Transcript – Exploring the Intersection of Technology, Transparency, and Trust: A Conversation with a Law Enforcement Leader
SEASON 2 EPISODE 13
“JS: There’s so much that’s relevant to the survey results in the Veritone report. One of the things that I noticed is that the majority of the public gets their information about policing from the media and as we talk about some of these transparency and accountability issues, and I think those are two different shades of the same ballpark accountability and transparency. As we talk about these things, a lot of it, what your survey is measured is perception, and so there is a little bit of theater and marketing and public awareness that really falls in the laps of police officers and police administrators.”
[0:00:38.7] MM: Welcome to Veritone’s Adventures in AI, a worldwide podcast that dives into the many ways technology and artificial intelligence is shaping our future for the better. I am your host, Megan Mintchev, and I’m here with Chief Joel Shults, who is a retired police chief, he’s an award-winning writer, college professor, trainer, and first responder chaplain. He is the author of several law enforcement related books and articles, and Chief Shults currently serves as a municipal judge and the coroner’s investigator in rural southern Colorado.
[0:01:13.7] MM: Veritone disclaims any responsibility for any statement of Chief Shults or other participants in the podcast. The views expressed in this podcast are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of Veritone or its directors, officers or employees.
[0:01:29.9] MM: Welcome, Chief Shults to Adventures in AI. It’s a pleasure to have you.
[0:01:35.3] JS: Pleasure to be here, thanks for the invitation.
[0:01:37.1] MM: Today, we’re talking about transparency with law enforcement agencies to agencies and of course the communities that they serve. As you know, and a lot of the people listening in right now know that recently, we published our second annual transparency and trust report, so that shines light on public safety and community relationships and how technology can actually help.
This report has surveyed 3,000 Americans ages 19 and up, and this is represented almost equally across the board by gender, ethnicity, region and political leanings but of course, before we get into talking about the report, I do want to know from your perspective what the state of law enforcement agencies is right now? What is top of mind for you guys?
[0:02:24.7] JS: That’s an interesting question and it’s interesting to think about whether there are differences in the concerns of the everyday police officer versus police administrators versus the public at large, and those things don’t always establish a synchronicity, which is part of the transparency issue.
But I will say, I just received results of a recent poll that was put out on policeone.com, and I’ll be writing an article about it, and 52% of responding officers to that poll say that recruitment and retention is their primary concern. So we think of that as a concern for administrators and budget folks but also for the officer on the street as well as the citizen on the street.
But for the officer on the street that means, “Am I going to have to work a lot of overtime? Am I going to have a backup? Are we going to be properly staffed? Are we going to reduce basic requirements in order to beat the numbers?” So that’s an overwhelming issue across law enforcement.
Second to that, at a much smaller percentage but second in the ranking of several options, is the risk of prosecution for on-duty actions. We’re seeing more and more aggressive prosecution of police officers for doing things. We’re seeing reduction in many places in qualified immunity and various types of defenses and protections for police officers, right? And so that’s a big issue.
Officer wellness and morale is another big one. Another one is of course, the crime rate, ambush attacks that have increased over the past few years on police officers and the rate of crime, particularly the spike in violent crime that we’ve seen over the last 18 to 24 months. So those are the headliners for police officers.
[0:04:12.2] MM: What do you think with this information? How are you, do you think, you guys are going to be addressing this?
[0:04:18.6] JS: There’s so much that’s relevant to the survey results in a Veritone report. One of the things that I noticed is that the majority of the public gets their information about policing from the media and as we talk about some of these transparency and accountability issues, and I think those are two different shades of the same ballpark accountability and transparency.
As we talk about these things, a lot of it, what your survey is measured is perception, and so there is a little bit of theater and marketing and public awareness that really falls in the laps of police officers and police administrators to get the message about the realities of police work and the needs.
They have a quality police agency out to the public and that necessarily means that we’re going to have to cross that bridge by using the media, and so establishing a good and positive and truthful relationship with media is going to be continued and to be a challenge, particularly when, and we can get into a little bit of my opinion on editorial, but I don’t think it’s any surprise that the media does not have a pro law enforcement stance.
In fact, some major media outlets are quite clearly on, I would say, even on the anti-police side of the way that they report the news and I’m a writer and a journalist amongst other things that I do and some publications. I know that I can focus on certain things and phrase things certain way and provide red meat to the people that are going to be reading a certain publication and then there are other publications are right for where I really have to be not an editorialist.
But an objective journalist and those stories look different and so navigating the media is probably our number one challenge in terms of relating well to the public and regaining confidence of the public.
[0:06:10.1] MM: Yeah, I can see that. What about focus on transparency? Is that still relevant and if it’s not, how do we keep that transparency and trust apparent?
[0:06:20.4] JS: It is relevant because, we hear the word accountability more than transparency and I like talking about the differences. Transparency is answering every question before it’s asked, I think and my view is defining that and accountability is responding to concerns that come up from probably a particular incident or particular patterns or perceived patterns of behavior.
So in terms of maintaining transparency, it’s again, communication, communication, communication through as many avenues as possible. Whether it’s one-on-one, it’s every police officer makes a contact. Whether through press releases, whether it’s through department websites and social media, whether it’s through perception of satisfaction surveys.
The measures that are often made are measures of perception because many of the things that we really need to measure don’t have data attached to it that’s reliable or perhaps it’s when you do social research, there’s already so many factors that it’s hard to get down to a real cause-effect issue when we’re trying to figure out a problem.
So transparency is working against some presuppositions that the public might have from not just news outlets but also editorial and opinions that are all of it. Internet and also television from the media. From the way that we watch, if you look at the TV lineup, there’s murder shows and FBI shows and rookie shows and SUV law enforcement, SVU law enforcement shows.
