Though often uttered haphazardly in tech circles, the word revolution comes with some heavy connotations. Forgetting its roots in political strife, there is the basic idea that technological advancement, while valuable to the greater good of society, can breed major short-term disruption. From a generation of aging workers struggling with updated work processes to entire industries vanishing beneath higher-tech alternatives, large-scale change does not often come without costs.
Such is the case with the digital era’s newest revolution: automation. As with the industrial revolutions before it, modern-era mechanization has legitimate potential to upend the way businesses around the world produce and provide their goods and services, rendering high percentages of skilled and unskilled workers alike unemployable in the process. And while these concerns may have been easy to dismiss in the recent past, today’s slate of endlessly capable, easily reproducible technologies has only made automation a looming “boogeyman” in popular media because the threat of disruption is now a credible one.
How will these advancements influence first response? Human decisions will always be at the heart of what police, firefighters, and EMS professionals do, but that does not make the industry immune to the changes an automated society might represent, both positive and negative. Whether as a direct recipient of technological advancement, or as a byproduct of tools used in other parts of society, the field will see plenty of disruption in coming years — and if leading minds in the tech world are to be believed, these alterations could come sooner than any of us think.
How Self-Driving Cars Will Change Police Work
In some ways, the term automation is broad enough to cover almost everything technology does for first responders. The officer who looks up directions to a suspect’s house with GPS automates several manual tasks, as does the firefighter who uses a smartphone app to determine their exposure to certain toxins following a fire. In other ways, however, it carries very specific meanings, and self-driving vehicles embody most of them. The technology has made the jump from far-off idea to tangible product, performs tasks once considered impossible for machines to achieve, and has significant potential that comes closer to certainty with every new advancement.
For police, many of automated driving’s specific impacts will be decided not only by how the technology is both implemented and regulated, but also the primary and secondary changes brought on as the technology sees widespread implementation. However, one fact about the intersection of self-driving cars and policing has become increasingly clear: the proliferation of automated vehicles will almost certainly result in a reduced need for boots on the ground.
The question is how large that reduction will be. If estimates by The Conversation and other outlets are to be believed, rosters could be cut by half or more nationwide. Scary though it sounds, the sheer amount of traffic work police perform lends the figure some credence. Because self-driving vehicles aren’t subject to the same lapses in judgment or attention as those driven by humans, and because they likely won’t be able to exceed posted speed limits or break other laws at the driver’s command, the need for highway patrols, drunk driving checkpoints, and other standard traffic services would ostensibly see similar decline. Following this logic, revenues from traffic stops would follow a downward trend. When speeding tickets alone account for $6.2 billion a year ($300,000 per every U.S. officer), a combination of reduced need and shrinking revenue point to significant change at minimum, with ripples that touch everything from police hiring needs and practices to basic operational sustainability.
Just how those operations may change remains yet another unanswered question. While police do plenty of important work away from the roadway — and while there will always be some need for compliance-related activity, such as stops for faulty headlights or turn signals — it is also fair to say a considerable amount of work follows them back from the road. The so-called “pretext stop” authorized in Whren v. United States, which currently results in numerous drug and outstanding-warrant arrests, would become a rarity in a society where autonomous cars unwaveringly follow all traffic rules . Further, many interesting legal questions arise from a hypothetical situation in which someone (e.g., a drug user carrying narcotics) is arrested after a self-driving car is pulled over for an unrelated offense.
Other possible aspects of a self-driving society may work in favor of police officers. Per The Marshall Project, officers could also use remote shutdown capabilities to disable individual cars harboring known criminals or suspects, and even disable stretches of roads during intensive searches — during Amber Alert crises where the suspect is known to be travelling on a specific highway, for example. Self-driving cars would also presumably put an end to chases stemming from failed stops. Modern prototype cars already pull over when they “notice” lights and sirens behind them, and the technology governing this automated behavior will only improve before self-drivers become the norm.
