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COVID-19 May Ring in a New Era of High-Tech Private Policing

by Michael Fortino, Ph.D.

Rand Corporation, a prominent think tank known for its ability to forecast future trends, describes a post-COVID-19 era where police departments experience reduced, if not curtailed power, and are rendered nearly obsolete as a protectorate of the public from risk of a coronavirus outbreak.

Retired Police Chief Bob Harrison, in describing life in America in 2030, envisions a post-apocalyptic existence 10 years from now where our economy has all but collapsed, where we are forced to avoid any and all social interactions, and where our daily routines consist of monitoring devices that track our every move to keep us compliant. We will soon fall under the watchful eye of a newly coined law enforcement known as, “COVID Cops.”

In this post-COVID-19 world, schooling has moved online, entertainment is now experienced through compartmentalization, which may include spectator enjoyment from the protection of a viewing bubble. Brick-and-mortar stores, and our ability to touch merchandise before we purchase it, will become a thing of the past. Home theaters will be as commonplace as kitchens, and houses of worship will be experienced virtually.

Human life, as we knew it, has moved out of neighborhoods and communities and into the cozy corners of cyberspace.

Unfortunately, municipalities may not have the skill set or resources to police this new and unbridled high-tech wild west. By 2030, Harrison believes revenue for police departments from traffic fines will have decreased sharply. This will result from far fewer travelers on our highways due to an impending and continual fear of travel in the wake of a contagion.

Harrison predicts that the traffic we do see will be predominantly made up of self-driving vehicles designed to entirely eliminate human error and folly, thus reducing the number of citations.

With decreased revenue from traffic fines, police departments will soon be strapped economically. Compounded with less revenue, investigative costs will increase as a result of a more complex caseload involving identity theft and cybercrime. Because local police departments are typically deficient in this area of expertise, municipalities, Harrison theorizes, will be required to contract these services from the private sector, which will greatly increase budgetary obligations.

Harrison imagines that small police departments will merge into regional conglomerates to save money and to pool resources. Though he does not believe in the sci-fi fantasy of RoboCops patrolling cities backed up by swarms of laser-armed drones, he does believe there will be automated crime reporting and robo-dispatchers, many originating from the private sector. “By 2030,” he predicts, “virtual call-takers [will screen] public queries so efficiently that people [won’t] notice the difference from talking to a human.”

Others see a future where cellphone tracking apps via GPS will become pervasive. In many countries including the U.S., authorities have already begun the use of cellphone technology to assist in controlling the spread of the pandemic through contact tracing, a potentially invasive approach that shreds all sense of privacy and liberty of physical movement.

Hawaii now requires visitors to carry working cellphones under threat of arrest “to ensure people are abiding by the traveler quarantine order.” In addition to cellphone monitoring and GPS tracking, Harrison further predicts that security cameras with facial recognition software will proliferate exponentially. More sophisticated thermal imaging can now look behind walls should law enforcement need to assess the size and activity of private gatherings — a high-tech version of “stop and frisk.”

In an article appearing in Deloitte Insights, the authors write, “Simply looking through the call history of a phone at a crime scene can be a huge source of data that can break open even large investigations.” Often, the phone’s GPS tracking technology may lead investigators to a crime before a crime has even been discovered. With tighter law enforcement budgetary constraints, the attraction of GPS tracking and other similar technologies is that it’s the end user and not the government who foots the bill. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor warns, “GPS monitoring ... may alter the relationship between citizens and government in a way that is inimical to democratic society.” United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400 (2012) (concurring).

The days of cops patrolling a beat or visiting the local doughnut shop may come to a budgetary and technological end. Instead, communities will turn inward to private high-tech monitoring software in order to assess possible dangers on their streets or in their neighborhoods.

Facebook-style groups will keep tabs on intruders or suspicious neighbors. As we have seen in recent newscasts involving COVID-19-related shootings over issues of compliance, society will police itself, making the possibility for paranoid vigilante justice a greater risk than old-fashioned police misconduct.

In a world stigmatized by the contagion, there will naturally be less direct interpersonal contact, fewer person-to-person transactional exchanges, and a decrease in crowd-related activity, therefore requiring a smaller visible and public police presence. Yet, with an increase in a more sophisticated and complex footprint of cybercrime, the public will have no choice but to rely more on the private sector and its own policing technology to safeguard themselves from tomorrow’s threats. 



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