29 April 2015 Automated Law Enforcement

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Autumn Owens

UNIV 112

29 April 2015

Automated Law Enforcement:

From Red Light Cameras to Autonomous Robots

Modern law enforcement is heavily dependent on technology and is investing in emerging developments that can be used to ensure the welfare of officers and the general public. A common occurrence with this technology is that it is becoming increasingly automated to reduce the workload of officers. This allows officers to focus their time on other, more pressing, issues rather than simple things such as pulling over someone speeding. Many people do not believe that law enforcement should be using fully automated technology to help enforce the law. However, removing humans from law enforcement, in general, will only help the law enforcement system. Automated technologies within law enforcement serve the purpose of protecting citizens and aiding in law enforcement without causing an unnecessary burden on the system and citizens themselves.

Automation is the usage of machines and technology to reduce or completely eliminate the need for humans. In law enforcement, this technology is primarily any computer-based system that uses information from unmanned sensors to determine if a crime has taken place and to record the details of the crime. By using more technology that can operate without an officer, the quantity of potentially dangerous situations officers are placed in would decrease. Even simple and common interactions with law enforcement officers and the public can put an officer at risk.

The most commonly talked about technology that law enforcement uses is the red light camera. This is also the most controversial. Red light cameras capture images of vehicles that enter intersections after the traffic light turns red. The aim of red light cameras is to decrease the number of people that run red lights which could potentially save thousands of lives. There is an ongoing debate about the increase of rear-end collisions in intersections that are equipped with these cameras, and about the possibility of law enforcement using the cameras as a way to gather revenue instead of serving the community. In cities with red light cameras, the number of right-angle crashes decreased significantly, often a twenty five percent decrease in crashes (Griffith 2005). This decrease in crashes demonstrates why red light cameras are being used. Law enforcement does not use them for the purpose of increasing revenue, they use them to save lives.

Two other examples of automated technology within law enforcement are the automatic license-plate reader and the automated fingerprint identification system. License plate readers are used to identify vehicles by their license plates, often identifying a person or vehicle whose license plate is connected to a crime. These license-plate readers are often attached to law enforcement vehicles and connect to a computer within the vehicle. This allows officers to focus on driving while still being able to potentially catch criminals. The automated fingerprint identification system uses a database of fingerprints to connect an unknown fingerprint to a possible offender. This cuts down on the time needed to identify a fingerprint significantly. Cognitive processes that are given to machines create new possibilities in the investigatory process because they allow inquiries that would have been impossible before humans started using technology (Dror and Mnookin, 2009). By using a machine to search for a matching fingerprint, suspected offenders can be identified faster and with less errors. These examples are less controversial than red light cameras, most likely because they are not used to enforce a law that has a possible fine connected to it.

The future of automated law enforcement is uncertain. There are many possibilities as technology grows. Science fiction novels have often looked into the future of law enforcement and outlined an automated law enforcement officer. These novels often have robots completely replacing the need for a human law enforcement officer which can be a positive usage of technology. Whether or not robotic officers are plausible for the near future is questionable, however there are many other technologies that are being studied right now for use by law enforcement and by the general public. One of those is the automated car, also known as a driverless car, which could be used to track vehicles and would greatly lessen the need for officers on the road. These cars are programmed to follow traffic laws and avoid accidents. This is more of a preventative measure rather than one used by law enforcement to catch people in the middle of an illegal act; it would decrease traffic violations rather than increase the number of traffic violations found. Another rising technology is the reconnaissance robot that would be able to collect preliminary data in possible hostage situations and so on. As of now, these robots are not fully automated and are remotely controlled by officers, however they may become automated in the near future which would allow them to freely collect data that officers may not notice. The future of automated technology in law enforcement might be less controversial because people will eventually grow used to the technology.

