March 19, 2019

Thin Blue Lie

The Failure of High-Tech Policing

Everyone remembers Ferguson. The small municipality in Missouri, located ten miles northwest of St. Louis, with a mostly black population of about twenty-one thousand, was the setting of a shocking police killing in 2014 that captured the nation’s attention.1 The city’s population, however, also represented a much broader trend—the culmination of a cycle of white flight that had been playing out all over the country for decades. In the 1950s and ’60s, as blacks moved in massive numbers from the South to large northern cities like St. Louis, white families fled those cities for the suburbs. By the 1980s, some blacks had accumulated enough wealth to move to the suburbs, too, and when they did many whites fled again to exurban communities even farther out. This trend created intensely segregated and often impoverished suburbs2—which Ferguson perfectly exemplified: between 1980 and 2010, Ferguson’s white population decreased from 85 to 29 percent while its black population increased from 14 to 67 percent.3 All the while, the number of black police officers in Ferguson remained extremely low: by 2014, only three of the city’s fifty-three police officers were black.4 Like so many other communities in the United States, Ferguson had become a majority-black city policed almost entirely by white officers.

Just before noon on a hot Saturday, August 9, 2014, one of those officers, Darren Wilson, got an alert on his radio to be on the lookout for two young black men who had just left the Ferguson Market & Liquor convenience store, where they’d allegedly stolen cigarillos. Minutes later, Wilson, driving an SUV patrol car, spotted two black teenagers walking in the street in a low-traffic area of Ferguson near the Canfield Green Apartments complex less than a half mile from the store. Wilson approached them in his SUV and ordered them to move onto the sidewalk so he could question them. The young men, according to Wilson, refused, and one of them, eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, approached the vehicle. In less than a minute, Brown would be dead.5

As shocking as the incident was, it easily could have remained a local story. It’s a sad fact of life in America that police killings happen all the time, all around the country. But this case was different. First, it happened in the middle of the day, in the sunny heat, within yards of a populated apartment complex where a number of bystanders watched from a distance. It was immediately heartbreaking, too: Brown lived in the complex, and the first person to identify the young man lying dead on the ground was his grandmother, who fell to her knees and wept. Furthermore, Brown was unarmed during the incident, and people on the scene claimed that he had been holding up his hands in a gesture of surrender when the officer opened fire.6 Brown was black, and the officer was white. The timing was important, too: less than a month earlier, Eric Garner, a black man in New York City, had been killed as police officers attempted to arrest him using a controversial chokehold, setting off massive protests around the country.7 To the millions nationwide who had taken to the streets, Brown’s killing represented yet another—perhaps an even more flagrant—example of police brutality inflicted upon a black man. Would an unarmed white man in Brown’s situation have faced the same fate?

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After Brown’s killing, the U.S. Department of Justice commissioned a report on the incident. It found that Wilson was part of a police department made up of mostly white officers who—whether they meant to or not—essentially terrorized the mostly black communities they served. According to the report, Ferguson police officers went to extraordinary lengths to generate revenue, issuing an enormous number of tickets and fines for minor civil offenses. They also targeted black people much more frequently and aggressively than white people: between 2012 and 2014, 85 percent of people stopped by the Ferguson Police Department and 93 percent of those arrested were black, despite blacks making up just 67 percent of the population. Ninety-five percent of Ferguson’s jaywalking tickets went to blacks, and 94 percent of its “failure to comply” offenses—a charge for not immediately following an officer’s command—went to blacks, as well.8

These tickets weren’t insignificant expenses for people living in Ferguson’s impoverished neighborhoods. The city’s unemployment rate had shot up in recent years to a high of more than 13 percent in 20129 as household earnings fell by one-third and the population living below the poverty line doubled. These citations, in other words, added up to a form of wealth extraction, a system that sucked money from the already poor to fund the operations of an increasingly overextended police force. In many cases, people would find themselves unable to pay a fine for an arguably meaningless nonviolent offense and end up in jail as a result. Worse still, there was a perverse incentive encouraging officers to continue these practices: Ferguson police officers were given promotions based on what was euphemistically called “productivity”—which in reality meant the amount of money an officer brought in.10 Indeed, the City of Ferguson relied on cops writing tickets and issuing fines to keep its budget balanced.

