A bit of not too high tech is growing increasingly pervasive these days. No, not the video camera on cellphones, but the Automated License Plate Reader. It’s got its benefits, like the ability to capture massive quantities of data about plates and their locations. But our reliance on tech, on science, has its downside as well, which usually manifests in blind reliance that a machine can’t be wrong.
Via Tim Cushing at Techdirt:
The mistake prompting this guns-drawn approach of Molner’s video could have been made by anybody. The ALPR read a “7″ as a “2″ and returned a hit for a stolen vehicle. The hit also returned info for a stolen Oldsmobile, which clearly wasn’t what Molner was driving. But that could mean the plates were on the wrong vehicle, which is also an indication of Something Not Quite Right.
Lawyer Mark Molner was driving home after his wife’s sonogram in his BMW, when he was stopped by police, front and back. One of the officers approached him, gun drawn.
“He did not point it at me, but it was definitely out of the holster,” Molner told the Post. “I am guessing that he saw the shock and horror on my face, and realized that I was unlikely to make (more of) a scene.”
For the cop, preparation and the First Rule of Policing mandated he be prepared for harm. After all, the ALPR told him it was a stolen car, and people who steal cars can be threats. It makes perfect sense from the cop’s perspective. Because tech said so.
The PD’s statement on the incident is fairly sensible and measured.
“The officer has discretion on whether or not to unholster his weapon depending on the severity of the crime. In this case he did not point it at the driver, rather kept it down to his side because he thought the vehicle could possibly be stolen. If he was 100 percent sure it was stolen, then he would have conducted a felony car stop which means both officers would have been pointing guns at him while they gave him commands to exit the vehicle.”
That makes sense, but there’s still a chance this situation could have been averted. Molner’s plate triggered the hit several miles before he was pulled over as pursuing police were unable to verify the plate due to traffic density.
Whether the police department’s statement is sensible depends largely on this combination of police perspective and reliance on technology. The idea that a cop would be 100% certain is something of a facile comparison, since absolute certainty is hard to come by.
On the flip side, in the absence of probable cause, the officer had neither the authority to stop Molner nor justification to have a firearm drawn. Once a firearm is drawn, even if not pointed at a person, two things dramatically increase, the likelihood of it being used and that it will evoke a reaction.
You see, Molner, who had the wisdom to be shocked and afraid, has no clue what’s going through the officer’s head, that he’s about to confront a car thief. Since the officer’s reliance on a technological error created an expectation that he was about to enter a dangerous situation, the cop approached ready to invoke the First Rule. But poor Molner had no reason to suspect that any “furtive gesture” could bring a bullet his way.
And, thankfully, Molner wasn’t deaf, which might have added a wholly untenable factor into a potentially toxic mix.
Molner’s reaction, after he was safely out of harm’s way, was to question why the cops didn’t wait until they could verify the information on their ALPR hit.
“I’m armchair quarterbacking the police, which is not a good position to be in,” Molner told the Post. “But before you unholster your gun, you might want to confirm that you’ve got the people you’re looking for.”
So, when the plate reader kicked back a bad hit, the cops did attempt to verify the plate, but it looks very much like they overrode procedural safeguards in order to prevent possibly losing a collar.
This seems a perfectly reasonable expectation, but for the fact that reality has a nasty way of interfering with the best conceived plans. While the system crafted around ALPRs includes the procedural safeguard of visually verifying that the reader correctly read the license plate, that removes the system from automation and places it in the hands of humans. If tech doesn’t glitch on its own, it will invariably fail when humans are introduced as we, humans, err sometimes.
Had this been left to the officer’s visual observation alone in the first place, perhaps the license would never have been misread. Or perhaps the cop’s eyesight isn’t any better than the ALPR, and he would have read a “7″ as a “2,” returning the same false hit. But once the ALPR returns a hit, there is a level of certainty that it must be right because tech is a marvel, a failproof thing in the minds of most of us. Who you gonna believe, your lying eyes or tech?
As these plate readers become more common, the number of erroneous readings will increase. If the verification safeguards are followed, problems will be minimal. But if anyone’s in a hurry… or the vehicle description is too vague… or it’s night… or someone’s had a bad/slow day… or if the end of the month is approaching and the definitely-not-a-quota hasn’t been met… bad things will happen to good people.
Placing too much faith in an automated system can have terrible consequences. Molner came out of this without extra holes, electricity or bruises. Others may not be so lucky.
The good news is when the police chief gets on camera to make a statement about the inadvertent bullet hole in a nice guy’s body, it won’t be his cop’s fault. It’s that damn ALPR that was wrong. As we continue down the path of adoration of technological marvels, we must anticipate that errors will happen, people will be harmed, perhaps killed, and it will all be a big mistake. But it’s tech, so that makes it all worth it.