Forecast | Militarize or disarm? Reforming the police for the 21st century: Future of policing P1

Whether it's dealing with increasingly sophisticated criminal organizations, protecting against ghastly terror attacks, or simply breaking up a fight between a married couple, being a cop is tough, stressful and dangerous work. Luckily, future technologies could make the job safer both for the officer and for the people they arrest.

In fact, the policing profession as a whole is transitioning towards an emphasis on crime prevention more so than catching and punishing criminals. Unfortunately, this transition will be far more gradual than most would prefer due to future world events and emerging trends. Nowhere is this conflict more evident than in the public debate over whether police officers should disarm or militarize.

Shining a light on police brutality

Be it Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner in the US, the Iguala 43 from Mexico, or even Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, the persecution and violence of minorities and the poor by the police has never before reached the heights of public awareness we're seeing today. But while this exposure may give the impression that police are becoming more severe in their treatment of citizens, the reality is that the ubiquity of modern technology (particularly smartphones) is only shining a light on a common problem that previously hid in the shadows. 

We're entering an entirely new world of 'coveillance.' As police forces around the world ramp up their surveillance tech to watch every meter of public space, citizens are using their smartphones to surveil the police and how they conduct themselves on the streets. For example, an organization calling themselves the Cop Watch currently patrols city streets throughout the US to videotape officers as they interact with citizens and make arrests. 

The rise of body cameras

Out of this public backlash, local, state and federal governments are investing more resources to reform and augment their police forces out of a need to restore public trust, maintain the peace and limit broad social unrest. On the augmentation side, police officers throughout the developed world are being outfitted with body-worn-cameras.

These are miniature cameras worn on an officer's chest, built into their hats or even built into their sunglasses (like Google Glass). They are designed to record a police officer's interactions with the public at all times. While still new to the market, research studies have found that wearing these body cameras induces a heightened level 'self-awareness' that limits and potentially prevents unacceptable use of force. 

In fact, during a twelve-month experiment in Rialto, California, where officers wore body cameras, use of force by officers fell by 59 percent and reports against officers dropped by 87 percent when compared against figures from the previous year.

Longer term, the benefits of this technology will bear out, eventually leading to their global adoption by police departments.

From the average citizen's perspective, the benefits will reveal themselves gradually in their interactions with the police. For example, the body cameras will over time influence police subcultures, reshaping norms against the knee-jerk use of force or violence. Moreover, as misconduct can no longer go undetected, the culture of silence, the ‘don't snitch' instinct between officers will begin to fade. The public will eventually regain trust in policing, trust they lost during the rise of the smartphone era. 

Meanwhile, police will also come to appreciate this technology for how it protects them against those they serve. For example:

  • Awareness by citizens that the police are wearing body cameras also works to limit the amount of harassment and violence they direct at them.
  • Footage can be used in courts as an effective prosecution tool, similar to existing police car dashcams.
  • Body camera footage can protect the officer against conflicting or edited video footage shot by a biased citizen.
  • The Rialto study found that every dollar spent on body camera technology saved about four dollars on public complaints litigations.

However, for all of its benefits, this technology also has its fair share of downsides. For one, many billions of extra taxpayer dollars will flow into storing the vast amount of body camera footage/data collected daily. Then comes the cost of maintaining these storage systems. Then comes the cost of licensing these camera devices and the software they run on. Ultimately, the public will pay a heavy premium for the improved policing these cameras will produce.

Meanwhile, there are a number of legal issues surrounding body cameras that lawmakers will have to iron out. For example:

  • If body camera footage evidence becomes the norm in courtrooms, what will happen in those cases where the officer forgets to turn the camera on or it malfunctions? Will the charges against the defendant be dropped by default? Chances are the early days of body cameras will often see them turned on at convenient times rather than throughout the arrest incident, thereby protecting police and potentially incriminating citizens. However, public pressure and tech innovations will eventually see a trend towards cameras that are always on, streaming video footage from the officer the second the put on their uniform.
  • What about the civil liberty concern about the increase in camera footage being taken not just of criminals, but of law-abiding citizens.
  • For the average officer, could his increased amount of video footage reduce their average career span or career progression, as the constant monitoring of them at work will inevitably lead to their superiors documenting constant on-the-job infractions (imagine your boss constantly catching you every time you checked your Facebook while at the office)?
  • Finally, will eyewitnesses be less likely to come forward if they know that their conversations will be recorded?

All of these downsides will eventually be resolved through advancements in technology and refined policies around body camera use, but depending on technology alone won't be the only way we reform our police services.

De-escalation tactics reemphasized

As body camera and public pressure mounts on police officers, police departments and academies will begin to double down on de-escalation tactics in basic training. The goal is to train officers to gain an enhanced understanding of psychology, alongside advanced negotiation techniques to limit the chances of violent encounters on the streets. Paradoxically, part of this training will also include military training so that officers will feel less panicked and gun happy during arrest incidents that may become violent.

