“Cop cams are inextricably tied to Taser, by far the dominant supplier, and the company will likely shape whatever the devices evolve into… Founded at one national moment of police angst, the company is using another such moment to transform from a manufacturer into a technology company. From a business perspective, body cameras are low-margin hunks of plastic designed to get police departments using the real moneymaker: Evidence.com, which provides the software and cloud services for managing all the footage the devices generate…”
—Karen Weise, “Will a Camera on Every Cop Make Everyone Safer? Taser Thinks So,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, July 12, 2016
Variation I: The endocrine safety
The widespread adoption of body cameras was followed by a wave of high-profile indictments for police misconduct, generally considered a mark of their success—a success qualified, of course, by the only somewhat smaller wave of high-profile exonerations following the indictments. From that success and that qualification came the endocrine safety. This was a trigger lock yoked to an optical sensor monitoring the pituitary gland, which would allow the gun to fire only when the officer’s brain released adrenaline and cortisol in volumes indicating a genuine sense of danger to the self or others.
Venture capital drove the technology to the public eye; opinion-makers and legislators of the technocratic Left kept it there; and initial skepticism crumbled as lab and field evidence showed conclusively that the endocrine safety was, in fact, exquisitely sensitive to an officer’s perception of threat. Body cameras could be used to create like-for-like control simulations: After an officer had successfully fired a “pit-locked” weapon, she could be taken back through the same experience, from the body-camera footage, and directed to shoot in the simulation where she had shot in life. With the same sensory stimulus, but the absence of danger, the safety engaged every time.
There followed a string of satisfying prosecutions, a spate of drops in police violence correlated with regional adoption of the technology. “Neuroscience,” wrote the editors of Nature Neuroscience, “now promises to inform something like an ideal force prescription: If not a clear, then at least a less blurred delineation of the circumstances that justify violence.”
The endocrine safety could exculpate as well as implicate, of course. An officer able to fire a pit-locked weapon was, almost definitionally, acting in self-defense—even when hindsight would reveal that there was nothing to defend against. The issue came to a head as a Trenton grand jury declined to indict Troopers Michael Leblanc and Francisco Barraja, who together sent five dozen bullets from pit-locked sidearms through the flesh of Zora Farrow. Ms. Farrow had been stopped on the street, searched for drugs, and handcuffed, kneeling, to a bike rack while the officers called the stop in from their cruiser; an epileptic, she had begun seizing, and the officers had opened fire. Restrained and known to be unarmed, a dozen feet away, she had apparently kindled a terror in those two men that the endocrine safety and an army of expert witnesses pronounced utter and mortal.
Device error was investigated—prayed for—and ruled out. All evidence indicated that Leblanc and Barraja’s fear had been real.
Variation II: The aperture safety
The promise of what was then called “big data” enchanted weaponsmiths as much as it had everyone else. Local wealth and crime rates, the time of day and year, the trails of text and tissue and found light that everybody in a surveillance state left in its wake like footprints in new snow: How could such things fail to pertain to the decision to kill?
And they did not fail. The studies were clear on that: In situations where officers could be agreed, in hindsight, to have erred, statistical models trained on real-time situational information consistently recommended a better course of action. The open question concerned the interface. An algorithm could simply apply weights to the data, compare to a threshold, and decide; for a human officer, no such integration of computed factors and her own judgments could be done in the moment.
Or not consciously. But the machinery of perception, by this point, was in play; law enforcement worldwide was experimenting with improvements to sight, hearing, smell, with new senses for electromagnetism and radiation. Estimates of danger could be fed directly into the inferior temporal lobe, subtly shaping the officer’s visual experience to differentiate high- from low-threat targets. This was called the integration or, more stylishly, the aperture safety.
To support split-second decision-making, the safety tapped into the most entrenched visual archetypes of menace. Dangerous places became darker, closer, more jagged-edged; dangerous people became larger, more graceful, more brutish. Darker-skinned.
