Tag Archives: safe harbor laws

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