Automation’s Other Faces May Be More Beneficial for Police, Other First Responders
Of course, disruptive technologies designed for civilian use typically end up in useful roles within the public sector, including first response work. Whatever shape the vehicles take, it will be much the same for self-driving and -flying devices in police stations and firehouses. An automated ambulance could effectively free an extra EMT or paramedic to help in the back of the truck. Meanwhile, manned and unmanned drones alike — both of which automate the role traditionally filled by fire pilots — could expand on the features that the high-tech flying devices currently provide fire personnel. A drone that hovers outside a burning building’s windows and detects structural weaknesses and other imminent dangers could help leadership decide how to best approach a troublesome blaze, while other specialized tools could attack wildfires and other open flames directly using firefighting chemicals and nearby bodies of water .
Of course, these devices only represent a small slice of automation’s potential utility for first responders. Though self-driving cars in many ways represent an unprecedented new way of doing things, other takes on the technology will likely build upon things police and other responders do today, following technology’s usual path towards iterative improvement.
Take the widespread use of a technology so big it already touches nearly every corner of the public and private sector: data and analytics, frequently called “big data.” As Fire Rescue notes, modern analytics automate tasks that might normally be carried out by dedicated statisticians or teams thereof, giving police and fire departments in particular a set of tools that can assist in several aspects of their respective jobs.
The act of addressing crime and the field of firefighting are two obvious avenues for analytics, so it should come as little surprise that both law enforcement and the fire service are already using analytics in stations across the country. Automation has effectively democratized the “hot spot” map, a tool once reserved for police and fire departments with large budgets, rosters, and patrol areas. As Police One notes, today’s solutions can automatically examine historical crime data and real-time factors (e.g., hotter-than-average weather and nearby liquor permits can create flashpoints for crime), helping police determine where to send patrols, assign given skillsets within the roster, and other tasks once solely reserved for human analysis. Automated firefighting tools use much the same structure, allowing teams to focus on areas where fires are most likely. On the inverse, Chicago police employ similar tools to locate citizens who might commit (or be victims of) violent crime, then schedule interventions with the highest “scorers” on their list.
Analytics, however, do not serve only to stop external crime. Automated data tools can also examine a given officer’s history for telltale signs of trouble, allowing department leadership to intervene faster, or simply keep a proverbial eye on prospective troublemakers.
It bears repeating that these tools are frequently used by police and fire departments with an apparent positive effect. Trials show automated hot spot software can lower crime rates to a significant degree, for instance. Although concerns about “predictive policing” still need addressing — detractors, for instance, claim officers told to go to a potential crime scene in search of a particular crime are likely to misconstrue legal behavior — one can only assume these solutions have yet to reach the ceiling of their potential. Much as researchers were able to improve crime-prediction software by applying data to earthquake-prediction tools, we are always a breakthrough away from a tool that spots potential crime and officer misconduct better, faster, and more accurately than ever.
Inspecting the Future of First Response Automation
Other policing tools push the concept of automation to an extreme that even the staunchest futurist would have struggled to predict. For instance, the New York Police Department (NYPD) utilizes a network of gunshot sensors, license plate readers, chemical “sniffers,” and other automated tools that are nothing short of impressive. The array gives them a unified, tactical view of the city that assists in real-time crime prevention, response, and numerous other critical tasks. The array also offers predictive analytic capabilities, which help officers automatically track and predict suspect movement, among other functions.
Indeed, the NYPD’s advanced setup may give us a preview of law enforcement’s automated future. With cameras that automatically detect suspicious behavior already in development, and any number of technologies continually being built, adapted, or improved, it is hard to imagine a future where first response does not take a hard turn towards automated technology. As The Marshall Project notes, the officer or dispatcher of the future could monitor dozens of purpose-built drones from a command center, applying many of the same skills officers use in the streets today from a safe, centralized location.
These stabs at the future are speculative at best when real, impactful changes like self-driving cars loom on the horizon. In other words, the future of automated first response is wide open, but we do have hints of what it may contain. However, for firefighters, EMTs outfits, and police in the next 20-50 years, first response is certain to see drastic change — and just as certainly, automation will play a major role in those changes.