In November 2015, a video was released to the public showing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald— a black kid who went to school in Chicago’s South Side—being shot 16 times in less than 15 seconds by Jason Van Dyke, a white officer with the Chicago Police Department. Protests erupted around the country, and to this day, protests continue in Chicago. Not only was this an example of an officer brazenly ignoring protocol and killing another human being with wanton disregard for the law, it was also evidence of an apparent cover-up: McDonald was killed in October 2014, and it took at least one lawsuit and 13 months for the city to hand over the video—seemingly an inherently public record—to journalists and lawyers working the case.
Amid expected and justified outrage after the video went public, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced new training regimens for officers working the streets. Then he announced the city would spend $2.2 million outfitting officers with 1,400 police body cameras. A month later, more spending: The city would devote millions more to provide every officer with a Taser.
When politicians face scrutiny over police actions, they talk about overhauling the training regimens of officers in their jurisdictions. But they also tend to write checks for new equipment that can supposedly help police officers do their jobs—and, in the case of body cameras, hold them accountable for their actions. But are these politicians really helping the community? Or are they merely creating a form of RoboCop, reliant upon the tools clipped to his duty belt rather than his wits and his training? Here are examples of equipment one might find on police officers—and some of the controversies tied to them.
L-3 Communications makes a product called RANGE-R. It uses radar to help officers “see” through walls. One can see how such a device would be helpful; imagine an officer standing unsuspectingly on one side of a wall when someone on the other side is standing with an AR-15, ready to unload. But is it constitutional for police to use such a device without a warrant? Judges from the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals weighed in a little more than a year ago: “It’s obvious to us and everyone else in this case that the government’s warrantless use of such a powerful tool to search inside homes poses grave Fourth Amendment questions,” the judges wrote. But that hasn’t stopped cops from using these devices: USA Today reported last year that at least 50 U.S. law enforcement agencies use them. You can even buy a RANGE-R here.
Rapid Containment Expandable Baton
Remember the Rodney King beating? It happened in March 1991 and involved a 25-year-old black man getting beaten by four Los Angeles Police Department officers for what amounted to charges of speeding and evading police officers. A 31-year-old plumber, George Holliday, caught the whole thing on film and sent it to CNN. When it aired, the grainy video sparked outrage all over the world, and eventually led to some of the most violent protests in U.S. history—the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which lasted six days, caused more than $1 billion in damages, and ended with more than 60 deaths. King himself ended up with “11 skull fractures, permanent brain damage, broken (bones and teeth), kidney damage, [and] emotional and physical trauma” after the 1991 incident, according to a negligence claim he and his wife filed with the City of Los Angeles. The tool those officers used to carry out that beating? A rapid containment expandable baton, also known as a “Peacekeeper.”
When officers want to know who you are and whether you’re a wanted criminal, they can ask for your driver’s license. When they really want to know who you are, they can ask to see something a little more intimate. As more forms of identification—such as fingerprints, mugshots, tattoos, and even iris and retina scanning—get digitally loaded into more systems and shared via fusion centers all over the U.S., biometric authentication systems become more and more feasible. Mobile fingerprinting, face recognition, tattoo recognition, iris scans: These forms of identification are all finding their way into the hands of more and more police officers. The expansion of these devices causes worry among Fourth Amendment purists. (How many databases do citizens need to be on before we’re all completely safe?) But the more practical question is whether they work at all: Chicago apparently solved its first crime via facial recognition in 2014, but plenty of evidence shows that the officers working the case didn’t need technology at all; they just needed to be able to identify someone who had been arrested many, many times before. “Maybe ultimately facial recognition isn’t really all that effective,” Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Hanni Fakhoury told me at the Verge in 2014. Maybe “all this money being put into it is a waste.”
A brand name of an International Mobile Subscriber Identity catcher, these devices are produced by Harris Corporation—a public company traded on the New York Stock Exchange with a market cap of nearly $11 billion—and designed to mimic a cellphone tower. They thus route all nearby mobile phone calls and other data through them, intercepting information and helping to identify both potential criminals and pretty much anyone else who happens to use a mobile device nearby. Because these devices operate in a legal grey area, documents published by Ars Technica showed in April that the Federal Bureau of Investigation would rather drop charges against people caught doing wrong with Stingray devices than disclose details about their use. Here’s a user manual for the Stingray. The things are not cheap: They can cost up to $400,000.
