Giving Compass' Take:

• Laura M. Moy explores how police technology aggravates racial inequity and offers suggestions for preventing these problems.  

• How can funders work to enact these changes? What technologies are police in your community already using or considering using? 

• Learn more about emerging trends in technology and policing

Imagine you are a city council member, and the police chief comes before the council asking for permission and funding to adopt a new technological tool she believes will make the police more efficient. The tool sounds interesting and useful, but you are concerned about the possibility that if the police adopt it today, a year from now—after precious funds have been spent on it and it has become deeply integrated into police practice—news will break that the tool is aggravating racial inequity. You want to conduct a careful and deliberate racial equity analysis of the tool now, before it is adopted. But how do you do that? How do you know what problems to look for, and how do you apply them to an unfamiliar technology?

This councilmember, like real policymakers, would have been hearing about these problems from his community. For years, civil rights and racial justice organizations have been sounding the alarm bell about the likelihood that new technology tools may aggravate racial inequity in policing. “Law enforcement agencies have long exercised their power disproportionately in communities of color, and this imbalance persists today,” 45 organizations wrote in 2016, adding, “New technological tools that amplify police power can amplify existing biases in policing.” Particularly in the era of the Movement for Black Lives, warnings like this one have captured the interest of journalists and scholars, and the attention of policymakers and the public. In-depth explorations of racial inequity in the context of specific technologies have proliferated.

At the same time, new opportunities are presenting themselves for communities to make their concerns about emerging police technologies known to policymakers and police agencies. More than a dozen cities recently have adopted “Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS)” laws establishing oversight mechanisms over technologies classified as “surveillance technologies.”  These laws require police agencies wishing to adopt a new surveillance technology to submit first to a review of the proposal and seek approval, typically by the city council.

But to date the conversations about the collision of police technology and racial inequity have not sufficiently equipped policymakers, police agencies, and community advocates with the necessary tools to perform a rigorous racial equity analysis of proposed new police technologies. Existing literature either oversimplifies or overspecifies the problem. When the problem is oversimplified, it can be summarized as, “Police technology aggravates racial inequity in policing.” When the problem is overspecified, it can be summarized as, “This particular technology aggravates racial inequity in policing in X, Y, and Z ways.” Neither one of these approaches is both specific enough to support a technically sophisticated analysis of a proposed new police technology, and general enough to be adapted to the analysis of multiple kinds of police technology.

To bring clarity to these issues, this article proposes a taxonomy of racial equity problems in police technology designed to fill the gap and help policymakers and police agencies themselves understand and evaluate new technologies through a racial equity lens. 3 The fact that police technology can aggravate racial inequity in policing is not just one monolithic problem, nor is it a series of specific problems that affect individual technologies differently. Rather, it is five major problems that appear repeatedly across different police technologies: police technology may replicate inequity, mask inequity, transfer inequity, exacerbate inequitable harms, and/or compromise inequity oversight. Police technology replicates inequity when it embeds existing police inequity into a tool and then replicates it, further entrenching the underlying inequity by rigidly codifying it.

Police technology masks inequity when it replaces some aspect of human decisionmaking understood to be racially inequitable with computer-assisted decisionmaking that is less apparently inequitable, thereby hiding the underlying inequity from outside observers. Police technology transfers inequity when it embeds inequity found outside the police system—such as inequity residing in the development process of a third-party vendor—that it then spreads to police agencies that adopt the technology. Police technology exacerbates inequitable harms when it augments the ability of police to do harm, so that when they exercise their power in an inequitable way, the disparate harm of the inequitable activity is amplified. And police technology compromises inequity oversight when it hampers the ability of legislative bodies, courts, and the public to exercise oversight over law enforcement agencies and to safeguard against injustice effectively.

These classes of equity problems in police technology are not mutually exclusive, but they are distinct. Naming and defining them will help police agencies, policymakers, and scholars alike analyze proposed new police technologies through a racial equity lens and craft appropriate responses and protections to address anticipated problems.