IS THE VIRTUAL PARTNER THE KEY TO IMPROVE POLICE-COMMUNITY RELATIONS?
BY CHARLES KING | FBINA 252
“Good morning Officer Jones, I am Mary, a citizen ride-along with you today.” “Good morning Mary, it’s a pleasure to work with you. Please let me know what I can do to better serve our community throughout the day...” No, Officer Jones will not have “Mary” or any other citizen riding with him, at least not in person. In fact, this conversation did not take place face to face in the briefing room. It occurred via an ear piece (or optional implant) activated behind Officer Jones’ ear as he initiated his Bluetooth-enabled smart watch to begin his shift. Mary is not even a real person; rather, she is a voice created with artificial intelligence (AI) to interact with the officer. This concept, known as the “Virtual Partner” is an artificially intelligent augmented device, and may be the solution for society’s need for police oversight. With AI, the Virtual Partner is there to consult or advise, and is available to members of a community oversight committee to interact with officers for real-time, discreet guidance in any police encounter. The Virtual Partner facilitates transparency and community oversight, which can create and maintain trust between the police and those they serve, transforming any officer into a trusted public servant. What may now seem like an unwanted intrusion into an officer’s shift could one day soon become the norm.
Building Trust and Nurturing Legitimacy
Police officers depend on the approval and trust of the public to effectively keep their communities safe. Building trust and nurturing legitimacy on both sides of the police-community divide is a foundational principle underlying the nature of relations between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve (President’s Task Force, 2015). The relationships between police and the people they serve is a delicate balance; tension with police and certain segments of society, though have existed throughout history. James B. Comey, former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, shared his thoughts on the relationship between law enforcement and the communities we serve at Georgetown University on February 12, 2015. Comey indicated, “Like a lot of things in life, that relationship is complicated. Relationships often are.” Comey further related that there is a disconnect between police and the citizens they serve (Comey, 2015).
Recent incidents involving police use of force have caused community members across the country to question the legitimacy of the police and relationships have become stressed. Demonstrations, protests, and riots have taken place over perceptions of police misconduct and excessive use of force. Racial inequality has been claimed throughout the nation, with high-profile incidents depicting bias toward African Americans.
One such case garnering national attention was the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. As reported in the New York Times, “For many here and across the country, Mr. Brown’s killing laid bare a myriad of issues of racial inequality. When the St. Louis County prosecutor announced that a grand jury had not indicted Officer (Darren) Wilson, many saw it as another injustice for blacks” (Healy, 2014). In other incidents, police have been categorized as biased or racist in their handling of situations.
The death of George Floyd in police custody on May 25, 2020, captured via a cellphone video and shared on social media by a bystander, sparked nationwide protests for racial justice. An independent autopsy ordered by George Floyd's family found his death was a "homicide caused by asphyxia due to neck and back compression that led to a lack of blood flow to the brain." Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, identified as the officer who put his knee to Floyd's neck, was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter. Floyd was heard saying "I can't breathe," while the officer had him pinned for nearly nine minutes, according to the criminal complaint (Pereira, 2020).
The New York Times also noted that, “Although officers employ force in less than two percent of all police-civilian interactions, the use of police force is disproportionately high for African Americans — more than three times greater than for whites, citing information compiled by the Center for Policing Equity from more than 19,000 use-of-force incidents by police officers representing 11 large and midsize cities and one large urban county from 2010 to 2015 (Williams, 2016).
Perception of Bias
Public scrutiny and demands for transparency and oversight of police practices has evolved to a point where many officers do not feel supported by the communities they are sworn to protect. Police bias is constantly portrayed as a problem in encounters which has led to strained police-community relations. Research conducted by Gordon Moskowitz, Professor and Chair of the Psychology Department at Lehigh University, indicates that all people are inherently biased. This is not to say people willfully are bad. They are willful, and they are biased. They are biased in the sense that they are making sense of a complex world through the lens of their values and the goals they choose to pursue (Moskowitz). This creates a challenge for law enforcement when officers act, or are perceived to act, on their preconceived ideas and assumptions. If humans are biased in policing, is there a way to minimize this practice, allow learning opportunities, and full transparency?
