Modernizing Policing

I started watching APB, a new police drama that lets Fox demonstrate detective work on an unlimited budget. In short, the show revolves around a billionaire, Gideon Reeves (think Fox’s attempt at Tony Stark played by Justin Kirk), who, after his friend is killed in a robbery, takes over the 13th district of the Chicago Police Department and pumps millions into tech like new full body armor (instead of a vest), better cruisers, nonlethal stun guns, the use algorithms and efficiency (more on those later), and drones. Most importantly, Reeves brings the APB app to the forefront.


In the show, the fictional APB app connects the population to the police department. As anyone who studies criminal justice or criminology will tell you, the police cannot protect citizens without the community’s assistance. The app enables citizens to relay live video or pictures directly to police, report incidents instead of calling a potentially overburdened 911 system.  It also allows the police department to send the same information back to citizens. The app and GPS monitoring are connected to all the new cruisers enabling a quick response. Obviously, this is a TV show, and aspects are exaggerated and scripted. Len Wiseman, director of APB, said in an interview with “Every bit of technology and idea that we’re using in the episodes is either technology that exists today or is being developed today.” I am no technology or weapons expert, but this show has made me think about the ways we can apply some of these concepts, such as an app and nonlethal weapons to the real world.


The FBI, already has their own apps to raise public awareness, but they are inadequate at best. For example, the FBI Wanted App is not very user-friendly and only provides information on their most wanted criminals. The app does not have the option to display results by your current location, although it can sort information by field office if that’s what you want. No one will go through the roughly 700 listings in an attempt to memorize the images. This is information overload on the part of law enforcement. Sometimes less is more. An alert based on the user’s current location or previously provided location would be more effective. There is a button to call the FBI, submit a tip, and add to favorites (why?), but no option to submit a picture of the person you suspect to be the pictured in the Most Wanted app which, frankly, would be much less likely to waste both parties’ time.


The fictional APB app does everything that the FBI Most Wanted app doesn't but should. It enables the instant communication between law enforcement and citizens, provides location based-data with the reported crime, and uses data analysis to make the process as efficient as possible. It is important to note that the show has yet to deal with the app and its engineers faced with prioritizing calls and other tough decisions facing law enforcement every day.  I am in no way saying that the fictional app is perfect. I am saying, however, that an app that has similar capabilities as the APB app would bring technology to the forefront of local policing. Yes, there would be issues with the app tracking your location and other potential privacy issues but those can all be worked out through opting in or out of specific features and limiting the types of data stored as well as through other methods.


Law enforcement should adopt a nonlethal alternative as the primary weapon for officers. Police do not need to shoot to kill in the majority of cases. Yes, there are many cases of Tasers not stopping suspects, but there are other types of weapons available such as rubber bullets, bean bags, and salt guns. I’m not advocating for the disarmament of the police, but I think there are alternative tools to handguns that the police should experiment with.  Additionally, at least while transitioning to the new weapon, officers should carry their traditional firearm as a secondary weapon. De-escalation is the most popular method of choice when dealing with a suspect, but police still need weapons to protect both themselves and the people in their district.


The show also utilizes algorithms in a way that most police departments currently cannot. Most people working on the police department do not have the necessary training, education, or resources to do so. For example, in episode two detective Theresa Murphy (played by Natalie Martinez) tells the squad to set up a perimeter to surround the area containing the pharmacies they believe their suspect will next hit. In response, technician Ada Hamilton (played by Catlin Stasey) suggests they use an optimization algorithm instead, enabling the officers assigned to this case to continue patrolling and still be an equal distance to the pharmacies during the stakeout. In reality, when setting a perimeter, officers are assigned to a certain location and tend to be immobile and not necessarily close to the target or targets.


I did study criminology and criminal justice and have interned with numerus law enforcement agencies, but I wouldn’t consider myself an expert.  Still, based on the exposure I have gotten, I still think there are ways that we should invest more in our police departments to make them more modern and effective. Some of these suggestions will only work for larger police departments or on a regional level as resources, especially for smaller police departments (most of the country) are limited. But it’s the large police departments dealing with higher crime rates that could profit most from well-executed technological improvements. Utilizing a technician, such as Ada Hamilton, to coordinate the app and the patrol officers (basically a localized version of the traditional police dispatch), to go through case data in real time, and to optimize the resources being used in real time can and will lower the cost of policing.