One reason people dislike the rise of automated technology in law enforcement is because it removes discretion of the law. This means that officers can decide which laws they wish to enforce and how they want to enforce them. Humans are born with the ability to decide what they want to do, machines are unable to do that because they are programmed to act a certain way and do not have the leniency that humans are willing to give to others. It is argued that people are actually less able to make decisions based off of their free will because people are controlled by a variety of things such as genetics and social conditions (Rachels and Rachels 2014). So people might be more like machines than people would like to think. The only difference between how people are coded and how machines are coded is that humans are coded with the ability to have compassion. It is that compassion that allows law enforcement officers to decide how they may react. Machine’s inability to have discretions of the law is a main reason why society tends to be dissatisfied with the idea of a fully functional machine that is unmanned.

Automated law enforcement should be created and implemented in a way that makes society safer and to reduce the amount of risk human officers are faced with on a daily basis. By removing humanity from the field that has the purpose of keeping the members of society safe, a level of trust and respect may be removed with it. Automated technology might be able to help solve dilemmas that law enforcement faces on a daily basis, however the public’s perception of that technology should also be accounted for. The boundary of the usage of automated devices should take into account the need for the device, the desired effect, and possible outcomes from the usage. In the example of red light cameras, law enforcement may need to reconsider the outcomes from the usage since it increased the amount of accidents in certain areas. Red light cameras decreased the amount of officers needed to patrol intersections which helped allow officers to focus on bigger issues other than traffic violations, however the increased risk of injury for drivers might negate the positive effects. At that point where the public becomes okay with the thought of automated machines in law enforcement, there may not be a need for human law enforcement officers which would decrease the amount of possible human error in a situation, and would decrease the risk of injury in dangerous situations. There are always good and bad points to new technology and automated law enforcement devices are not an exception to this.

Automated technology in general should be able to serve society in a way that is more productive than if a human was given the same task. If a machine is unable to do the work a human could, but in a manner that makes the machine superior, that machine should be rendered useless. The most basic question to be asked of automated technology should be whether or not it is suitable for law enforcement (Conti et al., 2012). Not all automated technology would be considered suitable for the law enforcement system. It is important to properly decide if the automated technology would benefit the community before it is used.

Automated technology in law enforcement should be treated like automated technology in other fields. Tom Chatfield made the statement “Society has been savoring the fruits of automation since well before the industrial revolution and, whether you’re a devout utilitarian or a skeptical deontologist, the gains in everything from leisure and wealth to productivity and health have been vast.” (2014). Automated technology has been questioned for any industry it has been used. In many cases, people grew to accept the technology as it allowed them to focus on other things which may improve upon the good or service being offered. Overall, automated technology used by law enforcement does improve upon society as it helps apprehend people that break the law.

The future of automated technology in the law enforcement field is uncertain and with each new technology introduced, people will raise more concerns. Some technology will undoubtedly aid law enforcement. The technology that frustrates the public and increase possible danger because of the public’s reaction should be reconsidered. There is no clear boundary on how and when law enforcement should use automated devices, but there are several questions law enforcement should ask before implementing new technology. From red light cameras to a future possibly filled with robotic law enforcement officers, technology programmed to operate without the input of humans will most likely become a common sight even if it is controversial at times because it ultimately benefits society.


Chatfield, T. (2014, March 31). Automated Ethics. Aeon Magazine.

Conti, G., Hartzog, W., Larkin, D., Nelson, J., & Shay, L., (2012, April 2). Confronting

Automated Law Enforcement. Retrieved March 2, 2015.

Dror, I., & Mnookin, J. (2010). The use of technology in human expert domains: Challenges and

risks arising from the use of automated fingerprint identification systems in forensic

science. Law, Probability and Risk, 9, 47-67.

Griffith, M. (2005, April 1). Safety Evaluation of Red-Light Cameras–Executive Summary.

Retrieved March 1, 2015.

Rachels, J., & Rachels, S., (2014). The Case Against Free Will. In Evolving Ideas (2014-2015)

Edition ed., pp. 427-428). Plymouth: Hayden-McNeil.

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