But alongside these training investments, police departments will also make an increased investment in community relations. By building relationships amongst community influencers, creating a deep network of informants, and even participating in or funding community events, officers will prevent more crimes than and they will gradually be seen as welcome members of high-risk communities rather than external threats.

Filling the gap with private security forces

One of the tools local and state governments will use to enhance public safety is the expanded use of private security. Bail bondsman and bounty hunters are regularly used in a number of countries to aid the police in tracking down and arresting fugitives. And in the US and the UK, citizens can be trained to become special conservators of the peace (SCOPs); these individuals rank slightly higher than security guards in that they are increasingly used to patrol corporate campuses, neighborhoods, and museums as needed. These SCOPs will play an increasingly important role given the shrinking budgets some police departments will face over the coming years due to trends like rural flight (people leaving towns for cities) and automated vehicles (no more traffic ticket income).

On the lower end of the totem pole, the use of security guards will continue to grow in use, especially during times and in regions where economic distress pervades. The security services industry has already grown 3.1 percent over the last five years (since 2011), and growth is likely to continue at least into the 2030s. That said, one downside for human security guards is that the mid-2020s will see the heavy installation of advanced security alarm and remote monitoring systems, not to mention Doctor Who, Dalek-lookalike robot security guards.

Trends that risk a violent future

In our Future of Crime series, we discuss how mid-century society will become free of theft, hard drugs, and most organized crime. However, in the near future, our world may actually see an influx of violent crime due to a host of intersecting reasons. 

For one, as outlined in our Future of Work series, we’re entering the era of automation that will see robots and artificial intelligence (AI) consume about half of today’s (2016) jobs. While developed countries will adapt to the chronically high unemployment rates by instituting a basic income, smaller nations that cannot afford a social safety net of this kind will face a range of social strife, from protests, to unions strikes, to mass looting, military coups, the works.

This automation-fueled unemployment rate will only be worsened by the world’s exploding population. As outlined in our Future of Human Population series, the world’s population is set to grow to nine billion by 2040. Should automation end the need to outsource manufacturing jobs, not to mention diminish a range of traditional blue and white collar work, how will this ballooning population support itself? Regions such as Africa, the Middle East and most of Asia will feel this pressure most given those regions represent the bulk of the world’s future population growth.

Put together, a large body of unemployed young people (especially men), with nothing much to do and looking for meaning in their lives, will become prone to influence from revolutionary or religious movements. These movements can be relatively benign and positive, like Black Lives Matter, or they can be bloody and cruel, like ISIS. Given recent history, the latter appears more likely.  Unfortunately, should a string of terrorist events occur frequently over an extended period—as experienced most strikingly across Europe during 2015—then we will see the public demand their police and intelligence forces become harsher in how they go about their business.

Militarizing our cops

Police departments throughout the developed world are militarizing. This isn't necessarily a new trend; for the last two decades, police departments have received discounted or free surplus equipment from their national militaries. But this wasn't always the case. In the US, for example, the Posse Comitatus Act ensured that the American military was kept separate from the domestic police force, an act that was enforced between 1878 to 1981. Yet since the Reagan administration's tough-on-crime bills, the war on drugs, on terror, and now the war on illegal immigrants, successive administrations have worn this act away completely.

It’s a kind of mission creep, where police have slowly begun adopting military equipment, military vehicles, and military training, especially police SWAT teams. From the civil liberty perspective, this development is seen as a deeply concerning step towards a police state. Meanwhile, from the perspective of police departments, they are receiving free equipment during a period of tightening budgets; they are facing off against increasingly sophisticated criminal organizations; and they are expected to protect the public against unpredictable foreign and homegrown terrorists with the intent to use high-powered weapons and explosives.

This trend is an extension of the military-industrial complex or even the establishment of the police-industrial complex. It's a system that's likely it expand gradually, but faster in high crime cities (i.e. Chicago) and in regions targeted heavily by terrorists (i.e. Europe). Sadly, in an era where small groups and individuals can gain access to, and are motivated to use, high-powered weapons and explosives to exact mass civilian casualties, it's unlikely that the public will act against this trend with the pressure needed to reverse it.

This is why, on one hand, we'll see our police forces implement new technologies and tactics to re-emphasize their role as protectors of the peace, while on the other hand, elements within their departments will continue to militarize in an effort to protect against tomorrow's extremist threats.


Of course, the story about the future of policing doesn’t end here. In fact, the police-industrial complex extends far beyond the use of military equipment. In the next chapter of this series, we’ll explore the growing surveillance state that police and security agencies are developing protect and watch us all.

Future of policing series

Automated policing within the surveillance state: Future of policing P2
AI police crush the cyber underworld: Future of policing P3
Predicting crimes before they happen: Future of policing P4

Likelihood of happening rating 
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importance rating 
Moderate (3/5)
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March 1, 2021. Last updated March 1, 2019.
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