The Ferguson report’s findings bore a striking similarity to another report issued nearly a half century earlier. Titled “The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society,” this 1967 report was commissioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration in response to what were, at the time, some of the most destructive riots the country had ever seen, the Watts uprising of 1965. In presenting the report to Congress, President Johnson issued a statement of his own on the importance of responsible law enforcement. “When public order breaks down, when men and women are afraid to use the public streets, their confidence is seriously shaken,” he wrote. “When hundreds of thousands of young people enter adulthood carrying the burden of police records, when contempt and mistrust too often characterize public attitudes toward lawful authority, all—young and old, private citizens and public officials—suffer the consequences.”11 The report itself proposed a wide range of ideas for improving the ways that society responds to crime,12 including more than two hundred specific policy changes within the Department of Justice, state governments, civic organizations, religious institutions, and business groups—even employment agencies and government programs employing social workers. Calling for “a revolution in the way America thinks about crime,” the report didn’t just make recommendations about how police departments and prisons should operate; it proposed improving options for affordable housing to ensure people wouldn’t have to scrounge and resort to crime to make ends meet and establishing citizen advisory commissions in “minority group neighborhoods” to help improve relationships between police and communities. The report, unlike many other analyses at the time, seemed to truly understand the circumstances that made policing such fraught work. “It is hard to overstate the intimacy of the contact between the police and the community,” the report explained.

Policemen deal with people when they are both most threatening and most vulnerable, when they are angry, when they are frightened, when they are desperate, when they are drunk, when they are violent, or when they are ashamed.… Every police action can affect in some way someone’s dignity, or self-respect, or sense of privacy, or constitutional rights.13

The report acknowledged that while police “have been well trained to perform such procedures as searching a person for weapons, transporting a suspect to the stationhouse, taking fingerprints, writing arrest reports, and testifying in court,” they had received almost no guidance when it came to handling “intricate, intimate human situations.” Police training, the report went on, is

focused almost entirely on the apprehension and prosecution of criminals. What a policeman does, or should do, instead of making an arrest or in order to avoid making an arrest, or in a situation in which he may not make an arrest, is rarely discussed. The peacekeeping and service activities, which consume the majority of police time, receive too little consideration.14

The report recommended specific steps that departments could take to help alleviate these problems: Police leaders should strive to be more engaged and visible in their communities by attending local meetings and events as well as participating in community discussions. They should deal more openly with complaints, and train new hires to use force only when absolutely necessary. Police departments in communities with substantial minority populations should recruit “minority-group officers, and deploy and promote them fairly.” Furthermore, departments should address citizen grievances fairly, explain clearly to citizens what police are and are not permitted to do under the law, hire people with college degrees, and stress abilities over seniority for promotions. Finally, the report suggested that every department, regardless of size, should have a comprehensive program to identify and weed out bad cops.15

These were important, necessary recommendations—yet half a century later, in Ferguson, few of them had been implemented in any meaningful way. Money was a large part of the reason. The Johnson administration’s report estimated that state and local governments around the country were already spending approximately $2.8 billion annually—the equivalent of about $21 billion today—on policing alone.16 And its recommendations, had they been followed, surely would have driven that number even higher. Coming up with the necessary funds to retrain officers, hire new ones, and restructure how the criminal justice system worked would have been a massive undertaking. Eventually, it was hoped, those costs would pay for themselves by making law enforcement more efficient and addressing the root causes of crime. Police would have fewer arrests to carry out, fewer people to incarcerate, and would need fewer resources for active patrols. But the up-front investment required was just too great. And so the changes never took off.

The underlying problems that had brought crime to such high levels in the first place soon worsened as a recession hit the United States in the 1970s. As the slowing economy deprived government agencies of resources, the idea of making a substantial new investment to transform law enforcement seemed increasingly impossible.

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The spikes in both poverty and crime persisted into the 1980s, creating a demanding, demoralizing situation. Police commanders and the politicians overseeing their work simply did not have the capacity—or the willingness—to consider the recommendations of “The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society” in the years that followed. Instead, they tightened budgets and doubled down on what they already knew—more aggressive policing and more arrests.

As the recession ended and the 1980s became the 1990s, police budgets started growing once again. But rather than putting that money toward substantive reforms, police leaders turned to the cultural fascination of the moment: technology. Rather than investing, for example, in training to help cops manage stressful encounters with the mentally ill, police leaders spent the money on high-tech crime mapping tools, electroshock weapons, and surveillance equipment. Rather than more closely embedding officers into communities, leaders invested in computer software to help carry out arrests more efficiently. In short, policing became an industry.

And as is the case with many burgeoning industries, companies were falling over themselves to get in on the action. Before long, these companies, especially the ones that got in early, were raking in astounding profits and taking steps to block out competitors, cozying up to police departments and in some cases arranging to keep their contracts secret.