Machines are not the only things that learn. Officers from “bad” neighborhoods complained that they were unable to go back, even off duty, the safety disabled; the sense of lurking danger was too great. More saliently: By tightening the association between true threat and swift grace, large size, dark skin, the aperture safety made life more dangerous for non-threatening persons in possession of those features.
This danger was studied, quantified. Biological anthropologists projected that, within two generations, the average size of men in several distressed urban neighborhoods would decrease by several percentage points, their skin lighten by several shades. The ideal force prescription, it seemed, was a Darwinian influence.
Interlude: The peppered moth
From a contemporary vantage, looking back, such a claim is absurd on its face. No matter their bias, no matter their intentions—how could officers of the law kill enough people to exert a visible selection pressure in a population of any size?
The peppered moth, Biston betularia, comes in two colorations—typica, white peppered with black spots, andcarbonaria, all black. In 1811, carbonaria was unknown in England. As the nineteenth century progressed, the frequency of carbonariaincreased, until by 1895 its prevalence in the species was 98%. This is due to the interaction of two factors: The “differential bird predation hypothesis,” a compression of the intuitive idea that birds find it easier to find and eat black moths on white backgrounds and white moths on black backgrounds than the reverse; and the increasing frequency, as industrialization took hold in England, of finding light-colored trees whose bark had been darkened by soot.
From those data, J. B. S. Haldane estimated that carbonariahad a 50% fitness advantage relative to typica. What advantage would it take to enact a smaller shift, in fewer generations?
Do the math. That is how it was. That is how it had come to be.
Variation III. The empathy safety
The Dallas police department, lauded for its strong relationship with the community it served, collaborated with neuroscientists at the Max Planck to prototype what they termed an empathy safety: A tool that would scour and digest the target’s digital history, injecting relationships, hopes, accomplishments, and a life’s high and low moments directly into an officer’s brain in a split-millisecond dream before he or she could pull the trigger. Proponents reasoned that such a thunderbolt of familiarity would restrict the use of lethal force to the absolute height of necessity; opponents countered that it would cripple enforcement, clouding officers’ judgment with the emotions and contradictions of a relationship that was not even real. The fifteen officers who agreed to a live test of the device revealed a more complicated truth.
Although the empathy safety drastically reduced the test cohort’s use of violence, three of the fifteen did indeed freeze up on their first violent encounter, twice fatally. From the rest, one had to be dropped from the program after taking an intense interest in the family of one man he had spared—slipping extra cash to the almost-victim’s wife at her workplace, fund-raising for a motorized wheelchair for his disabled son, intervening with near-cataclysmic results in the admittedly disastrous love life of his daughter.
Two more were terminated from the force after it emerged that they were threatening innocent people expressly to gather their biographies. In one case, the officer used the information to convince the suspects’ associates that she was psychic, a conviction she used to sell tips on stock prices and the outcomes of sporting events. The other officer was discovered recombining and altering the lives he extracted into short stories, none of which he succeeded in selling.
The death blow to the empathy safety was struck by Nina Abousalem, an officer in the test program whose metrics had shown no change. She worked a dangerous beat in West Dallas, on the other side of the river from where the money was. Internal and external evaluators, both then and after her death, found that she drew her sidearm frequently but judiciously, and that her use of force on the job was essentially without flaw.
