Automation and Police Work

In recent years, red light cameras (RLCs) and automated speed cameras have flooded our roadways, prompting citizens groups dedicated to the cameras’ eradication to form across the country. But these groups, the National Motorists Association foremost among them, aren’t taking the right approach in their camera critique. They most commonly claim that cities install cameras simply to raise revenue; they don’t actually improve driver safety because they encourage drivers to dangerously slam the brakes or step on the gas in an effort to escape intersections before lights change. Officials don’t listen to these critiques—the number of municipalities using RLCs and speed cameras has risen steadily for the past two decades—because cameras have, in fact, proven to be useful tools in lowering the number of right-angle collisions at intersections that most seriously injure drivers. But simply because cameras improve safety in certain situations doesn’t mean that critics are without reasons to oppose their implementation. Camera benefits can be bought at too high a price. While the data suggests that critics may be wrong on the safety point, a closer look reveals that the price of the new automation is something more important: the very nature of the police-populace relationship.

In the March 1982 issue of the Atlantic, James Wilson and George Kelling published a piece entitled “Broken Windows,” which would soon come to be recognized as the bible of police work, and whose central theory would drive historic crime clean-ups in cities from New York to Los Angeles. The “Broken Windows Theory,” as it would come to be known, essentially holds that police are members of a community and not simply anonymous law enforcers. Wilson and Kelling call for police officers to walk beats, to fraternize with and befriend the citizens they pass by every day, and to defend vigorously these people and their community from vandals, panhandlers, and petty thieves. When people share personal connections with the policemen they see defending them every day, Wilson and Kelling claim, they feel safer in their neighborhoods, happier to be living there, and less likely themselves to become vandals and petty criminals when the need or the urge arises.  Their personal connections with their officers remind them that they are owners and defenders of their neighborhoods along with these policemen, and that they should act accordingly.

In many ways Wilson and Kelling were reclaiming what Alexis de Tocqueville taught about the relationship between citizens and policemen, and especially about what happens when this relationship breaks down.  In a memorable passage of Democracy in America, Tocqueville contrasts police in America with those in Europe.  In Europe, the average citizen sees police as representing “a superior force,” and an officer “as unconnected with himself, and as the property of a powerful stranger whom he calls the Government.” In America, however, the average citizen sees police as representing “a right,” because he is a defender not of the power of Government over the common man, but of the common man’s law and justice. Private citizens, in other words, think of their public officers as both under their control and in their service, and this motivates citizens to obey and aid them in their work. They have a “life-interest” in their policemen, as Tocqueville puts it. When citizens forget that police represent their right to defend their laws, neighborhoods, and livelihoods, however, and come to see officers as representing the threat of some distant “Government,” they fold up their arms and lose interest in joining their police in defense of their community. Wilson and Kelling go further even than Tocqueville here, claiming that citizens at odds with or in fear of their policemen will be the first to violate their community when the opportunity or need presents itself.

All this may seem well and good, but how can the theories of Tocqueville, which attempted to describe how citizens related to police almost two hundred years ago, and those of Wilson and Kelling, which attempted to reapply Tocqueville’s theory to densely populated metropolises and neighborhoods in which foot traffic is the norm, possibly apply to the debate over installing police cameras on our roadways today? The answer to this question lies in the nature of the traffic stop: when an errant driver is pulled over by a policeman. A traffic stop is a personal interaction between driver and officer that affords officers the opportunity to remind citizens of what Tocqueville, Kelling, and Wilson so desperately wanted them to be reminded of: they ought to be serving as co-defenders with police of their community—in this case, the roadway—as opposed to its transgressor. A quick examination of how the average stop proceeds should serve to illustrate this point.

An officer always begins a stop by asking whether the driver knows why he was pulled over, and by stating his transgression if the driver cannot name it himself. This sets the framework for the following discussion, in which the officer typically walks the driver through exactly what kind of havoc he might have wreaked on himself and others for having sped, run a red light, or the like. It is not realistic to claim, of course, that this brief interaction will fundamentally change every driver’s habits, or that some drivers may not simply fume through the whole session and speed away again at the end. But the fact remains that in a traffic stop, the driver is forced to confront the fact that his breaking a law threatened himself and the entire community of the roadway, and that it is his duty as a driver to serve as a policemen’s co-defender of that community’s safety by driving more responsibly in the future. In other words, the policeman demonstrates, by illustrating the damage the driver could have done, that he cares for that specific driver and the others on the road—he demonstrates that he is present not simply to distribute tickets to pay for his own salary, but to serve the safety of everyone on the road. At the same time, he reminds the driver that the laws themselves are meant to protect that driver and others, and that it would be in his best interest to follow them. By the time the ticket is issued, it has been made clear to the driver that he is not simply being fined for breaking some arbitrary Government rule.

A camera cannot educate in this way. A camera citation is not delivered by a co-defender of the law but by cold, impersonal, and bureaucratic “Government,” as Tocqueville puts it. And as a result, this citation is not a personal reprimand, but simply another bill to pay. It is not a reminder to drivers that they must work with police to protect their own safety and that of their community by driving with greater care, but simply that they must remember to slam the brakes a bit earlier next time they pass those twenty meters of road on which they know the speed camera is perched. As camera programs expand, officers retreat from crowded highways and intersections into their secluded headquarters where, instead of issuing citations personally, with all the opportunity for education that includes, they rubberstamp tickets written up by cameras and drop them in the mail. And as citizens collect citations they receive less insight into how and why this kind of justice is dispensed, and fewer personal interactions with their protectors, whom they begin to forget are their protectors at all. They stop seeing, as Tocqueville claims they once saw, police as a right, both a symbol and a defender of the unique power they have over their laws and their government. Rather they see police as the impersonal “eye in the sky,” a force to be feared, avoided, and despised rather than appreciated. They form citizens groups like the National Motorists Association, which illustrate how easily trust is lost between the people and their protectors. The loss of this trust yields drivers who are resentful of the very laws and officers over which they should, as citizens in a democracy, feel complete ownership, and who are unlikely to obey enthusiastically and give aid to these laws and officers in the future. It is to this loss of trust and its consequences, rather than to complaints about revenue scams and rear-end collisions, that mayors and police chiefs should pay heed in deciding whether to begin recalling officers and dispatching cameras into their communities.


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