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

11 hours ago
Originally published on April 7, 2019 9:24 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 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:

We are continuing to follow a developing story out of Washington, D.C. That is the resignation of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. To talk more about this, we've called on Representative Will Hurd. He is a Republican. He represents the 23rd District from Texas, and his district includes hundreds of miles of the border with Mexico. In fact, he's the only remaining Republican who represents a borderline district. He's with us now. Congressman Hurd, welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us.

WILL HURD: It's always a pleasure to be on.

MARTIN: What's your reaction to this news that Secretary Nielsen is leaving? Are you surprised?

HURD: My reaction is going - is that it's going to make a difficult situation even more difficult. You - having new leadership in your senior position because it's not only going to be a new DHS secretary with the current Border Patrol director moving into the acting position. They're going to need a new Border Patrol director. And then you are also looking for a new ICE director. So this is going to make a challenging situation even more challenging. There is indeed a crisis going on at our border. In March, we had 100,000 people come into our country illegally. To get some context for that number, last year, 400,000 people in the entire year came in illegally. And so April's going to be even worse than March.

And my advice to the new head of DHS is, No. 1, we've got to start making some tough decisions on addressing long-term problems and the root causes, which is violence and lack of economic opportunities in the Northern Triangle, which is El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. We also need to make sure we're addressing some of these short-term issues like, why were 78,000 hours - man hours - by Border Patrol spent at hospitals escorting immigrants? Why do we not subcontract that out? Why do we - why does ICE, why does Border Patrol, why does CBP have three separate contracts to move people from point A to point B?

This is something that those officers shouldn't be doing. We should be subcontracting that type of work out. So the new - the acting director has his hands full. And a new head of DHS is going to have a difficult - come into a very difficult situation.

MARTIN: You alluded to the fact that there's been quite a lot of change in that department in recent days. The president, for example, withdrew his own nominee to be the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He said that he wants to go in, quote, unquote, a "tougher" direction. How do you understand that? What do you think he means by that?

HURD: Well, I don't know what he means by that. You'll have to ask him. But here's what I do now. I do know that people are taking advantage of our asylum laws. Applying for asylum is not a violation of the law. But when people are taking advantage of it, the people that really need that system are being impacted. When you have a lack of unity of effort in some places, you have a senior Border Patrol, you have a senior ICE, in some places you have a senior Coast Guard, but there's not one person in charge to make sure all the resources are being used in the right direction.

You're also going to have, you know, along the border, it's going to start getting hot in April. And that's going to have an impact on, you know, these masses of people that we have. And it's going to cause tempers to flare. So April's going to be incredibly tough. And we've got to start making some tough decisions in the short term. But again, the root causes of this problem is lack of economic opportunity and violence in the Northern Triangle. And the acting secretary should be working with the secretary of state to identify a special representative for that region.

MARTIN: All right. So much more to talk about than that. We thank you for talking with us. We hope we'll talk again in coming days. That's Representative - Congressman - that's Congressman Will Hurd from Texas. Congressman, thanks so much for talking to us.

HURD: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.