Law enforcement agencies need an innovative way to reduce the element of human bias from police work. It is imperative that the police make improving relationships with their local communities a top priority (Importance of police-community relationships, 2015). Police practices must constantly be objectively evaluated, not only by the profession, but also by the public they serve. A computer system programmed with AI software to augment decision-making could provide the solution.
Collaborate with Key Stakeholders to get the Virtual Partner Developed
“We live in the information age, a period in human history characterized by the shift from industrial production to one based on information and computerization” (Beyond the Information Age). The law enforcement profession is often reluctant to adopt new technologies for a myriad of reasons. Eventually, technology does find its way into the profession as seen in mobile digital computers, in-car cameras, conductive energy weapons, and body worn cameras. Likewise, the Virtual Partner could harness and convey the right amount of information needed to ensure officers make sound decisions without society’s fear of bias.
Lieutenant Noel Coady, California Highway Patrol (CHP) Counterterrorism and Threat Awareness Manager, indicated technology is “our (CHP) future”. He further related that AI would prove to be a beneficial tool to convey useful information and knowledge to officers in the field (Coady, November 2019).
Like personal assistants in our homes, such as Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri, a Virtual Partner could be developed to assist police officers. In September 2019, Jeff Kunins joined Axon Enterprises, the company that manufactures Taser conductive energy weapons, body worn cameras, and records management systems for police agencies. Kunins was formerly the vice president of Amazon’s Alexa Entertainment. "He's my software soulmate," says Rick Smith, co-founder and CEO of the Axon Enterprises, which has been hiring employees from big tech firms for the past few years.
Kunins now oversees Axon's software road map, the list of technologies Axon thinks will be widely used over the next decade. While this might include Alexa-like voice interaction for police — Smith said — it also includes leveraging AI to make police work easier. Smith created the Axon AI and Policing Technology Ethics Board, a mix of police veterans, privacy experts and civil libertarians, including Barry Friedman, a law professor and director of the Policing Project at New York University School of Law. “Axon is working on really impactful social problems,” Axon’s Smith said. “There’s something rewarding about working on things you see in the news every night, things that can be very divisive. These are issues for us as a tech company to be squarely running into.” It is also an indicator of where the company, known for Tasers, body-worn cameras and, more recently, enterprise software for law enforcement, is headed (Overfelt, 2019). Although the specifics of what might be developed are not yet known, the Virtual Partner could be both an aid to the officer, and also the eyes and ears of the officer’s community.
The Virtual Partner
“Officer Jones, the way you treated Mrs. Evans on the traffic stop was not acceptable. You were discourteous to her when she asked when her upcoming court date would be. I realize you interact with many people daily, but keep in mind this is her first ticket so she is not familiar with the court process. Please remember to treat each person with dignity and respect.” This reminder by the Virtual Partner could become reality, helping to keep officers in line with society’s expectations. In addition, officers would be able to ask policy and law questions to ensure compliance in any situation. For example, if the officer wasn’t sure if he could impound a vehicle, the Virtual Partner could provide applicable impound authority and departmental procedures. It’s like having a supervisor with you on scene.
Law enforcement executives should consider embracing innovation and collaborating with technology stakeholders like Axon and others to develop and implement technologies such as the Virtual Partner. The Virtual Partner would benefit society with better aligned police-community relationships and safer neighborhoods as people become more trusting of police interactions. It could be programmed to provide discreet real-time guidance to officers to ensure adherence to departmental policy, procedures, laws, and societal expectations. It has the potential to standardize the way members of society are treated, with programming input from both the police and community oversight groups to help moderate police conduct.
Society’s needs and expectations would be largely met as the Virtual Partner supervises all public contacts to reduce human bias in officer’s actions. The Virtual Partner could transform any officer into a trusted public servant with the use of an encyclopedia of applicable law enforcement knowledge. Also, with machine learning, safety could be provided by alerting officers to dangerous situations depicted from tone inflection and other external stimulates. These tools and technologies could mean we would never again see tragedies such as when an officer killed Philando Castile, the 32-year old African American man driving with his girlfriend and her 4-year old daughter; the Virtual Partner would intervene and “know” instantly that Castile has no violent criminal record, thus presenting far less of a danger than the officer perceived (Kofman, 2017). The Castile tragedy is one of many incidents that could have been avoided, or resolved without lethal force, all through the presence of a Virtual Partner.
