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Unmanned Vehicles and the Future of Law Enforcement

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Scott Moorhouse
May 19, 2021

Law enforcement continues to grapple with issues of race-relations, social justice protests and controversial police shootings. It must also find a way to address the growing call for police reform, de-funding and legitimacy. Other problems continue to linger, such as prison overcrowding and reform, drug policy, use of force procedures and a police culture often viewed by the public as one embedded in secrecy and entitlement. These are very real, and for many, very raw topics.

In addition, law enforcement leaders need to look into the future and see how emerging technologies will affect their profession. In just a generation’s time, technology and automation have gradually penetrated this typically slow-to-change-and-adapt arm of government. In this context, the future use of automation, its potential efficacy and unforeseen consequences must be carefully evaluated. We must consider how this will change law enforcement’s future. The world of automation permeates many aspects of contemporary society, as evident in the banking industry’s adoption of Automated Teller Machines. Now, autonomous vehicles (AV), the Internet of things (IoT) and the quest by Tech Titans to invest in technology ranging from AVs to space exploration also reign supreme.

Collectively, law enforcement leaders must proactively explore how to combat criminal exploitation of these technologies. It is undeniable that the future proliferation and use of AVs will significantly affect police procedure and protocols. One persistent concern is how to prevent AVs from being used maliciously. In 2019, Forbes magazine asked, “What is to stop a driverless car from being loaded with explosives and sent off to its destination to target an individual with pinpoint precision?” How would a police officer determine if an AV is being used for nefarious activities? Other unknowns center around AV enforcement such as passenger freedoms and civil rights when stopped by law enforcement. It is projected that traffic accidents will decrease as a result of AV technology, calling into question the future need for a department’s traffic division. These queries are reasonable, and ones not easily answered.

Organizations such as the California Highway Patrol (CHP), whose primary mission is to save lives and property through traffic safety, education and enforcement, will face having to reimage how they operate and approach accident investigations and training. In an AV involved collision, experts and investigators will look at the vehicle’s computer algorithm. Did it malfunction, causing the AV to crash? Traffic investigators will need to be trained on how to understand AVs, their basic operation and  their technical functionality. It is possible non-sworn employees, or an unbiased third-party entity might investigate AV involved collisions instead. AV technology has the potential to restructure and reallocate entire divisions within some law enforcement organizations.

AV technology needs to be considered in the recruitment and hiring process of new law enforcement officers. Finding qualified candidates to become police officers in today’s climate is extremely difficult. Law enforcement leaders will need to recruit applicants with a greater propensity for, and understanding of, information technology and its uses. Today’s iGeneration, or Centennials, are those born in the age of the smartphone. The next generation of law enforcement officers will expect their worlds to be a click away from their wants and needs. In addition to seeing the world through a digital lens, they will embrace technology as they compete for the best education and jobs. Perhaps the prospect of recruiting these technology experts could boost law enforcement’s current challenge of finding qualified officers.

Autonomous vehicle technology must also be analyzed through the lens of police aviation. The CHP, for example, has a fleet of multi-mission aircraft used for traffic control, ground support, search and rescue, advanced life support, vehicle pursuits and patrol of large-scale public events. These assets are costly and may give way to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)—drones—which are changing the idea of aviation for law enforcement.

For now, UAVs would not replace traditional police aircrafts. UAVs are force multipliers that have flexibility in movement and recharging within minutes of running out of power. The greatest advantage UAVs offer is safety to personnel. If a UAV comes under attack, accidentally collides into something or otherwise malfunctions, there is no loss of life to operators. An additional benefit of UAV technology is the ability to operate at a fraction of a traditional aviation asset.

Automation technology has a series of significant advantages that could be harnessed and deployed by law enforcement. In the future, police departments will no doubt adopt autonomous vehicle technology to protect their communities. Some agencies are already using UAVs in their daily operations. City and law enforcement leaders need to invest in and research how the next wave of “disruptive” technologies will affect society and law enforcement operations. Recruiting youth with an emphasis and background in the technology sector is a good first step. At the very minimum, adding rudimentary IT training requirements to agency training curriculums would be prudent. Focusing this training on technology futures would be even better. Law enforcement departments need to expand their roles and scope of responsibilities to avoid the fate of Blockbuster Video: becoming extinct.


Author: Scott Moorhouse is a retired Captain from the California Highway Patrol and holds a bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of California, Irvine. He is a recent graduate from the University of San Diego Master’s in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership program, and the State of California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, Command College, Session 65.  

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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