Increasing Automation in Policing

police officers examine wall-sized map display - Credit: Frame Stock Footages

Increasing Automation in Policing
Communications of the ACM, January 2020, Vol. 63 No. 1, Pages 20-22
Law and Technology
By Elizabeth E. Joh

“Policing has always relied upon large amounts of information. But the scale and speed of its processing is different.”


We know how artificial intelligence works in our lives: it helps in picking movies, choosing dates, and correcting misspellings. But what does it mean in policing? Is AI replacing traditional police tasks? Does the police use of AI present novel challenges? Should increasing police reliance on AI concern us? The answer to these questions is “Yes.” In the past decade the increasing reliance by police on artificial intelligence tools raises questions about how to strike the right balance between public safety and civil liberties.


Think of policing and you are likely to imagine a uniformed patrol officer scanning the environment for suspicious activity. The most powerful tools an officer once possessed were a gun, experience, and training. But new technologies are changing the way the police approach the streets. Automated license plate readers that identify hundreds of plates a minute are commonplace. The Chicago Police Department uses an algorithm that identifies which city residents may be at especially high risk as perpetrators or victims of gun violence. The police in Fresno, CA, piloted an alert system that tells an officer whether the driver the police officer just pulled over to the side of the road poses a threat. To this list we can also add facial recognition, suspect profiling, and financial anomaly detection.



But when the police turn to artificial intelligence, we have far different concerns. After all, the police can stop and question even the unwilling, and perform searches and seizures that can begin the criminal process. And in a democratic society, we expect accountability and oversight over these government actors who have so much power over our lives. In the 20th century, that oversight could have been as simple as a bystander reporting potentially abusive behavior. Even the resource limitations of the police themselves once served as a potent check; it is impossible for most police departments to conduct around-the-clock surveillance of the population.


Artificial intelligence removes these checks. Technological tools powerful enough to gather every bit of available data around us and to make inferences about us as a result do what no human police department could ever do. Every purchase, trip, online post, and more can be endlessly identified, sorted, and combined cheaply. In this sense, artificial intelligence vastly expands the potential pool of people and activities the police can watch.

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About the Author:

Elizabeth E. Joh is a Professor of Law at the University of California, Davis School of Law, USA.