It seems insane that it's taken this long to get here, but at long last, people are finally using the myriad tech at our disposal to hold cops accountable for their actions. Most recently, its a simple, relatively tiny chip being put to one massively important job—telling headquarters every time a police officer fires a weapon. And its for our protection just as much as their own.
Specifically, it's the police departments in Santa Cruz, California and Carrollton, Texas that will be testing out a new type of networked gun from California company Yardarm, part of a solution to what's become an alarmingly lax attitude towards tracking cops' firearm usage. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, while no comprehensive database of police shootings exist, some police agencies do self-report—750 out of 17,000 total agencies, to be exact. And while the self-reported number of "justifiable homicides" is about 400, academics and other journalistic agencies claim that number to be over 1,000. (A problem which our sister site Deadspin is currently working to fix.)
Don't you find it spookey? This is information, this is the government's job. One of the government's major jobs is to protect us. How can it protect us if it doesn't know what the best practices are? If it doesn't know if one local department is killing people at a higher rate than others? When it can't make decisions based on real numbers to come up with best practices? That to me is an abdication of responsibilities.
And while this trial run with YardArm Technologies' new gun-tracking chips is an admittedly small first step, we are at least finally taking some action to fix this huge mess of an oversight. The new tracking tech doesn't alter the gun's aesthetics much at all, rather, the chip merely slides into the handle of any old police firearm. Then, every time one of the equipped guns is fired or even simply removed from its holster, the guns sends a bluetooth signal to the cop's smartphone, which then sends the (encrypted) data back to police headquarters. At that point, it'll show up in the form of the data you see below.
For now, the system only tracks where, when, and whether the gun was actually fired. The next step, though, is to start pinning down the actual direction the gun was pointing along with other sets of forensic data that could help in the case of a disputed "justifiable" shooting. Of course, it's not just the cops saving their own asses. This data could be wildly important in cases like the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson this past summer. With so much police distrust, hard data is what we need now more than anything.
Which is Yardarm's new networked guns are just one small step in what's going to eventually need to be a major overhaul to the way cops do business. Police departments are also looking at wearable cameras to keep cops accountable for their actions in the field. Ferguson's police department has already committed to buying the vest cams for its officers. While places like Los Angeles, New York, and London are either engaged in trial programs or on the road to implementing the devices full-time.
And at least according to these early datasets, the cops cams do seem to work. A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that, in the California city of Rialto, "use-of-force incidents went from 61 to 25" in a single year. As Rialto's chief of police, Tony Farrar, told the Wall Street Journal:
When you talk about putting a camera on somebody, human nature is going to dictate that you're going mind your p's and q's and you're going to be on the best behavior. At the same, I think it's had an impact on citizens—if they know you're wearing a camera they too will be on their best behavior.
In other words, this accountability is good for everyone.
Of course, that doesn't mean that everyone is happy about all the good these types of tracking methods have the potential to do, particularly where Yardarm's networked gun is concerned. While police departments have thankfully been opening to the new tech, gun enthusiasts more or less want nothing to do with anything they say as even remotely threatening their gun rights. According to a YardArm spokesperson, "You have a social demand for smart gun technology, but not necessarily a market demand. As a consumer product, it's going to be a long road."
What's more, these first trial runs are barely even scratching the surface of where we need to be in terms of the accountability of law enforcement. The good news, though, is that police do seem receptive for the most part. And even though it's a late start, let's just be glad we've started at all. [MIT Tech Review, ARS Technica]