers, and so on. It will also increase as law enforcement becomes comfortable with technology such as:

How police use these technologies, the extent to which they use them, and what they do with the data will face intense public and legal scrutiny, as they should. Now’s the time to get comfortable with transparency; if you’re worried about the bad guys finding out how you use technology, then you need to get creative about understanding 1) what the public needs to know and 2) how to communicate it to reduce privacy fears without giving away too many details.

Transparency sits between accountability and exposure

This may be more important than you think. As Scott Dickson wrote the other day, some agencies remain steeped in politics, manipulating their crime statistics by asking officers not to take reports. This, as Scott writes, is a double public relations whammy: not only does it look bad to citizens, who are unlikely to support budget increases for such an unprofessional agency; it also hurts the agency’s ability to see (and thus respond to) emerging problem patterns.

That’s especially worrisome given the balancing act our culture finds itself in as we begin a new decade. This infographic from the Institute for the Future has an interesting item, a “critical balance” of exposure and accountability that notes:

In the face of growing demand for accountability, public exposure will emerge as as a multifaceted strategy for disrupting existing power structures, both hidden and obvious, both criminal and socially beneficial.

There is both danger and opportunity in that balance: danger to certain law enforcement power structures, like the kind that manipulate crime stats. But also opportunity, for innovative investigators to understand and exploit how criminal power structures are being disrupted.

Indeed, Tim Burrows made relevant predictions in his recent post for the IACP Social Media Beat:

  • The ‘love-in’ experienced, “just because” the public’s local police are using social media is over and the public will demand (and deserve) greater accountability.
  • There will be less tolerance for mistakes, faux pas, and ignorance.
  • Working partnerships with individuals of influence, community groups, professional partnerships, and other police agencies will be standard.

As arms of the government, it’s incumbent on police to provide fair leadership to their communities. The law enforcement commander who doesn’t believe he has to justify his agency’s technology use — who believes crime-fighting is justification unto itself — necessarily invites public scrutiny. So does the commander who takes advantage of grant money without a long-term strategy to go with it; both COPS and homeland security programs have seen this happen.

True transparency shows strength, not weakness

This month’s Officer.com column describes using content to serve an agency’s goals, whether related specifically to social media, or more broadly to relationship-building. Besides that column, nearly two years ago (!) I wrote about one example of this kind of activity. There’s a lot of promise for communication. But also a lot of agencies that are so focused on the status quo that they can’t get out of their own way.

Digital content shared through social media can show how police are relevant and important to civil society, as well as weaknesses that need to be shored up. This is the exact opposite of stat manipulation because it’s not trying to cover over weakness; it’s leadership in asking for help to solve the problem.

Yes, the public needs to know a strong police force can competently and adequately enforce laws; but that’s during personal or community crisis. If an agency can’t provide services, in or out of crisis, because it lacks the funds to buy the technology that would enable that provision, then the public deserves to know up front, and deserves to become part of the solution. That was the promise of community policing.

What balances are you striking in your police work?

Creative Commons License photo credit: Calm Vistas

Creating partners in public safety

109 Precinct Community Council Meeting, September 7, 2010A couple of articles caught my eye last week. First, there was Good Old Bill’s wistful story of a spontaneous decision to engage in some community policing:

People see that little of us these days, other than in a quick fleeting visit or by passing them whilst preoccupied whilst on foot – or more likely – by car. When they do see us we are generally busy thinking about what we have to do and that we have X amount of outstanding jobs that are “backing up” and need dealing with and that we have a pot of crimes that need investigating between all the calls for service….

All of this has resulted in people forming opinions of us. We are arrogant, unapproachable and uninterested [being some of the most popular ones]. In turn, we have formed opinions that the public don’t like us and that we are unappreciated and not understood. It’s a vicious circle.

We cannot control what opinions people form, but we can try to influence the reasons why they think them.

If only we had more opportunities like those I had this week. I think all of us would benefit from it. But I didn’t get a “tick” for doing it, and it’s not measurable by some kind of statistic.

Then, police leaders’ point of view on where policing is headed, from a summit in Seattle:

“The fact is, we’re in the process of constructing the next iteration of police work,” [Chief Garry McCarthy of the Newark Police Department] said. “Initially, police were very reactive,” responding to crimes after they’d been committed, he said.

“Then proactive policing came in, and we talked about preventing crime. The next step is preventing crime in concert and with the blessings of the community,” McCarthy said. “It’s where we’re going as a profession.”

