By Dr. Jerry Gaines & Sue Rowdon

Older sports fans will remember when football helmets had no face-masks.  There was no instant replay to see whether the ball ever broke the plane of the goal line, or if the receiver actually got both feet down inbounds before the catch.  Technology has played increasingly more important roles in sports: machines can clock both the speed of a pitched fastball, and the exit of a towering home run.  Technology can determine whether a shot on the tennis court touches or misses the line, can tell immediately if a served ball touches the net, and it can do this almost to perfection.   It is amazing how much of a role technology has come to play in nearly all things athletic – football, baseball, basketball, tennis, hockey – all of them are more “precise” than ever, greatly reducing (or eliminating all together) the often flawed, “human” factor.  

Technology has, in fact, played a huge role in just about every aspect of life: medicine, sales, security (home, business, law enforcement), inventory, shipping, banking, home entertainment.  It affects the daily lives of nearly every person.

Another area that utilizes American technological prowess to a great extent is our military.  A soldier sitting at a base in Nevada can now eliminate a terrorist threat riding in a vehicle somewhere in the Middle East.  Planes, ground vehicles, and an utterly amazing array of tools and munitions are currently employed by the various branches of our armed forces.  The military also employs robotics more and more to perform a widening variety of missions.  By all accounts, technology has been a huge boon when it comes to combat readiness.

In recent months, there has been rising concern about policing.  There has always been a rash of tragic events where police officers have shot and killed individuals — disproportionately minorities, many of them, unarmed.  

Racism is not getting worse, its getting filmed.” — Will Smith

Technology already plays a key role in domestic law enforcement.  The relatively recent employment of body cameras for officers and dashboard cameras for their vehicles has significantly changed the stage, providing video evidence of what actually goes on during active crime events.  Though some troubling revelations have surfaced, technology has apparently not been quite as effective at stemming the rising tide of unnecessary use of force (often lethal) in apprehending suspects.  This has been especially true of crimes that have resulted in the needless loss of life (police officers as well as suspects).  Had one teenager not had the courage to video the episode that took place in the George Floyd case, it is fair to say that former officer Derek Chauvin might very well have been acquitted or possibly not even charged.  Police departments (nearly 18,000 of them nationwide) still find themselves in a quandary as to what to do about the occasional careless, or overly aggressive officer, who chooses “deadly force” as a first resort when handling even the most routine issues like faulty equipment on a vehicle.  The general public has grown frustrated, disgusted and angry as it repeatedly hears the same old refrain, “I feared for my life” or “I thought he had a weapon.” It is understandable that law enforcement should want to protect its own, but its first responsibility is to “protect and serve” the public – the people in their respective communities.  

As in any potential “combat” situation, that responsibility automatically carries with it a level of risk.  Law enforcement leadership is currently scrambling to fix this problem as mistakes by their rank and file are costing departments millions in wrongful death and other civil suits.  Those suspected of minor infractions (especially applicable in simple traffic infractions) should not feel threatened because of suspicions, mistakes, and yes, racist perceptions (profiling) on the part of the police.  Every day, somewhere in America, this scenario is played out.  What can be done?

Police officers today have an incredibly difficult job.  As they approach vehicles (especially nowadays), there is no telling “who” is inside or “what” its occupants might do.  For the safety of everyone concerned, extreme caution must always be a top priority.  In some recent encounters, that caution has quickly morphed into over-reaction and (even deadly force).  As has been proven time and again, fear increases the chance of human error, and human error can lead to tragedy.

Is it too much of a stretch – a bit too “futuristic” — to employ hi-tech tools to reduce the chance of injury or loss of life in those, “routine” traffic stops?  Can advanced technology, be used, as in the military, for the same major purpose – saving lives?  What, for example, might be the results of police departments deploying robots to approach and address drivers in routine traffic stops?  Why can’t machines be employed to interrogate drivers or dispense a summons for minor infractions?   Don’t we already have the know-how to employ robotics in most of these cases?  The advantages could be wide-ranging, and worthwhile.  If it has saved lives on the battlefield, certainly it would reduce the odds of human error, injury, and yes, the needless loss of life.

At routine traffic stops, an officer-controlled robot could be “dispatched” to approach a vehicle, communicate with drivers, inform them as to why they were stopped, print traffic tickets if necessary, and politely send drivers on their way with no fear of bias, or overly aggressive behaviors.  Communicating through speakers, officers can remain in their vehicles, thereby reducing the chance of misunderstandings, resulting in much safer encounters.

No doubt, video cameras have been quite an asset when it comes to getting to the truth when citizens have encounters with law enforcement. Safety might be enhanced by employing more high-tech tools including robots.  They have proven themselves on so many fronts.  They don’t have to “think”.  They simply perform their duties as programmed, and maybe – just maybe – they might be able to save a significant number of lives in the process.

We have the technology.