As public safety tech advances, policy remains ‘light years behind’

A panel of experts at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, say institutional barriers are blocking progress promised by new technologies in policing.

Policies and ordinances governing the use of technology by public safety and law enforcement officials are way behind, experts said Saturday.

“Technology is changing so quickly,” said Jeff Halstead, former police chief of Fort Worth, Texas, on a panel at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. “Our laws, our ordinances, our public policy are light years behind.”

Perry Tarrant, an assistant chief of the Seattle Police Department agreed, and said his city is trying to stay ahead of the curve, but finding policy can sometimes hold the department behind.

“When I started doing police work, portable radios had just started happening. That was a big deal,” Tarrant said. “[Now in 2018], we put a smartphone in the hand of every cop that works for us and have a series of apps now installed on every phone.”


The goal, Tarrant said, is to ensure officers are spending time being involved and engaged in the communities they police, instead of being encumbered by large amounts of paperwork.

“That’s where those relationships are built from,” Tarrant said. “Any technology that keeps a cop from looking down and taking notes will absolutely allow the police officer on the ground to be a little more empathetic to make eye contact and listen to the person as opposed to just the facts [on a police report].”

The lack of policy development and growth around technology makes public safety slower to include the embrace of new tech in the budgeting process, panelists said, especially in an era of tight budgetary constraints. 

“A lot of agencies are dealing with a general lack of resources,” said Rahul Sidhu, the CEO of SPIDR Tech, a police-to-citizen communication platform. “We need more money to hire more cops. We need the bare essentials. It’s very difficult to get new technology when they’re not even getting the money for the essentials.”

The resource challenge is amplified when paired with growing demand from the public for police to embrace technologies like body worn cameras in the wake of high-profile incidents of alleged police violence.


Technology has advanced the profession of policing greatly, Halstead said.

“Sometimes that helps, but sometimes that actually hurts because we as a police profession do not do a good enough job of going to our community leaders and explaining these are the types of situations where these types of tools are justified in deployment,” Halstead said.

To bridge that gap between accountability and technology, departments need to train officers to take it upon themselves to demystify policing, Tarrant said.

“You can’t close ranks — you have to talk about what it is you’re doing. You have to educate,” Tarrant said. “That is where technology has [helped] in building those relationships, building on transparency.”

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