Too Much Technology?

I just finished reading an article in my local newspaper, The Free-Lance Star (linked below), which described a new electronic ticketing system now in use by our town’s police department. The high tech device allows an officer to scan the barcode on a traffic violator's driver's license. The data is automatically analyzed by the machine, which then inputs the information onto the ticket. Once the form is complete, the officer prints copies of the ticket from a printer, which is located between the two front seats. He then goes forward to have the violator sign the ticket. The advantages over handwritten tickets are obvious. First, the process is quick; the form is complete in seconds. Moreover, there is no chance the ticket will be illegible, a perennial problem with written reports.

However, reading about this latest piece of technology got me thinking. How many more pieces of electronic equipment can we fit inside such a small compartment? Moreover, how much attention will be needed to monitor and operate all of it? I'm not so much concerned about the electronics themselves, except to the extent that they interfere with our ability to be in touch with our surroundings. Recent incidents involving officers ambushed in their vehicles, especially at night, gave me pause to think that perhaps we are setting up a perfect storm for the bad guys to get the jump on us.

What immediately came to mind was the incident in the state of Washington on Halloween night. Two Seattle cops were in their patrol car reviewing paper work, when a knuckle dragger drove by and opened fire. One officer was killed; his partner was wounded. Just one month later, in the same area, four officers were murdered while they sat in a coffee shop. Granted they weren't killed while in their police vehicles, but they were distracted, nevertheless, by focusing on their laptops, putting them further behind the action-versus-reaction power curve.

Today's patrol vehicles are loaded with so much gear that it's difficult for an officer to observe and absorb what's going on around him. Take a look in most cars and you will probably find the following equipment: dashboard cam; hand-held or mounted speed enforcement tool; mobile computer terminal; console with radio, lights, and siren controls; department issued and/or personal cell phone; gun rack; electronic traffic ticket device; printer; fingerprint reader; and finally, individual gear bag. That's a ton of stuff to operate and keep track of while trying to drive and/or watch for violations and bad guys.

There is no question that all of the above innovations have enhanced our ability to do our job quickly and efficiently. We've eliminated the middleman to some extent - not having to wait for name checks and license plates to be run by dispatch, etc. Nevertheless, it seems to me that we sometimes pay too much attention to the electronic side of the house, rather than the people side. We pull someone over or detain someone and we can't wait to get back inside the unit to run the guy on our terminal. That's great if you've already used your skills to question the guy, get a read on his body language, his eyes, speech pattern, etc. But perhaps younger cops in particular may defer to use the electronics first, rather than stare a hole in the perp and see what reaction he gives. Maybe some of our street smarts are being lost in this tsunami of new technology.

Back in the day, when all we had was the police radio and good time radio in cars, we were cautioned by our bosses and old timers not to use the good time radio - it was too much of a distraction. Even though the car radio only had AM stations, nevertheless, guys turned them on. This made for some missed radio assignments, and who knows how much else we didn't hear by not tuning our ears to the street.

What I presently see as a potential threat to officer safety is the laptop computer. Utilizing it takes a significant amount of concentration. Anytime we must focus on anything inside our cars, rather than outside of them, we put ourselves at risk. What really scares me is when I see a unit at night, either on patrol or parked, with the officer inside, lit up by the computer screen. Talk about a target... From a tactical standpoint, sitting stationary at night, filling out a report with the interior illuminating the officer, is a recipe for disaster. I cringe whenever I see it, but that's a whole other issue. My personal opinion is that paperwork is best done at the station, at least in the context of officer safety.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not bashing technology - it's a wonderful thing. Better weaponry, safer body armor, stronger radios, all the improvements that have been made in policing have changed the face of law enforcement. But with change comes sometimes unwelcome results as well. My purpose here is not to bash technology, but to alert us to what new challenges need to be overcome by virtue of their arrival. Not all change is entirely good; some of it has a downside. It's up to each of us to recognize that and prepare to overcome the negatives.

Stay safe, brothers and sisters!