License plate reader
You’ve seen these on reality television shows about parking enforcers: high-tech readers attached to the roofs of government vehicles to automatically locate vehicles attached to out-of-date insurance or heaps of unpaid parking tickets. But cops use them, too—and not only to fine people for traffic violations. These readers are used to collect information about where specific license plates are located, as well as the date, time, and location when they were located in that place. The goal is often to collect this information into regional databases with little restrictions and almost no protection of privacy rights. Examples of egregious behavior have arisen: Through a public records request, a California man discovered that San Leandro, California, police had photographed his cars 112 times, including at least once when his daughters were photographed in his driveway. Lawsuits have been filed to stop the collection in some jurisdictions, but without much success. License plate readers are used and being rolled out by cops all over the country.
How does a cop know when a shot has been fired? Either he hears it, or someone calls a police dispatcher. There is a third option, it turns out: Mountain View, California-based SST Inc. has made a product called ShotSpotter since 1997. The idea: Place a microphone-type device on the street that automatically notifies police when a gunshot is fired. Seems simple enough, but microphones on the streets seems a perfect recipe for maximum profiling. While the company claims the microphones aren’t designed to pick up voices, ShotSpotter microphones have been used in criminal cases to identify suspects based on recordings of street-level audio, giving civil libertarians reason to protest—and reason to point out that SST isn’t exactly telling the whole truth about its capabilities.
“My concern about our technology today is that it’s growing faster than our rights.”
Sometimes cops can’t get where they want to be—such as to conduct aerial surveillance. While a helicopter isn’t always practical for a common cop on the street, a drone connected to a camera can be. Police departments all over the country are thus making requests to use drones for everyday law enforcement activities. Scholars at places like the Brookings Institution argue that laws regulating drones for cops should be relaxed. “[I]n the states where drones have been banned (unless accompanied by a warrant), the police have not been prohibited from using any other type of surveillance equipment—just drones,” writes Pepperdine law professor Gregory McNeal in a policy brief aimed at legislators. “This technology centric approach has done little to protect privacy, but will certainly harm public safety, depriving law enforcement of a tool that they could use to protect people.” One legislator, Pennsylvania State Sen. Mike Folmer, responds: “My concern about our technology today is that it’s growing faster than our rights.”
Discussion about body cameras has grown since Michael Brown became a symbol for police violence. After the 18-year-old unarmed black man was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in August 2014, calls for body cameras were almost immediate. What was not immediate was a general consensus about when videos from police body cameras are considered public records, what the consequences are when police officers fail to engage their body cameras during interactions with civilians, and what a reasonable price might be not only for body cameras, but also for video storage costs and costs related to managing the resulting video files. There are also privacy concerns. Despite a lack of uniform answers to those questions, the march toward outfitting every cop in the U.S. with a body camera continues. Millions in federal grants have now been allocated for purchases, and with tens of thousands of the cameras being deployed in huge cities as far away as London, it doesn’t look like anyone’s going to stop the body camera movement from going forward.
On the computers of some officers, predictive policing software supposedly allows cops to know where crime is likely to occur. PredPol—the company behind the most widely known form of predictive policing software—assures the public that it “uses no personal information about individuals or groups of individuals, eliminating any personal liberties and profiling concerns.” But concerns have arisen nonetheless. Among them: The company uses bad statistics to fuel its findings and pays lobbyists to tout successes that may not indicate actual success in identifying crimes. (Check out an SF Weekly report along those lines.) But again, the concerns seem not to stifle predictive policing’s progress; analytics is a growing field in policing, with no indication that growth is slowing.
While police technology has grown in popularity, guns have maintained their status as the go-to weapon for police. The most popular guns used by police have tended in the past to be Glocks, but as police departments spend more money on equipment, the market has expanded, and options for deadly force have expanded as well.
Made by Taser International—the same publicly traded company leading the way toward outfitting most cops with body cameras—these devices are on just about every police officers in the U.S. But don’t let anyone fool you; these “less lethal” devices are meant to be taken seriously. Tasers can kill, says Nick Berardini, director of the 2015 documentary Killing Them Safely, which outlines the history of Taser International and the dangers of its main product. “It may be rare, but it’s happening,” he tells Gothamist. “And so you need to consider that someone in these situations can die, and it’s not an urban legend.”
The Laquan McDonald video is not from a body camera, but from a dashboard camera. These are still around—and, in fact, Taser International’s next step is selling agencies software to manage the flood of dashcam and interrogation room video.
Riot control weapons
A lot of this stuff is held on the officer’s duty belt—which weighs as much as 20 pounds. If you ever see an officer wearing suspenders, don’t laugh; he’s probably just trying to avoid back pain.