Last October, GM announced that 19 of its new models would be equipped with the technology, through OnStar, that would allow law enforcement to ask the engines of cars they were pursuing to be remotely shut off. The idea is that this would bring a safe and quick end to these situations. Around the same time, the LAPD was testing StarChase, a devise mounted on patrol cars that shoots a GPS tracking devise that sticks to fleeing cars. Considering Los Angeles had over 600 pursuits last year, any new testing is a welcomed idea. Both StarChase and the OnStar products use state of the art technologies which no one could have imagined years earlier would be possible. Fox News, the USA Today, and CBS News called, wanting to know what I thought about these exciting new technologies.
They asked: “Do you support these technologies?” Yes, I support all technologies that might make the job of law enforcement safer and more effective. Much like the two-way radio, helicopter, and the computer have helped police protect their communities, StarChase and OnStar might once prove as important as those previously mentioned. I understand that when an officer engages in a pursuit of a suspect, he or she is putting their life in danger every time. If these technologies make it possible for more officers to go home safe to their families every evening, then let us see if it works.
“Will it make pursuits a thing of the past?” They continued, adding “If police had this technology in 2001, would your sister still be alive?” I can answer both of these questions at once: I don’t know.
But this is what I do know, that the potential for these technological advancements does not take the place of safe and smart policy. First, the costs of these new technologies are high, and with the already incredibly stretched budgets of out nations departments, don’t expect to see devices on your local patrol cars that can shoot a GPS tracker onto a suspects car anytime soon. The StarChase technology requires the suspect vehicle to be either stopped or going very slow at a close range. What if the patrol car doesn’t get anywhere near the suspects car? Let us also not forget that this new OnStar technology will only be included on a small fraction of the vehicles out there. Chances are this wont be an option in the vast majority of situations for many years.
Some have come to me, including The Economist, wondering what I thought about the civil liberties implications of these new technologies. Could these devices be easily abused? Would this allow law enforcement to always know what I’m doing? Is this Big Brother? This is not my place to comment. However, this side of the debate shows even more so the need for clear and defined policy that lets officers know what can and can’t be done. Hopefully, a policy that clearly states the wrongs and rights of these technologies can cut down on cases that might bring civil liberties issues into question.
So, until that time, all departments should adopt a policy that requires adequate training for police officers, only pursues those who are suspected of committing violent crimes, allows for complete and painstaking review of all incidents, and makes available to the public all requested information. Until this becomes common practice, these technologies are no more than a story in the newspaper.