[King County Sheriff Sue Rahr] said police agencies are good at teaching officers physical skills, but now they need to focus on officers’ interpersonal skills.

Instead of focusing on building trust through community forums and other macro-level efforts, Rahr said the focus is shifting to the micro level by building trust through individual contacts.

“We need to build community trust one interaction at a time,” she said.

What austerity means to community

Both in the United Kingdom and in the United States, what is called “austerity measures” in the UK and “budget cuts” in the US has impacted policing severely. Just this past week, the Sacramento Police department was the latest to announce deep cuts, layoffs too. Many specialized units are being eliminated, and officers will respond primarily to emergencies.

Yet both Good Old Bill and Sheriff Rahr are calling for more one-to-one interactions as a way to stave off the psychological impact of these measures. What’s up with that?

I’ve worried about what cuts would mean to high tech crime investigation and digital forensics. The more entrenched technology becomes, the more need to examine it for evidence of crime. Yet as police departments pull staff from these tasks and reassign them to the street (or lay them off altogether), the return to a more physical form of policing means less opportunity for officers to practice their digital — along with their interpersonal — skills.

The answer may just lie in those one-to-one interactions. Last year, a Denver Post article detailed how residents of Colorado Springs (Colo.) were taking a more active role in their own quality of life maintenance, the issues behind the “Broken Windows” theory of policing.

This reflects an article from San Diego, in which police noted that community policing was never meant to be permanent; it was meant to be transitory, enabling the community to be proactive and rely less on police. This transition may be underway already, even if we weren’t expecting it.

Legal and social complications

Still, questions remain on legal and social issues, especially with regard to high tech crime and evidence. Two other stories are troubling because of what they mean for privacy and how civilians relate to one another.

In Michigan, the ACLU has for a long time demanded to know how state troopers use cell phone forensic tools. Other law enforcement agencies are starting to put these tools in cruisers for officers to use, to save time and enable more evidence collection with less manpower.

However, and not just because of the ACLU, forensic professionals hesitate to cheer such decisions because good case law is predicated on proper forensic process. With great power comes great responsibility, after all; is it enough simply to train the officers on the use of the tool? A forensic unit is not a radar unit; it takes more than tuning forks to validate that the tool works properly.

In addition, The Independent noted that in the UK, victims of theft have engaged in some degree of vigilantism to find the high-tech equipment they’ve found stolen:

From Surrey to San Francisco, software is doing the job of the police as vigilantes use tracking programmes more commonly seen in CIA action thrillers to locate missing computers and phones. In April, the ex-England rugby captain Will Carling traced his stolen iPad to a block of flats in Woking. He knocked on all the doors – to no avail – then traced its movement through the town while detailing the chase on Twitter. The iPad was eventually handed in to local police.

Certainly this is convenient, but in some cases it may violate state laws. In California, for instance, no “safe harbor” law exists for crime victims to monitor stolen equipment in real time. That means residents who use these tools may be violating anti-wiretapping laws, and laws designed to protect private communications — yes, even on stolen equipment.

In other words, police can’t use that evidence in court, or at least can use only the data not collected in real time, and may be barred from using the information even with a search warrant.

More recently, vigilantism reared its head in Vancouver following the riots over the city’s Stanley Cup loss:

[B.C. Civil Liberties Association David] Eby said he understood the community’s anger, given the destruction and chaos, but said that bloggers run the risk of labelling bystanders as criminals.

“The concern that we have is when pictures are posted to private websites, the suggestion is made that people may have broken the law,” he said. “There were many people in the downtown area that were shocked, stunned, appalled that were not breaking any laws.”

It seems clear to me that in order to help citizens navigate these issues, police cannot simply return to the “bread and butter” of traditional policing. If they do, then that leaves only federal law enforcement — the Secret Service, the Internet Crimes Complaint Center, etc. — which is also unsustainable over the long term.

If we:

  • don’t want to return to traditional reactive policing because it will undo all the hard work we’ve put in over 20 years
  • don’t have time or resources to devote to proactive policing over the next 20 years
  • are truly taking the next step towards empowering citizens to keep themselves safe

Then we should consider treating them almost as rookie cops, finding field training officers and attorneys who can help them navigate legal and social issues as they become proper partners in public safety. It goes without saying that social media could help pave the way.

I know of detectives and officers who already do this, making the time with their agencies’ blessing. How might yours make room among their regular duties?

Image: lancmanoffice via Flickr