A wide-ranging investigation of how supposedly transformative technologies adopted by law enforcement have actually made policing worse—lazier, more reckless, and more discriminatory
American law enforcement is a system in crisis. After explosive protests responding to police brutality and discrimination in Baltimore, Ferguson, and a long list of other cities, the vexing question of how to reform the police and curb misconduct stokes tempers and fears on both the right and left. In the midst of this fierce debate, however, most of us have taken for granted that innovative new technologies can only help.
During the early 90s, in the wake of the infamous Rodney King beating, police leaders began looking to corporations and new technologies for help. In the decades since, these technologies have—in theory—given police powerful, previously unthinkable faculties: the ability to incapacitate a suspect without firing a bullet (Tasers); the capacity to more efficiently assign officers to high-crime areas using computers (Compstat); and, with body cameras, a means of defending against accusations of misconduct.
But in this vivid, deeply-reported book, Matt Stroud shows that these tools are overhyped and, in many cases, ineffective. Instead of wrestling with tough fundamental questions about their work, police leaders have looked to technology as a silver bullet and stood by as corporate interests have insinuated themselves ever deeper into the public institution of law enforcement. With a sweeping history of these changes, Thin Blue Lie is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand how policing became what it is today.
Investigative reporter Stroud delivers a rousing condemnation of "technological solutionism" in police departments. "Adherents of the philosophy," he writes, "have looked to electroshock weapons, statistical analysis, CCTV, facial recognition, body cameras, and a host of other technologies to supposedly make policing more efficient and humane" but often backfire, instead of undertaking "substantial institutional reform which can be messy and requires a tough accounting of what's working and what isn't in a police department." He identifies the start of this trend in the changing demographics in cities, where white flight in the 1950s increased segregation and intensified policing. According to Stroud, technology became the typical police response to crime and to increased racial tensions. Stroud reviews policing technology from early-20th-century police captain August Vollmer's use of the lie detector test in 1921 up to the present trend of police body cameras; in between, he discusses the emergence of COMPSTAT, a policing and crime tracking system that fed into the broken-windows model of policing, and the rise of the Taser, intended to be a nonlethal weapon but nevertheless an instrument of death in many cases. Stroud opines that technological solutions in policing, while perhaps useful, will not address the underlying cultural deficit in empathy and compassion among police. This is a meticulous and fascinating study.