A century ago, August Vollmer, Berkeley’s first police chief, helped introduce the lie detector into police work. It was a deeply flawed innovation, yet police have continued committing to technology that makes their jobs easier — even when it doesn’t work as promised or does more harm than good for the people the police serve. Author Matt Stroud examines that history in “Thin Blue Lie: The Failure of High-Tech Policing,” exposing what he says are the systemic problems — and the often racist applications — in the use of Tasers, closed-circuit television surveillance, body cameras and Compstat, the philosophy that emphasizes computer statistics in formulating policing strategies.
The Los Angeles Police Department plays a major role in the book. “The LAPD was a pioneer in a negative way — they made the first decision to jump on the Taser — and tend to be a leader in using technology,” Stroud says.
However, while incidents in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago spark the most headlines, these problems are nationwide. “I’ve been tracking body camera contracts and smaller departments are certainly catching on,” he says, “and Tasers are now in 18,000 police forces, and that’s pretty much everybody.”
Your book explores the dangers in technological innovations by telling the evolution of each one, often as a business history. Why take that approach?
I came from the perspective of a business reporter and a lot of my reporting was built around SEC documents and publicly traded companies. But also you have to think of this as an industry — it’s the way the people at the forefront think of it. People such as [former LAPD Chief] Bill Bratton would go in and out of public service and they’d go into a consulting career and push their product and their highly paid consulting services. There was this whole industry that hadn’t really been delved into, the police industrial complex. I felt that needed attention.
Bratton called himself the CEO Cop, Rick Smith the CEO of Axon [formerly Taser International] has never been in law enforcement or public service. He’s thinking about policing from the perspective of somebody who has an MBA. I do think Bratton believed he was changing policing for the better with Compstat. But they don’t think of it as a way to deal with civil rights issues, I don’t think the heart of the matter for them is improving policing. When you get down to it, it’s about making money, about bringing industry into policing in a new way.
Isn’t there at least some positive potential in some of these technologies, like body cameras for police?
The body camera idea is a good one. But you have to make that footage available to the public but there has been a lot of pushback. Body cameras are a problem in the monopoly Axon has in that industry and in the decisions lawmakers have made to shield that video footage from public viewing. Police unions, district attorney associations and lobbying arms realize they can be problematic, so they are working so that videos are shielded from public records requests and not available to the public until during or after a trial.
The Taser and the company behind it come across as the most malevolent force in the book.
The Taser was meant to reduce the number of shootings by police officers, but from the data I have seen, it has not achieved that goal. Yet people have died from police using Tasers. There are almost 1,100 people killed by a device that was supposed to be non-lethal, and that seems like a lot to me.
Taser International just denied in court for years that these weapons could kill. It’s so upsetting to watch it unfold and to realize there was no consequence to their lies and these deaths. The SEC investigated and there were some negative ramifications, but in the long run they never really paid the price. This deny, deny, deny does seem less shocking now than when I was reporting on it because it is how Trump heads the country now and you realize that is how in large part he built his business.
What was so striking to you about the way Rahm Emanuel refused to release the dashcam video footage of Laquan McDonald’s killing by a police officer in Chicago?
After the video footage finally became public, the Emanuel administration made announcements that the city was going to spend millions of dollars on Tasers and spend millions of dollars on body cameras — as though that was the problem that the Laquan McDonald video revealed. That kind of press conference gets reported and kind of accepted as a solution.
Your final chapter is “The Problem With Solutionism,” using the term Evgeny Morozov hung on Silicon Valley innovators for thinking every problem has a simple solution. Was that initially your unifying theme or something you came across while researching?
I had read Morozov’s book so the idea was in my head, but it really came back when I read what I had written for the book to come up with my conclusion and it did seem the most applicable way to think about it.
Rahm Emanuel tried to keep that video from becoming public so the idea that more body cameras will make that situation not happen in the future is just ludicrous. I don’t think that technology was a solution to the McDonald shooting or to any of the major police shootings. That simplicity is passed off as a solution to all these problems. You have government officials say: “The real problem here is we haven’t spent enough money on technology, the real problem is we don’t have body cameras.” But that is not a solution. To really address the problems you need to think deeply about the way your police department is interacting with the community, the way specific police officers act on duty, and these are very challenging questions and you can’t just gloss over them and spend millions of dollars.
Is it incumbent on journalists to not just report these statements but to push back?
Next time a government official makes one of these announcements I want people to react viscerally to it and to oppose it and to ask for studies about how the police operates, for more accountability for the officers on the street and for government officials. Don’t accept that kind of solution as a solution because it’s not one. I’m sure there were writers and activists who brought up how ludicrous Emanuel’s plan was but I didn’t see it at that time. I would like the idea that this is a ludicrous solution to be a more mainstream idea.
You note that Vollmer argued a century ago that officers needed to be more like social workers than soldiers and that the recommendations from the 1967 report, “The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society,” commissioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson, were incredibly progressive in both the proposals for changing policing and for connecting it to larger societal issues. They were both largely ignored. So, now what?
We can’t go back and re-litigate the last 100 years. We have to take simple steps and start small, start moving in the right direction. We must get out the idea that we can’t solve these horrendously difficult problems with cash and the purchase of technology. That will get people asking more coherent questions about ways police forces are going to change and force government officials thinking in better and more thoughtful ways about how the police should do their jobs, in ways that harm fewer people.