Police Are Investing In New Technology. 'Thin Blue Lie' Asks, 'Does It Work?'

Apr 7, 2019
Originally published on April 9, 2019 12:34 pm

Updated at 10:23 p.m. ET

In 2014, Michael Brown, an 18-year old unarmed black man, was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

In the four months that followed, the stock price of the stun-gun maker Taser International, now known as Axon Enterprise, nearly doubled.

The following year, the Department of Justice launched a pilot program awarding more than $23.2 million in grants to expand the use of body cameras worn by police officers across the country.

Today, these types of technologies are often touted by law enforcement officials and policy makers as ways to improve policing and avoid tragic and controversial incidents.

But as their use becomes more common, to what extent are they actually solving the problems they've set out to fix?

That's the question investigative reporter Matt Stroud explores in his new book, The Thin Blue Lie: The Failure of High Tech Policing.

In the book, Stroud argues that for decades, politicians and law enforcement have often opted for quick, easy solutions to correct for problematic policing practices, rather than adopt more systematic overhauls. As a result, issues like excessive force have never been solved, he says.

"You have a system that is in place and you have officers who have often been on the job for 20 or 30 years, who were in leadership positions and they don't want to change," Stroud tells Michel Martin in an interview for NPR's All Things Considered.

One approach examined closely by Stroud is law enforcement's use of stun guns, which have been a part of the conversation around police reform since the late 1960s.

One of the first police departments to use stun guns was the Los Angeles Police Department, which adopted the weapon after facing heavy criticism surrounding a 1979 police shooting.

A policeman holds a stun gun on April 4, 2003.
Graeme Robertson / Getty Images

"It was kind of the first time that this kind of weapon was used as a solution — was presented as a non-lethal solution in the wake of an incident involving a police killing," Stroud says.

Over the course of his research, Stroud says he found numerous examples of many stun gun related deaths. In 2018 alone, at least 49 people died after being shocked by police with stun guns, according to a Reuters analysis.

"The data has shown that Tasers do not reduce the number of firearms that are used on the streets and they have been shown to be lethal. So in that way they have failed to do what they were pitched to do," Stroud says.

A normal shock from a stun gun lasts five seconds. But as Stroud notes, "When police officers pull the trigger over and over and over again to make that Taser shock last five seconds, and 10 seconds, and 25 seconds, that's when they become really dangerous."

For his research, Stroud says he allowed himself to be stunned in his back for five seconds.

"It hurt. It's it's like a charlie horse that takes over your entire body. You can't move," he says. "It felt like I was never gonna be able to move again."

A body camera from Taser is seen during a press conference on Sept. 24, 2014 in Washington, DC.
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP/Getty Images

Another technology examined by Stroud is the police body camera. It's an innovation with well-placed intentions, argues Stroud, but often he says, its potential goes unfulfilled.

Even though body cameras have been shown in studies not to influence police officers' use of force, Stroud says that body cameras can help bring transparency to police interactions, especially in the aftermath of controversial officer-involved shootings.

The problem, Stroud says, is that body-cam footage is not always made public.

"Where problems emerge is when government officials and police officials push back against making that footage public," he says.

When it is made public, he says it's often offered as exculpatory evidence.

"It ends up becoming a promotional vehicle rather than something that is designed to force transparency and show the truth," says Stroud.

Instead of investing millions of dollars into equipment like body cameras and stun guns, Stroud proposes a non-technological solution to problems like excessive use of force.

He points to a 1967 report from the U.S. Department of Justice that recommended, among other things, greater community involvement, increased hiring of minority police officers and better training on the use of force.

While Stroud acknowledges that some of these changes have occurred over the past several decades, he believes reforms have still not gone far enough. Since there are around 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S., Stroud argues change needs to happen on a much broader scale.

"Unless you have some major event or leader that emerges in policing in the United States who forces this kind of change, then it's not going to happen."

: 4/07/19

A previous Web version of this story referred to the release of body camera footage in the deadly police shooting of Laquan McDonald in 2014. In fact, the footage was from a police dashboard camera.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Tasers, body cameras, facial recognition technology - after a high-profile incident that brings policing practices into question, such as after Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, you often hear officials or policymakers tout technologies as the solution. Reporter Matt Stroud wanted to know if they really work. He gives his answer to the question in his new book, "The Thin Blue Lie: The Failure Of High-Tech Policing" (ph).

He joined me from member station WESA in Pittsburgh, and I started by asking him about that title, which includes that very powerful word, lie. And I asked him what made him arrive at the conclusion that these technologies don't do what they're supposed to do. He started with a non-lethal weapon that has been used by police departments since the late 1970s - the Taser.