One spring morning, months after she had joined the test group, Abousalem’s three-year-old son, Ibrahim, refused to go to daycare. A neighbor of theirs, Hunter Strickland, described what followed:
I was on my way out to get the mail and I heard Ibrahim shouting, and Nina talking back at him. Nothing I hadn’t heard before—I think the whole street knew by then that Ibi didn’t always like to leave the house in the morning. But then I heard a different kind of scream. I looked to see what was going on, and I see Nina standing over Ibi in the driveway, talking at him while he holds his shoulder and screams his head off. He’s clearly in pain, and she’s just calmly flaying him—I only caught what she said when he stopped for breath, but stuff like, “If you hate school so much, why don’t you just drive to the station and do my job instead?” And then Yusuf comes out and asks what’s going on and Nina fires on him. She keeps her eyes on Ibi, doesn’t even look at Yusuf, just sort of points the gun in his general direction and pulls the trigger. He jumps, covers his head with his arms, then looks at her and starts to say something. And she says “Fuck off,” and points the gun at Ibi. At that point Yusuf ducks inside, to call the cops, I guess. But she don’t shoot Ibi, just motions him to the car with the gun and says “Get in the car.” And he does. But she don’t, she just pushes the buttons on the key fob that close the door. It don’t take long for the cops to get there, and as soon as she gets a clear line on a cop car, she opens right up —
Sgt. Felicia Garza, also outfitted with an empathy safety, fired the killing shot. On the stand, she claimed the safety had revealed to her, in an instant, what Yusef Abousalem had seen only in hindsight: That Nina Abousalem had withdrawn from her relationships, had grown cold and distant from even her closest friends and family. Photos and video with loved ones waned, then ceased; in disputes where Abousalem would normally have been a peacemaker, she was the first to the knives. “The safety didn’t teach her not to shoot people because she knew and loved them,” Garza testified. “It taught her to look past that knowledge, and that love, and shoot anyway.”
No experts confirmed the plausibility of Garza’s diagnosis. It didn’t matter much. Empathy was officially excluded from the ideal force prescription.
Coda: The failure of alternatives
At no point during this technological evolution, it should be said, did citizens cease to suggest the usual methods for reducing police-involved violence. There remained heartfelt calls to train police in de-escalation and nonlethal subdual, to draw new officers from the communities they would protect, to abandon broken-windows policing and the “warrior mindset” and using citations as an income stream. Some of these were tried, sometimes with seriousness; results or no, none were widely implemented.
A plausible guess at the reason nearly writes itself. As wealth concentrated around a smaller and smaller cadre of the fortunate, an increasing share of law enforcement budgets came from a decreasing population of constituents. That population was technically gifted and optimistic about technology; they had strong networks and platforms for influencing voters and decision-makers.
Very few of them had spoken to a police officer about anything other than a moving violation. Technology was something they trusted and understood. Police were not. But, as their fortunes mounted and the rest of the country stagnated, they needed the police to protect them from a majority with less and less to lose.
In these circumstances, a mandate to protect the golden goose was natural, if not inescapable. The increasingly violent tactics this mandate entailed were both a response to and an accelerant of a mounting conflagration of class rage, like using a fan to blow flames away.
In the decades and centuries that followed, a young man from the green country might venture among the black streets and their gutted palaces. If he returned, he might do so having been bestowed, by the native tribes, a weapon more and more likely, as time went on, to be called “blackwand” or “fire-thrower” or “killer-that-shouts.” And, rarely, such a weapon might be endowed with a special property that nearly demanded to be spoken of just before sleep, seated in a circle, around a fire—for example, the “just” weapon of Demetrius the Square-Dealer, which would fire only in defense of his person; or the “discerning” wand of Martin Sky-Eyes, which allowed him to see who was his friend and who his foe.
The wielders of such weapons often rose to prominence among their people as warlords or rangers, mercenaries or homesteaders. Yet their stories—or, in any case, those that were remembered and repeated—partook of a certain sameness. Martin Sky-Eyes was neither the first hero nor the last to kill a well-loved foe and die at his minions’ hands, when parlay (the storytellers assure us) would have saved them both; Demetrius the Square-Dealer was just one of a long line of heroes who had, drunk or new-awakened, mowed down loved ones in a moment’s mistaken terror. And as that long dark age trudged on, a story grew around the stories, to account for their sameness. The men who walk the black streets understand the treachery of magic, it went. There is a reason that they let their treasures go.