Police Risk Sensors - A wearable computing recommendation for LAPD

In September, the Los Angeles Police Department wrapped up a pilot of wearable cameras. In November they choose a supplier. Now they are planning a deployment in light of reminders from Ferguson that witness testimony is nearly unusable and their fellow citizens are ambiguous about the violence they are equipped and trained to use. Wearable cameras are part of the future of policing but they cannot be the center of it. Read on to find out why to realize the full value of a new body camera, every officer must first get a new holster.



A holster that senses when an officer unlocks it is the only thing we must deploy to create a real-time, in-the-field platform for situational context and adaptive equipment.

We equip officers with guns and hope they'll never need to use them. Recognition of their gun is an officer's leverage to speed a peaceful resolution to a conflict (for the same reason wars are less common than the type of conflicts that cause them*). When an officer can't uphold the law non-violently, this basic premise of policing breaks down or gets lost in the moment. Thus, increasing the flow of trustworthy information will lead to longer, deeper, and widespread peace.

Any situation in which an officer opens a holster is by nature the high-stakes exception. They should use a different set of equipment in risky situations but since most risky situations also lack time to visit the equipment room, our current pattern is equipping officers as if all situations are risky or none of them are. That is unnecessarily coarse and leads to weak solutions that cause more problems. Any way to monitor the risk in real time can break through this limitation and I propose we start with the open/closed state of a holster. A sensor that announces near-field when a holster is open is simple, low-cost, hard to break, easy to maintain, and all we need to use existing technology for risk-aware applications. Here are a few examples:
  • With a GPS Tracker - Immediately and quietly reports high-stakes situations to headquarters for queuing up backup and analyzing real-time field patterns.
  • With a wearable camera - Turns on the camera only in high-stakes situations when a verifiable record is worth the compromise of privacy and big data overhead.
  • With a biomonitor - Synchronizes health status and support systems with normal and high-stakes physical states.
  • With a smart visor - Changes the display from patrol information to tactical information when weapons use is likely.

We need this yesterday, literally, when President Obama proposed to fund up to 50,000 wearable cameras for local law enforcement. I commend the president for suggesting we invest in technology to prevent Ferguson-like challenges from plaguing Los Angeles, however a wearable camera only incrementally addresses the existing issues and compounds them with surveillance and big data issues. Cameras alone are high-tech and low-smarts. If Chief Beck and his peers throughout Los Angeles County deploy wearable sensors first, their department's wearable cameras have a chance at removing existing barriers to trust without introducing new ones and Los Angelenos will enjoy nation-leading, transformative value from the millions we will spend outfitting our bravest for the digital age.

(optional deeper reading: The Rationality of War )

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