A Virtual Partner is needed in the law enforcement profession now. It could revolutionize the profession, create greater safety for the police and their citizenry, and allow the public to have a say in how police interactions take place.
Technology is constantly improving the way we live and AI will next transform the law enforcement profession. Trust and confidence will resonate throughout society once human bias is reduced in the policing profession with the implementation of the Virtual Partner. The Virtual Partner will not replace human decision-making, but it will be the smartest, non-biased partner available to augment the human counterpart.
Will law enforcement officials collaborate with stakeholders to embrace this concept? If so, better police-community relationships will be obtained by simply working smarter with AI augmenting decision-making.
By embracing the Virtual Partner, agencies will be able to provide the most innovative way to partner with society and keep our communities safe. The Virtual Partner will be another tool for police officers to effectively serve the public. It will not remove human-bias entirely, but rather guide officers toward equitable treatment for all.
Various social, technological, economic, environmental, and political factors must be considered before implementation and acceptance of a Virtual Partner. Law enforcement agencies wishing to establish and maintain trust and improve relations with communities should be collaborating with leaders in the technology industry, government officials, labor associations, community groups, and civil liberty organizations for answers. Now is the time for law enforcement executives to create community oversight committees to develop protocols for adopting a Virtual Partner into police work. Although AI can be considered controversial in society and even more so with government oversight, a Virtual Partner can successfully be incorporated into law enforcement operations with partnerships to create regulations and oversight responsibility.
Final report of the President’s task force on 21st century policing. May 2015. Retrieved from https://www.themarshallproject.org/documents/2082979-final-report-of-the-presidents-task-force-on
Coady, N. Counterterrorism and Threat Awareness Manager. California Highway Patrol. Personal communication. (916) 843-3000.
Comey, J. (February 12, 2015). Former FBI Director James D. Comey on Law Enforcement and Race. Speech given by James Comey at Georgetown University. Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4528067/user-clip-james-comey-full-speech
Healy, J. (November 26, 2014). Ferguson, still tense, grows calmer. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/27/us/michael-brown-darren-wilson-ferguson-protests.html?action=click&contentCollection=U.S.®ion=Footer&module=WhatsNext&version=WhatsNext&contentID=WhatsNext&moduleDetail=undefined&pgtype=Multimedia
Kofman, A. (April 30, 2017). Taser will use police body camera “To Anticipate Criminal Activity”. The Intercept. Retrieved from https://theintercept.com/2017/04/30/taser-will-use-police-body-camera-videos-to-anticipate-criminal-activity/
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Overfelt, M. (December 12, 2019). Taser-maker Axon is looking a lot more like Apple, Amazon, and so is the future of law enforcement. Technology Executive Council. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2019/12/12/taser-maker-axons-amazon-alexa-exec-is-future-of-law-enforcement.html
Pereira, I. (June 1, 2020). Independent autopsy finds George Floyd died of homicide by asphyxia. ABC News. Retrieved from https://abcnews.go.com/US/independent-autopsy-george-floyd-findings-announced/story?id=70994827
Williams, T. (July 7, 2016). Study Supports Suspicion That Police Are More Likely to Use Force on Blacks. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/08/us/study-supports-suspicion-that-police-use-of-force-is-more-likely-for-blacks.html
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Chief Charles King has worked for the California Highway Patrol (CHP) for 24 years. He has worked throughout Northern California in numerous patrol, investigative, and administrative assignments. He previously commanded two Field Offices, a 9-1-1 Communications Center, and the CHP Academy. Chief King is now the CHP's financial planner, responsible for development of the annual multibillion-dollar budget, implementation of the departmental fiscal program, distribution of fiscal resources, allocation and control of expenditures, and rendering of expert advice to the Commissioner. Additional duties include oversight of the CHP’s statewide fleet and departmental facilities.
Chief King has a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration; Finance. He is a graduate of the Federal Bureau of Investigation National Academy, Session 252, and the State of California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, Command College, Session 65. Chief King is currently a student at the University of San Diego and scheduled to graduate in December 2020 with a Master’s of Science Degree in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership.
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