Predictions of the future of policing are usually a mix of glossy tech wizardry and ideology. Warnings of pervasive surveillance compete with calls for eased access to private data. Prescriptions for community policing fight for attention against marketing pitches for software intended to predict the danger posed by suspects. Most of this crystal ball-gazing assumes that law enforcement agencies will have unlimited resources to do what they want. But the post-pandemic world is likely to be poorer than what came before, and to feature changed habits and priorities. Law enforcement under such conditions may well have a reduced role by necessity—yet still be incredibly intrusive in some areas of life.
Writing for RAND Corporation, retired police chief Bob Harrison describes a hypothetical 2030, roughly a decade after multiple waves of COVID-19 gave rise to a world of reduced public interactions, devastated economies, and changed ways of life.
“The virus left in its wake entire industries destroyed or crippled,” writes Harrison. People stopped going to the movies as everyone began streaming almost everything into the home. Small colleges shuttered their buildings; community colleges transitioned to almost all online courses… Retail never quite made it back, either.”
It’s a grim forecast, but one that squares with the International Monetary Fund’s description of the global toll of lockdown measures intended to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus as the “worst economic downturn since the great depression.” U.S. unemployment is now above 20 percent and federal debt soars above already frightening heights.
The collapse may well cast a shadow over the next decade, resulting in reduced prosperity, less travel, and a greater share of work and trade moving online. Along with plummeting traffic fines because of the adoption of self-driving vehicles, Harrison suggests, that means reduced revenue for governments to spend on services including law enforcement.
His world of 2030 is one in which domestic disputes are rife among people spending more time at home. He also foresees a boom in online threats such as identity theft—an area in which most police departments have limited skill or jurisdiction. And “since the police had so little expertise in these types of crimes, people looked elsewhere to resolve their tech crimes and online issues,” Harrison forecasts. He doesn’t specify what “elsewhere” means, but private cybersecurity and identity-protection services might have a rosy future of expanded demand.
Harrison’s imagined 2030 features mass consolidation of police departments and shared resources along regional lines. And, like most futurists, Harrison sees greater use of technology, though he leans more to cost-saving measures than full RoboCop fantasies. That’s especially true when it comes to automating crime reporting and police dispatch to reduce expense. “By 2030, virtual call-takers screened public queries so effectively that people didn’t notice the difference from talking with a human,” he writes. “Dispatch had been virtualized in the early 20s, so now they were tracking to replace humans altogether to facilitate a police response to crime.”
Harrison’s vision is interesting, but it’s not comprehensive. Other intriguing hints at the future of policing can be found from sources that peered into their crystal balls before the novel coronavirus elicited its first cough.
“Nearly every person carries around with them a device that can log and transmit amounts of data that would have been unthinkable a little over a decade ago,” Michael Gelles, Alex Mirkow, and Joe Mariani noted last year for Deloitte Insights. “Simply looking through the call history of a phone at a crime scene can be a huge source of data that can break open even large investigations.”
Now, governments around the world are leaning on their populations to install contact-tracing apps on their cellphones. For the moment, the apps are voluntary in most places and intended only to fight the pandemic. But it’s easy to envision governments finding new uses for technology that tracks people’s movements and is paid for by the end user and not from public coffers.
Already, Hawaii requires visitors to the state to carry working cellphones, on pain of arrest, “to help ensure people are abiding by the traveler quarantine order.” Travelers must also check in daily using a Safe Travels System web app that records their location. It’s a crude system that seems designed more to deter tourists than to track them. But the approach is only a step away from a relatively inexpensive means of continuously monitoring people’s locations. That’s tempting for governments and dangerous for the public.
“GPS monitoring—by making available at a relatively low cost such a substantial quantum of intimate information about any person whom the Government, in its unfettered discretion, chooses to track—may ‘alter the relationship between citizen and government in a way that is inimical to democratic society’,” Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor warned in her concurring opinion in United States v. Jones (2012).
Technological solutions—at least lower-cost ones—are likely go-tos for cash-strapped police departments with narrowed missions. Tight budgets may preclude the “swarms of police drones” and “autonomous police vehicles” of some of the more gee-whiz predictions, especially in Harrison’s scenario of limited in-person crime—why spends lots of money to monitor spaces where people no longer congregate? But cameras and facial recognition software are cheaper than personnel, especially if police can convince (or force) private businesses to contribute their own systems.
“With an estimated 30 million security cameras in the United States, tapping into privately owned devices could allow the government to build a CCTV network on the scale of China (at least in terms of population ratio) at a fraction of the cost,” The Constitution Project pointed out last year.
Some policing philosophies may make less sense, or take on different meanings, if more of daily life moves online. Street-level, relationship-based community policing is championed by criminal justice reformers such as those at the Charles Koch Institute as a means of building trust and reducing conflict between police officers and the people they serve. But even before the pandemic, Deloitte’s Gelles, Mirkow, and Mariani discussed how “the instant availability of information on social media, for example, is reshaping the nature of some social ties.” That’s precisely what RAND’s Harrison envisions for the agoraphobic world of 2030, but more so. If Facebook, Twitter, and their successors become the main form of community for people fearful of contagion, community policing might mean little more than cops trawling through online posts and leaving the occasional comments.
Or maybe strapped police departments will cut costs further and just scrape the internet using predictive technology intended to rate people’s potential for engaging in crime. Existing software does just that based on posts, pictures, and other online information. Officers are then apprised of the supposed risks they face from members of the public. The technology is certain to be refined, and its use (and abuse) seems inevitable as a cost-effective means for targeting scarce law enforcement resources.
It’s a fair bet that the post-pandemic world will look different in many ways than what came before. There may be fewer police officers performing more constrained roles in the months and years to come, with less direct interpersonal contact with the people they supposedly serve. That might be good news when it comes to minimizing conflicts between police and members of the public. But it could also mean we’ll be subject to a cut-rate surveillance state.