Reducing Violence through Technology and the Rule of Law

The great social scientist Stephen Pinker has observed a long-term secular decline in violence, despite the relentless media attention given to killings at home and abroad. Domestically, our state and local governments can drive down the number of murders and assaults even more, if they will take further advantage of technology and strengthen the adherence to the rule of law. We need to continue to innovate but also protect our greatest legal inheritance.

Technology has already contributed significantly to the decline in violence in our cities. CompStat, a management system for police developed in New York City, deploys police officers at the optimal places and times to cut down on crime. This largely computerized service is now used by police departments around the country. And it will improve with ever better data and algorithms.

Surveillance cameras in public spaces not only help solve crimes but also help deter them because people know they are being watched. As the costs of cameras fall and the cost of searching the videos falls as well, such cameras will become more effective and should be more widely installed. Wider use of these cameras would not assault our privacy, because no one has a reasonable expectation of privacy in public or in a private retail space. Eventually we can also use machines rather than people to search videos under agreed upon rules, protecting even an attenuated sense of privacy.

Police body cameras should also become standard equipment. They can document official misconduct – or the lack of it – and as a result can help deter official misconduct as well. Of course, cameras alone cannot perfectly reconstruct events. But their help in establishing facts will change behavior for the better.

Other forms of technology under development include  portable machines that can detect guns at a distance. Just as police set up traffic stops to make sure drivers are licensed, so they could set up pedestrian surveillance that would check all passersby on a given street to make sure that concealed handguns are licensed.

More generally, the federal government should fund more research into nonlethal devices that can disarm suspects who are threatening lethal violence themselves. Better violence reducing technology is a good that benefits the public as a whole.

Beyond technology, however, nothing is more important for the reduction of violence than respect for the rule of law.  Over the centuries, Great Britain and the United States have developed criminal procedures that hold the guilty to the account while protecting the rights of the innocent.  This legacy is extraordinarily valuable: even if the system does not work perfectly in every case, we have not yet developed a better system.  That is why its results must be respected even if there is disagreement in individual cases.

In some recent controversies, our politicians have not spent nearly enough time explaining the benefits of our legal system. They have also not used sufficient force to stop the mobs who have protested verdicts by rioting or by blocking bridges and intersections. Mob law breaking is the opposite of the rule of law, and the speed and certainty of its suppression is a measure of our respect for law’s rule.