In the early hours of a Friday morning in July, police in Dallas became the first ever to use a robot to kill someone. The gunman had shot a dozen officers, five of them fatally, and was killed with a bomb the robot carried over to where he was holed up.
This is the contentious forefront of how new technology is being used to fight crime. We may not be about to build RoboCop, but cities around the world are protecting their residents in ways that have never been possible before.
There are new fixes everywhere: Israel has introduced the first video distress calls, which also give police a pinpoint GPS location of where the person's calling from. London has introduced electronic "sobriety tags" that monitor the sweat of offenders whose crimes were committed under the influence, and beep the cops if they get drunk. Police in Milwaukee have started firing GPS bullets into fleeing cars so that they can track them without the dangers of a high-speed chase.
At the same time, in most countries, especially in the U.S., it often seems that it's the police themselves who need fixing. Technology, including mobile phones and body cameras, is helping to reveal police brutality and hold officers more accountable for civil rights abuses. Of course, what is most appalling is the implication that these abuses are nothing new; technology has merely brought to light how some proportion of the police has always behaved.
But there is evidence that what we are seeing is the first step in addressing this long-standing injustice. A new Cambridge University study of seven police forces in the U.S. and the U.K. has found that introducing body cams, though controversial, cut complaints against officers by 93%. The lead researcher, Barak Ariel, told the BBC that "I cannot think of any single intervention in the history of policing that [so] dramatically changed the way officers behave."
The pace of change could pick up. By the middle of next year, there should be a straightforward way for Americans to view at least some of that footage. A project called CrimeReports is working with 1,100 U.S. police departments to upload their videos to the web and make them searchable. If someone finds video of the particular incident they're looking for, they can submit a request to view a de-pixelated version.
But even radical transparency needs to be accompanied by positive efforts to rebuild the lost trust between police and the people they serve. In Boston, police hand out coffee and in New Orleans they drink coffee with people from the area, but there are better examples further afield. In the Indian city of Bhopal, the police have started giving kids from slum areas lifts to school in their patrol cars, and uniformed officers help the very youngest learn the alphabet. In South Africa, where police were feared and hated under apartheid, the force has been made more ethnically representative: 76% of officers are black, compared with 79% of the population. And although grievous problems remain, including killings, this is surely a step forward.
As far as where technology can make a difference, transparency and better information does seem to be where great gains can be made. This includes the tools used by the police themselves. And, although any kind of monitoring needs to be handled with care, some new technology seems like a huge and straightforward win. More than 90 cities around the world are using a network of electronic ears mounted on their tallest buildings to listen for gunshots. If a shot rings out, the network, called ShotSpotter, triangulates its location and alerts the police before anyone has even called them. Installing the system has shown that, for seven of every eight shots, no one ever calls the police.
ShotSpotter still only covers a sliver of each city it's in, usually areas with lots of crime, but there's an emerging technology that might provide a far finer net. Los Angeles has partnered with Philips Lighting to fit streetlights with acoustic sensors. At the moment, they're not specifically calibrated for gunshots, but it would be possible to pick them up. The potential lies in the sheer number of streetlights that could be converted: L.A. has more than a quarter of a million.
Cities are also doing unprecedented things with the vast quantities of information they are absorbing from sensors such as those—i.e., it's not just one gunshot you can respond to, but the whole pattern of gunshots. (In the U.S.. for example, ShotSpotter registers the most firing on December 25—who knew Christmas was so dangerous?)
Sometimes those patterns are incredibly obvious once you pick them out. In the city of Diadema, Brazil, the data showed that 60% of homicides and almost half of all complaints about violence toward women were associated with certain streets at certain times of night, and with alcohol. Since the neighborhood had a lot of bars, the city gave them an 11 p.m. curfew on selling booze. The number of killings nearly halved, from 22 to 12 each month, and after the first three years, there were 319 people walking around who would probably otherwise be dead.
Lots of the most interesting new work on crime acts before potential criminals have even thought about it. That's simply because it's so much cheaper to prevent than to respond, both in human cost and in cold hard dollars. A study in the U.K. city of Peterborough—an important place, as we'll get to in a moment—found that every $15 spent putting cops on the beat would save $82 in prison costs.
Several U.S. cities, starting with Richmond, California, have taken this kind of math to its logical conclusion, by paying criminals not to murder. Ex-cons with gun crime convictions are paid up to $1,000 a month if they pledge to improve their behavior, which is overseen by mentors who are not part of law enforcement and do not report any crimes they find out about. Other places are taking it up because, five years into the Richmond experiment, 84 of 88 participants are still alive.
This trend of thinking of crime not as a matter of justice, but, essentially, of cost, has prompted crime prevention to reach an unparalleled point of abstraction and complexity. That otherwise unremarkable English city of Peterborough was the birthplace, six years ago, of an idea that has now spread across the world: the social impact bond.
The British government commissioned a local charity to mentor young offenders and prevent them from re-offending, but the money for the program was put up by private investors. The idea is that if the program works and fewer people re-offend, the government pays the investors a return out of the far greater sum it has saved on prison.
But it's important to emphasize that the result of all this math is help for young people who might otherwise get entangled in crime for the rest of their lives. Or the calculations can lead to something as tangible and beautiful as a tree: Several U.S. cities, including Baltimore and Philadelphia, have found that planting trees and turning wasteland into parks results in less violence and drug dealing.
They don't quite know why yet. One theory is that having nice surroundings encourages people to come out of their houses and inhabit the public space, claiming it for the law-abiding majority. Another theory is essentially that if you give people nice things, they'll behave better. But whatever the mechanism, it's wonderful to think that the future of law enforcement might not be more guns, but gardening.