Monthly Archives: December 2014

Stop or They’ll Shoot (because they are tethered to their cars like a Cyborg)

A common thread between the recent police shootings seems to be that of detachment: the police have shot people who were unarmed, and often at a distance, who may have not been a real threat, but apparently enough of one for the police to fire at them, rather than employ other means to capture them.

Radio paging to police officers in cars is recreating one of the early big problems that Martin Cooper, inventor of the cell phone, was trying to solve at Motorola early in his career, in order to help get police away from being tethered to their car radios (Applin 2014, Ph.D. thesis, forthcoming):

For 100 years, people who wanted to talk to other people were wired to their homes, they were latched, uh, chained to their desks, and really didn’t have much in the way of freedom. We were intact giving people communications in their vehicles, but even then that’s not much better than being tied to your desk, you’re still trapped in your car. So we found out from people like the Superintendent of Police of Chicago who told us that he had a real problem, the officers had to be in communications, the only way they could talk was to be in their cars and yet the people they were protecting were walking on the streets. He asked us, “how can I have my officers connected and still mingling with the people?” We discovered this was true of people in managing airports, people managing businesses, real estate people. So we became aware of the fact that real communications is portable communications. Put the device on the person (Big Think 2010).

In a print interview, Cooper is quoted as coming up with a clip-on microphone solution that officers could use within walking distance of the car “base.” “That’s when I really made the discovery that is my mantra today,” said Cooper. “That people are fundamentally, inherently mobile, that these policemen were much, much more effective when they could carry their radios with them than when they were trapped in cars” (Macaulay 2013).

Unfortunately, the police are back to being trapped in cars as an artifact of processes that shrink staff and attempt to optimize officer performance. Police are no longer policing the community by being immersed in the community; they are doing so via radio and car response to issues, not necessarily looking for unreported crimes or patterns (Applin 2014, Ph.D. thesis, forthcoming), nor are they looking for ways to engage. Many do not live in the communities they are policing, and many may shift communities day to day, covering for others.

If one is a car, and seemingly feels tethered to that car, the only way to stop someone from doing something is to run them over, chase them in the car and then shoot them, or just shoot them from the car. Thus, policing (suspected) street crime has turned into game hunting or the kind of hunting one does in a simulated game.  There is little physicality to these “enforcements” — just reactive shooting from the safety and detachment of a police car that in itself, may be transient in a community.

If police officers are, indeed, tethered to their cars like cyborgs, it may be much of the problem: all they can do in response is to drive, or, shoot.

What is missing then is the combination of physicality of “walking a beat” with  the consistency of knowing an area. If the police have become data driven, like so many other pieces of society, they have less and less stake in communities, and may have less and less stake in outcome or accountability of their actions.