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How to program a better tomorrow: Harnessing disruptive technologies
Innovation Issue 38: Summer 2023

Technology adoption and regulation in policing

Urban Futures

Technology adoption and regulation in policing

A view of an urban pedestrian walkway from the perspective of a security camera. The pedestrians are highlighted by transparent blue squares, and one man’s face is highlighted in orange with the word “match” next to it.

Police forces around the world are integrating emerging technologies into their work, from body cameras, to algorithms predicting crime hotspots, to new digital surveillance tools. The speed of adoption, however, is moving faster than the regulations that govern their use, as has been found by the research of Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) criminology professor Ajay Sandhu. He is researching how police officers are using these emerging technologies while navigating the gap between adoption and regulation. 

“There’s a lack of regulation and a lack of training on these technologies. They are just so radically new,” said professor Sandhu. His collaborative research with professor Peter Fussey from the University of Essex focused on the U.K., in part because technology like closed-circuit television cameras and body-worn cameras have been in use there longer than in other places, such as Canada.

The researchers conducted 57 qualitative interviews with officers and leadership working across four different police forces in the United Kingdom between January 2017 and March 2019. They also spoke to surveillance technology experts, including a former head of the U.K.’s Government Communications Headquarters and members of Edward Snowden’s legal team. On top of collecting information through interviews, professor Sandhu and his collaborators went on individual ride-alongs to observe officers using different technologies in the field. 

One of the research’s key findings was that officers exercise considerable discretion in their approaches to technology use. “There’s still an individual … making decisions about how this technology will be used,” said professor Sandhu. Additional findings include confusion around best practices for surveillance technology use and the ambiguous nature of regulations governing data use, along with how different officers navigate that ambiguity, with some being cautious about gathering data while others wanted even more access. An example of an officer using their discretion is in body-worn cameras. Professor Sandhu notes the policies governing their use are early stages and can be vague, so the officer might deliberately turn their camera on or off or might choose to angle their body to frame a scene in a certain way. When it comes to predictive algorithms meant to identify likely hotspots of crime, professor Sandhu notes that some officers are conscious of these algorithms being influenced by historical crime data, which can lead to over-policing of marginalized populations, while other officers feel they know from experience where hotspots might occur and may disregard the algorithm-based suggestions entirely. 

The research showed regulatory gaps and uncertainty about the regulations that do exist, in addition to frustrations with training, concerns over the surveillance tools’ efficacy and outdated legislation. Reflecting on the findings, professor Sandhu suggests that government agencies and police oversight bodies, as well as technology companies, should be responsible for catching the rules up to technology use as well as providing more training and oversight to ensure these surveillance tools are used properly. 

Professor Sandhu is continuing to explore body-worn cameras and policing with fellow TMU criminology professor Sara Thompson. He is also researching the emerging field of digital criminology, which looks at online communities conducting internet-based detective work.

There’s a lack of regulation and a lack of training on these technologies. They are just so radically new.

Read professor Sandhu and professor Fussey’s article “Surveillance arbitration in the era of digital policing (external link, opens in new window) ” in the journal Theoretical Criminology.

In another collaboration with University of Alberta’s professor Jonathan Scott Simmons, professor Sandhu also published Policing and Society about their research on the cinematography of body-worn cameras (external link, opens in new window) 

Professor Sandhu’s research is supported by the UK Economic and Social Research Council and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.