Autonomous Police Vehicles: The Impact on Law Enforcement

Andrew Gregg

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Technology, like art, is a soaring exercise of the human imagination.
—Daniel Bell
In the past several years, the autonomous vehicle has evolved from a possibility to an inevitability. AV technology will undoubtedly impact public safety services, including law enforcement agencies. Law enforcement can embrace AV technology with the advent of autonomous police vehicles (APVs). The APV is designed with standard AV technology but is also packaged with complementary technologies including an integrated unmanned aircraft system (UAS), facial recognition, thermal imaging, automated license plate readers, air sampling devices and gunshot detection systems. The APV can be used by law enforcement agencies to conduct surveillance or “patrol autonomously based upon current threats, criminality patterns, or community requests.”
Law enforcement agencies have an abundance of technological opportunities, such as “analytics, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things.” Law enforcement agencies must identify the “technologies and practices with the most potential for improving public safety.” Although the APV is in its infancy in the United States, it is a technology with the ability to improve public safety. Emerging technologies, such as the APV, have typically had a favorable impact, but the anticipated benefits and unintended consequences on police officers are not always assessed beforehand. These effects are often missed by law enforcement agencies due to a “lack of implementation plans and procedures.”
The goal of this thesis is to assist law enforcement agencies preparing for the future implementation of the APV by lending insight to public safety executives on the changing roles, mission, and tasks law enforcement officers may encounter. This goal is accomplished by examining emerging AV technologies, complementary technologies and analyzing plausible future scenarios. This thesis gives the reader an understanding of the potential intended and unintended consequences of APV implementation and its impact on the law enforcement officer.
The APV would ostensibly benefit law enforcement in many ways, such as by improving officer efficiency, officer safety, fugitive searches, rescue operations, community policing, and public safety communications. However, several potential APV concerns have also been raised. Some of these trepidations include privacy and legal drawbacks, as well as the potential to weaponize the APV. The positive effects of the APV appear to outweigh the shortcomings, and thus, it is only a matter of time before the APV is implemented by law enforcement agencies. However, prior to this implementation, law enforcement agencies must consider what the unintended consequences of the APV may be. These unintended consequences may be a reduced law enforcement workforce that has enhanced information technology (IT) skills, but a reduced practical skillset. While not a specific issue for some, law enforcement agencies should be aware of these factors to mitigate any potential concerns.
Not anticipating and understanding these factors can be detrimental for law enforcement agencies implementing the APV. Research has shown that other public organizations, such as fire departments, have adapted to new technologies in their field by identifying a void that needs to be filled. The APV will ultimately have a significant impact on law enforcement agencies with endless opportunities while at the same time reducing the risk to its officers, therefore, this thesis recommends that law enforcement agencies should find a void to fill when the APV becomes realized. This void may only present itself once the APV is in service and fully functional; thus, law enforcement agencies should be mindful of this possible void in order to pivot for sustained future success.

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