MATT STROUD: They're sold as a way to get police officers to stop using firearms. And in circumstances where police officers feel that they are under lethal threat, they are still going to use firearms. The data has shown that Tasers do not reduce the number of firearms that are used on the streets, and they have been shown to be lethal. It's under much question. But you have somebody who's shocked, and then, shortly thereafter, they go into cardiac arrest - or, during the event itself, they go into cardiac arrest and die.

MARTIN: And what about body cameras? I know that's become another discussion point for a number of departments. The argument is that they discipline the interactions of both parties. Both the police are more likely to be more respectful of the public and that the public is more likely to be respectful if they know that they're being filmed. What does the data show on that score?

STROUD: The data that I've seen on that score - if you have limited studies - and there are limited studies that have been done by Taser International - they tend to show what you say. But independent studies have shown that they actually don't influence the way that police interact with anybody. When they were initially adopted, the premise was that when you have a controversial police interaction, that body camera footage is made public.

And what has transpired as body cameras have been adopted by more and more police departments is that those police departments and government officials who want to appease those police departments have decided, no, we're not going to make that body camera footage public. We are going to withhold it and consider it evidence. So it never gets out.

MARTIN: Well, except that it has sometimes shown the truth, hasn't it? Not - I mean, unfortunately...

STROUD: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...Didn't prevent a lethal incident, like in the Laquan McDonald case in Chicago. I mean, even though an investigative journalist had to go and demand the footage, it did result in a conviction, didn't it? I mean, it didn't prevent...

STROUD: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...A lethal incident, but it did bring accountability after the fact. So...

STROUD: Sure. I believe that was dashcam footage.

MARTIN: Dashcam footage - not the same thing.

STROUD: And yeah. Like I said, the video can be used for good. And that's why I think the premise of body camera footage is good. But where problems emerge is when government officials and police officials push back against making that footage public because that's the whole reason. The reason is to bring transparency to police interactions. And if government officials push against that, it goes against the entire premise.

MARTIN: One of the very interesting points that you make in your book is that the federal government has investigated alternatives to lethal force and improving police-community relations for decades. I mean, you highlight a report that was commissioned by President Johnson, President Lyndon Johnson in 1967 in response to the Watts riots. And you said that it proposes really not so much an emphasis on technology but an emphasis on relationships, on communication and teaching police officers how to communicate better with the public, how to - it's more of like a - I don't know what word to use. Would you say humanistic approach? And...

STROUD: Absolutely. That's a great word for it.

MARTIN: And that you say that there's - these kinds of - these techniques have never really been implemented because they were deemed to be too expensive. But you also point out that technology is expensive. The police departments spend a huge amount on these technologies that you say don't work. So what - my question to you is, why do you think these techniques have not gotten more traction?

STROUD: Because they're complicated. If you had a situation - you brought up Laquan McDonald, right? So that video emerges. People are very upset, as they should be, about the interaction that occurs and the police officers' role - I mean, just a horrendous situation. And then Rahm Emanuel has to come up with something to tell the public. Is Rahm Emanuel's response to that going to be, we're going to completely change the way that police do their job? We're going to invest in social workers. We're going to take a more humanistic approach to the way that police do their job.

Or is it easier for him to say, listen - we have a very simple solution that we can institute right now. We're going to spend $5 million and make sure that everybody has a non-lethal weapon on their duty belt, a Taser. And we're going to invest, you know, millions dollars more - millions of dollars more so that every police officer has a body camera, and all of the interactions will be transparent from now on. That is a solution that is concrete, that can happen right now and that he can invest in. He has the budget to do it.

And so I think that since you have politicians that are making these decisions, they want to make a quick solution, and they want to make it happen right now. And so that's what they end up doing. And they have done this for decades. That's part of what the book shows, is that they go for the simple solution all the time.

MARTIN: You report on the data that demonstrates that these technologies don't actually solve the problem that they are purported to solve. And you say that you had sources within the police departments who were willing to share their own experiences about the effectiveness or lack thereof of these specific technologies. But what I didn't see in the book is reporting on what would be persuadable for these officers. I mean, you pointed out that a lot of the reasons that these technologies stick around is that police officers like them. And I just...

STROUD: It's true.

MARTIN: ...Wondered if you had any reporting on what would make them not like them.

STROUD: One of the main sources that I have - and he's cited in the book - is a gentleman by the name of Matt Masters. He's a SWAT officer, and he didn't start to see Tasers as not a good thing until his son was shot and nearly killed with a Taser. And he as a result of that started doing more digging into the history of Tasers and getting into all of the data that I report on in the book. And he started to understand, and he started to feel empathy for other people. And so he is the optimal - you know, for tragic reasons the optimal example of the kind of police officer who could help to institute this kind of change because he's been through it himself.

MARTIN: That's Matt Stroud. His book is "The Thin Blue Lie: The Failure Of High-Tech Policing" (ph). And he was with us from WESA in Pittsburgh.

Matt Stroud, thanks so much for talking to us.

STROUD: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.