Megan Brown

Professor Julia Ellis

Intro to Criminal Justice

15 July 2017

Impact and Controversy of Technology in Law Enforcement

Technology has had a far reaching affect on law enforcement over the course of it’s

inventions. In the past, the extent of technology in law enforcement started and ended with a

radio. Officers that have been in law enforcement for decades reminisce back on a time when

that’s all they had, was a radio and a nearby payphone. Nowadays there are many more forms

of technology that each officer uses, and with each form comes controversy and scrutiny. This

essay is going to explore the ways policing has changed over the years because of the

technologies that have been implemented, as well as talk about some of the controversy that

surrounds some of these technologies.

Let’s start with the fragmentation, and then we will talk about liability in regards to

radios, fingerprinting, cell phones, body cams, patrol car computers, and a few other forms of

technology that officers use everyday on the job. The focus of this essay is to explore the

controversies surrounding the extent of technology used by officers each day, as well as the

benefits that these different technologies have. With change always comes growing pains, but

the more we understand the reason for skepticism and the benefits of a new way of doing

things, the bigger the benefit to society. Fragmentation is extremely important to understand

when talking about technology in law enforcement because it has the biggest impact on why

many agencies fall so far behind on modern technology. Of all of law enforcement in the U.S.,

95% of crime is taken care of by local agencies. (SEASKATE INC.) That means that only 5% of

law enforcement receive federal funding, and the remaining 95% get funding from their local

state and counties. This can also pose a problem with neighboring agencies having very

different forms of technology being utilized because each one has different funding for the
technology and education on the technology. Fragmentation means that there is no common

strategy for technology, and there is no set plan across all agencies.

Now that we understand why technologies across the U.S. can vary so much due to

fragmentation, let’s go through a timeline of technology in law enforcement. We will start with

the history of technology with the multi-shot pistol, and police cars in the mid 1800’s. Then

handcuffs and photography were widely utilized in 1850’s and 1860’s. In 1877 the use of the

telegraph was implemented, between police and fire departments. In the 1880’s the telephone

starts being using in Washington D.C. precincts. And in the year of 1900 fingerprinting is

discovered and implemented. They noticed that there were small marks left behind when

someone had touched something, and used the differing lines, circles and patterns to record

these fingerprints. In 1900, the Galton-Henry system was published, which was a way to

classify fingerprints. This is still one of the most widely used forms of fingerprint classification

to this day. (Bellis) Soon after, the police car was introduced, followed by the one and two-way

radios between the 1920’s and 1930’s.

It isn’t until 1960’s that 911 emergency services line is invented as the national

emergency phone line, and it becomes much more enhanced by the 1980’s allowing the

dispatchers to see the addresses of where the emergency is being called in from. Also in the

1980’s, pepper spray becomes a popular form of force used by police, rather than the use of a

baton or gun. And in 1996, the National Academy of Sciences account that DNA evidence can

be used and is believed to be an extremely accurate resource to use. Now that we have made

it through a general history of the 19th and 20th centuries, it’s important to go over the

changes in technology in the past two decades in the 21st century that have been under even

more scrutiny, and may have been even harder of changes for officers to get used to.

Body cams are a current controversial topic throughout law enforcement. As we talked

about earlier, fragmentation causes many discrepancies between precincts, and the same thing

applies to the use of body cams. There isn’t a national standard as to how many officers have

to wear them, because the funding for something like this varies so much. The funding also
heavily affects how many resources and how much time they can spend culling videos, and

deciding what footage to keep or purge, something that also isn’t regulated. This often causes

the body cams to not be consistently used. Advocates for body cams focus on the benefits of

proving certain cases to be right or wrong, providing real-life training based on scenarios that

actually took place, and standardizing what is expected of all officers by recording what they

are each doing. There has been testing of the efficiency of body cams as early as 2012, and

since there have been many improvements to the wearability and quality of the body cams

available. The complicated aspects of body cams are regulating their use, disciplining misuse,

and when they should be on or off. (Demetrius)

Before body cams became the current spotlight, dash cams were implemented into

patrol cars. Although still controversial, it wasn’t as controversial as body cams because there

wasn’t such a fine line between when dash cams should be on or off, or what would be

considered misuse or not, because it was just on while driving on duty, some activated when

siren lights are turned on. There are still problems with tampering in certain areas though, like

Chicago where 80% of people dash cams are said to have not worked. It’s speculated that the

officers either messed with the antennas or removed the batteries.

There have been noticeable changes in law enforcement, both good and bad, from the

innovations in the world of technology that have been applied to law enforcement. The ways

things are done are continuously changing and we see this through the history of the

technology used throughout law enforcement. From the beginning of fingerprinting, to lie

detectors, to body cams, technology is ever-changing the way policing is done. There will

always be new things to implement into the police force, and the biggest challenge is getting

the latest methods of technology to the whole country, rather than just the largest, richest


It is important to discuss how technology also increases crime, and that while crimes

rates have dropped over time because of technology implemented, it is usually a two steps

forward, one step back type of movement. A great example of this is the story by Randy
Jurgensen in the book Exploring the Police, that tells about his experience working in the field

communicating by radio with other officers. The 911 Emergency Services number was invented

as a tool for those in distress or danger to receive help, but the criminals in this story used it in

the opposite manner, to trick and distract officers in order to sabotage them. (Jurgensen) This

story has so many links to the impacts that technology has, as well as ways that it would have

benefited them to have better technologies. In the end, justice was not served for officers

involved, injured or killed, and the criminals got away. The main reason for this seems to be the

lack of evidence of what happened from so many different stories. A body cam on each officer

may have helped this situation tremendously.

Works Cited

Mcquade, Sam. "Technology-enabled Crime, Policing and
Security." The Journal of Technology Studies 32.1 (2006): n.
pag. Web. 19 July 2017.

Dementrius, Dina. "Meet the first U.S. police department to
deploy body cameras." Al Jazeera America. Al Jazeera
America, n.d. Web. 20 July 2017.

Bellis, Mary. "A Brief History of Forensic Science."
ThoughtCo. N.p., 10 Aug. 2016. Web. 20 July 2017.

SEASKATE, INC. "The Evolution and Development of Police
Technology." POLICE TECHNOLOGY - History of Technology.
N.p., 2003. Web. 20 July 2017.

Jurgensen, Randy. Exploring the police: a book of readings.
Boston: Pearson Custom Pub., 2004. Print. Pg. 130-138