Between 1981 and 2012, the amount of tax money spent on police ballooned from about $16.8 billion17 to $126.4 billion,18 an increase of almost 200 percent, adjusted for inflation. By 2014, when Michael Brown was killed, this spending surge—which could be described as a police industrial complex—had changed American policing so radically that many observers jumped immediately to discussing which technologies might have helped to avoid the tragic conclusion rather than asking about underlying, institutional problems within the police force.

Indeed, as weeks turned to months after Brown’s killing, many observers asked why Wilson hadn’t been equipped with a body camera19 or a Taser.20 Wouldn’t a video recording of what happened between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown have defused the unrest before it turned violent? And wouldn’t a nonlethal weapon with the ability to incapacitate someone from a distance negate the need for guns like the one that killed Michael Brown?

The answer to the former question is impossible to know.

The answer to the latter, it turns out, was probably not. After studying 36,112 use-of-force incidents, University of Chicago researchers determined in 2018 that Tasers do not reduce police use of firearms in any significant way. The company that produces Tasers did its own study and came to a similar conclusion, although it claims this is by design; in a 2018 interview, the company’s spokesman Steve Tuttle told CNBC, “We did not provide Tasers to replace firearms.”21 Yet the promise of cutting down on fatal encounters between civilians and police was clearly a large part of their appeal.

In the end, the hype won out. By the end of 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice awarded tens of millions of dollars in grants to help police departments purchase body cameras—a program created specifically in response to the controversy over Brown’s death.22

Today, the fundamentals of policing have been co-opted by industry—by a corporatized approach to law enforcement that increasingly relies on weapons, software, and covert surveillance. According to this school of reform, technological solutions are always preferable to others. At the same time, community leaders, lawmakers, and some police chiefs have pushed for deeper, more old-fashioned reforms—the kind that are focused on closing the gap between police and communities. But instead law enforcement agencies have maintained a singular focus on the promise of technology.

To understand how we ended up with such a misguided system, we have to look back more than a century, to one of the pioneers of modern policing, a man named August Vollmer.


Introduction: when public order breaks down

1. U.S. Census Bureau, “QuickFacts: Ferguson City, Missouri: Population Estimates, July 1, 2017,” retrieved from

2. Samuel H. Kye, “The Persistence of White Flight in Middle-Class Suburbia,” Social Science Research 72 (May 2018): 38–52.

3. Elizabeth Kneebone, “Ferguson, Mo. Emblematic of Growing Suburban Poverty,” Brookings, August 15, 2014,

4. Katie Sanders, “Ferguson, Mo., Has 50 White Police Officers, Three Black Officers, NBC’s Mitchell Claims,” Politifact, August 17, 2014,

5. U.S. Department of Justice, “Department of Justice Report Regarding the Criminal Investigation into the Shooting Death of Michael Brown by Ferguson, Missouri, Police Officer Darren Wilson,” March 4, 2015.

6. Alan Scher Zagier, “Missouri Crowd after Shooting: ‘Kill the Police,’ ” Associated Press, August 10, 2014.

7. J. David Goodman, “Difficult Decisions Ahead in Responding to Police Chokehold Homicide,” New York Times, August 4, 2014.

8. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department,” March 4, 2015.

9. Kneebone, “Ferguson, Mo. Emblematic of Growing Suburban Poverty.”

10. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department.”

11. Lyndon B. Johnson, “Special Message to the Congress on Crime in America,” February 6, 1967, retrieved from the American Presidency Project,

12. President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, “The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society,” 1967.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Justice Expenditure and Employment Extracts: 1980 and 1981,” March 1985, 1,

18. John S. Dempsey, Linda S. Forst, and Steven B. Carter, An Introduction to Policing, 9th ed. (Boston: Cengage Learning, 2018), 50.

19. Joel Currier, “Police Should Be Required to Wear Body Cameras, Ferguson Group Says,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 23, 2015.

20. Phillip Swarts, “Grand Jury Files Show Ferguson Cop Shunned Taser, Renewing Debate over Nonlethal Weapons,” Washington Times, November 26, 2014.

21. Thomas Franck, “There’s ‘No Evidence’ Tasers Reduce Police Use of Firearms, New Study Shows,” CNBC, January 18, 2018.

22. Department of Justice, “Justice Department Awards over $23 Million in Funding for Body Worn Camera Pilot Program to Support Law Enforcement Agencies in 32 States,” press release no. 15-1145, September 21, 2015,

Copyright © 2019 by Matt Stroud

Books from this Author

Thin Blue Lie

Thin Blue Lie

The Failure of High-Tech Policing

A wide-ranging investigation of how supposedly transformative technologies adopted by law enforcement have actually made policing worse—lazier, more reckless, and more discriminatory

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