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How will driverless cars change street policing?

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Experts see autonomous technology shifting the way cops operate


As autonomous-vehicle technology inches forward—with new testing sites and proposed government regulations signaling that the once fantastical idea of a driverless car is being taken more seriously by companies and policymakers—it’s being viewed by many as a source for major social change. Everything from roadways to cities will be reshaped.

The coming autonomous future may also significantly change our interactions with the police. According to the most recent Bureau of Justice statistics, traffic stops account for 42 percent of interactions between the police and the public. Increasing automation has the potential to radically reshape the role of cops in our cities, according to two experts.

Due to the day-to-day realities and challenges of maintaining and running police departments in big cities, as well as the uncertain road to driverless cars, this shift is far from the forefront of police planning.

“We see investigative traffic stops radically diminishing or being eliminated altogether,” says Joseph A. Schafer, the criminal justice department head at Southern Illinois University, a member of Police Futurists International, and co-author of the book The Future of Policing.

“Some things we regulate may not be enforced in the same way, such as speed limits. There may not be speed limits depending on the way that cars are programmed. Speeding itself may not even be an offense.”

Autonomous car radar systems Shutterstock

If driverless cars can be “programmed” to follow the rules, and human mishaps and mistakes—from texting while behind the wheel and drunk driving—become things of the past, police interactions with drivers could radically shift, and even disappear.

Many of the recent high-profile traffic stops of drivers of color—which have turned into tragic national news stories about racial profiling, implicit bias, and community relations—might also become less common as the need for investigative traffic stops decrease.

Individual interactions won’t be the only aspect of policing reshaped by this technology. This broad transportation shift also has the potential to change the structure of law enforcement.

According to Bud Levin, a futurist, co-author of The Future of Policing, and member of the Traffic Law Enforcement Committee of the US Transportation Research Board, a drop in traffic crimes means less court time and costs, as well as staffing costs and parking ticket revenue.

Police departments would, theoretically, be able to redirect a significant part of their manpower and budget to different aspects of the job (including potentially new issues with cars and cybercrime), and the increased awareness and surveillance possible with connected automated vehicles may make it easier to track criminals.

This could mean being able to instantly locate every vehicle of a certain make and model in response to a witness tip, rather than sending out a bulletin, or being able to remotely shut down a suspected criminal’s escape vehicle.

“Cops, courts, and corrections may shrink, due to the savings,” Levin says. “It’s like any changes, filled with positives and negatives.”

Schafer believes that the deployment of the technology at a mass commercial level is far enough off that it’s difficult to plan ahead, and many police departments he’s spoken to haven’t really studied the issue.

But as government regulation continues to grapple with and confront the myriad issues involved with autonomous transportation, police forces will have no choice but to change tactics.

“How does the decline in auto ownership change the future of the city?’ Levin asks. “It’s hard to anticipate exactly what this stuff is going to look like, and the pace of change means the government is going to be scrambling to figure out things like laws and tax schemes. I think the technology may move faster than anticipated.”

Levin agrees that trying to really understand the shift is complicated. Levin doesn’t believe that the coming technology will replace the need for officers on the streets—it may even free up more cops to walk their beats and engage in more face-to-face community policing activities—but it opens up a whole new discussion on tools and tactics.

“This is like the shift between horses and cars,” he says about the advent of autonomous cars. “It’s pretty much going to be a mess. States are going in very different directions, and police departments, therefore, will be going in many directions as well.”