Sunday, September 21, 2014

Police cameras: Blessing and Curse

The White House supports a proposal for police to wear cameras recording all interactions with civilians.

Civil libertarians seem to be in favor: it will hold police accountable and reduce incidents of brutality (although from the statistics, these are rare).

For a counterpoint: imagine this scenario in the year 2020. Police cameras are now ubiquitous; fiscal shortfalls have caused a budget crisis for local police departments. How do they raise funds?

Solution: assign a half-dozen officers to review all footage captured from street cops. This squad's job is to issue citations to "the ones who got away." Jaywalk in an officers peripheral vision? Get your ticket three months later. "California stop" at a sign? Maybe the cop nearby had more pressing business to attend to, but the squad in the office can send you a ticket at their leisure.

People already complain about speed traps in local towns being a cash cow. Just wait. Meter-maids of the future could be so much more efficient, just walk past rows of cars parked in town and then wait for the office crew to detect parking violations. A computer program can probably spot the violators.

Of course, getting a fine in the mail doesn't even compare to an unjust detention or a beating. But keep in mind, the big assumption of those in favor of police cameras is that many police officers will commit evil (due to racist, sexist, classist biases) unless they are monitored. But who monitors the people who review police camera footage?

If the police truly are biased, and they have thousands of hours of live footage to review and decide who to give tickets to, who do you think gets the most tickets?

Police discretion (e.g. a warning instead of an arrest) and prosecutorial discretion (who to charge, what crimes to prosecute, and who to send to jail) are a core of our legal system. Combine that with a wide, and often vague, spectrum of laws for proper conduct. The reality is that most of us rely on the decency of law enforcement to not throw the book at us for day-to-day activities.

So if the police really are as monstrous as their worst detractors claim, and they're required to wear constant monitoring tools, I worry about one indignity being substituted for another. Cops could use their discretion (combined with increased monitoring tools) to target the same groups they've been claimed to victimize before.

On the other hand, if police are generally decent and use their discretion to avoid trivial charges, that discretion might be taken away entirely if a future budget crunch or policy change demands it.

There are certainly some bad cops out there (and bad doctors, and lawyers, and economists...). Body cameras are a technological solution to a fundamentally human problem, Advocates for recording police may be ignoring the unintended consequences.

If this legal change takes hold I would expect more polite encounters between citizens and law enforcement (which is good) but also more inflexible decisions following those encounters. Cameras point both ways.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

"Hey, can you watch my stuff?"

In preparation for job interviews, I've been brushing up a bit on communication theory. The classic Influence: Science and Practice by Robert Cialdini is my current leisure reading.

Cialdini reports on a study done in the '70s which I think is easily worth blogging about.

"Consider what happened when researchers staged thefts on a New York City beach to
see if onlookers would risk personal harm to halt the crime. In the study, an accomplice
of the researchers would put a beach blanket down five feet from the blanket of a
randomly chosen individual—the experimental subject. After several minutes of
relaxing on the blanket and listening to music from a portable radio, the accomplice
would stand up and leave the blanket to stroll down the beach. Soon thereafter, a
researcher, pretending to be a thief, would approach, grab the radio, and try to hurry
away with it. As you might guess, under normal conditions, subjects were very reluctant
to put themselves in harm's way by challenging the thief—only four people did so in the
20 times that the theft was staged. But when the same procedure was tried another 20
times with a slight twist, the results were drastically different. In these incidents, before 
leaving the blanket, the accomplice would simply ask the subject to please "watch my 
things," something everyone agreed to do. Now, propelled by the rule for consistency,
19 of the 20 subjects became virtual vigilantes, running after and stopping the thief,
demanding an explanation, often restraining the thief physically or snatching the radio
away (Moriarty, 1975)."

I have to wonder how this study would fare with the modern Institutional Review Board, but that aside, it's a pretty strong result, which also happens to coincide with personal experience -- I have both asked and been asked by others to watch their things, and always felt pretty safe in doing so.

The psychologists theorize this is a result of desire for consistency -- if I said I'd watch, my behavior becomes consistent with that of a guardian.

I'd suggest a rational choice explanation that is just as, or perhaps more persuasive.

If I ask someone to watch my things and then they get stolen, the person assigned to watch is either a witness to the theft or is themselves the thief/accomplice. Knowing that I know this, the watcher has an incentive to be vigilant to avoid being blamed if the item goes missing.

So which is correct, psychology or game theory? Probably a little of both. I'd like to see a follow-up on this study performed in different countries with varying levels of trust for strangers. Presumably in a low trust institutional setting, the "watch my stuff" request would be less likely to work -- unless the incentives provided by game theory are sufficiently strong.

In any case, it's nice to read a study that basically affirms the trustworthiness of perfect strangers!