Now, the public is fascinated with law enforcement and we need to feed that fascination and inquiry in a positive way, a truthful way but a positive way.
[0:08:10.0] MM: That makes sense and I’m definitely one of those viewers. I binge watch a lot of those types of shows, guilty.
[0:08:17.1] JS: Well, I like to watch them like every other cop and think, “Oh, they wouldn’t do that.”
[0:08:22.2] MM: So you are a retired police chief and you obviously still work closely with law enforcement agencies. I’d like to go through some of the findings from the report and get your insight. So the first finding is that our communities need more education on policing.
It has stated that about 25% of respondents either did not have or did not want to express their opinion on many of the questions about policing and technologies for law enforcement. So what do you make of this and do you think the public needs more information so they can form and feel confident in their opinions?
[0:08:59.6] JS: Yes, one of the things that I have long felt about law enforcement and my career goes back to, well, it goes way back and at the beginning of my career, before there were tons of different information outlets, I thought it was one of my burdens and responsibilities to protect the public from the stuff that I had to be exposed to as a police officer and each officer has to negotiate that with their loved ones.
I wrote an article a while back called, “What do I tell my spouse about my day?” Do they really need to know everything, do they need to have that tertiary trauma for my secondary trauma? And so making a transition from protecting the public from the really harsh realities of what the police officer has to deal with, it is not something that the public wants to know what’s going on and yet, we need to be sensitive.
We need to maintain some confidences, we need to be sympathetic to victims. That’s one of the issues with body cams that we really want everybody that deals with the police, having that interaction video taped and subject to being played on the air. So kind of mentally making that transition to say, the public wants to know. We don’t want to be a secret agency.
We do have some confidences that we need to keep for overall public safety but as much as we can share with the public we ought to but we have to measure that against overwhelming them with information. The other genre of media and TV shows is the medical drama. ER and Chicago and Chicago Med and Saint Emil’s Elsewhere.
This history of medical shows and we see all that lingo and stuff and we see people, civilians barging into the emergency room, watching their loved ones working on it and say, “Why are you doing this, that’s wrong with them, why can’t you help?” and it gives us a little bit of perspective on what the citizen may be asking about law enforcement.
“Why are you doing this? Why does this take so long, how come you’re not responding to this, how come you don’t have training on this?” And those are legitimate questions from tax paying citizens and we need to answer those questions but we also need to find out where those questions are because as we’re in the midst of it, we’re riding that tornado every day.
So we have that insider information, we had that perspective, we kind of understand why things are the way that they are and we sometimes forget just like a doctor using complicated medical terminology to explain somebody’s condition, we tend to forget what it’s like to be on the outside and wondering what’s going on and wanting to hear in every day language the reasons that the things are the way they are and some of the challenges that we faced. So again, it comes down to communication.
[0:11:57.2] MM: That’s exactly what I was just going to say. It sounds like it’s all about communication.
[0:12:00.7] JS: Well, it is and that’s so difficult because there are a lot of constraints. First of all, there is some intelligence and I mean, intelligence in terms of getting information that needs to remain confidential to protect people’s rights. There are victim’s rights, there are gag orders, you know, the first thing when there’s a police incident, an officer involved in shooting for example, the news media gets to talk to all the relatives.
They may even get to talk to the victim, they talk to the witness and when they talk to the police, the police say, “No comment.” Well, the police have to say that because they don’t know the facts yet immediately after in and it’s your job to find the facts and it takes a long time to pass the news cycle to really determine those things and sometimes, prosecutors say, “Don’t make any statement.”
Judges issue gag orders, there’s types of liability that goes along with releasing information and so our silence looks like what people called the blue wall of silence but it’s really just operating within the law and I guess ironically, our silence on a lot of things needs to be explained and communicated as well as telling the things we can and should share.
[0:13:06.9] MM: Well, that’s really good insight, lots of things that I’m learning today that I was not aware of. Apparently, these shows that I’m binging doesn’t showcase that.
[0:13:17.8] JS: Well, they generally do more good than harm I think. We talk about the CSI effect a lot where you write a parking ticket and the defendant says, “Where’s your DNA?” There’s just this expectation and so expectations have risen but we also hack in the old days when we have highway patrol and drag net and out of 12 and police story, all those were done in cooperation with police agencies.
So those were often kind of semi-propaganda pieces and we as a profession, elevated ourselves to a point where it is really hard for us to live up to the image that we’ve created for ourselves and so that’s part of the challenge of refashioning an accurate portrayal of what cops are doing in the minds of the public.
[0:14:05.1] MM: So another hot topic are opinions on racism and bias and within the report, 64% of Americans believe racial bias still exist in policing and 55% say their local police haven’t communicated a clear plan to properly address this racial bias and systemic racism.
It’s also stated that 25% of people have more confidence in law enforcement due to greater transparency or as you said, accountability, which shows that trust can be built with, we’ve been saying this clearer communication. So based on your insight and experience, what do you think about these statistics and do you agree with them?
[0:14:46.0] JS: Well, it’s interesting, one of the other things in your report talks about where the citizens think that police activity ought to be concentrated in the corpse and violent crime and I think it was, if I am remembering correctly, I am not looking right at the report, 24% maybe, don’t want us wasting time doing race counts on traffic stops and yet you have this two thirds of people saying, “I think racism is a problem.”
So it is and if you’ll understand the comparison when people ask the question for example as kind of a trick question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” If you say no implies you’re still beating your wife. If you say yes, it implies that you had been beating your wife. So there is no good answer to that. So when the public says, “I think you’re racist” what are you doing about it?
So the question perhaps on the police side is, “Okay, am I really racist and is the question what am I doing about your perception of racism that may or may not exists or what am I doing about racism that does exist?” And there are lots of different studies that would argue against racism being part and partial of law enforcement. One of the issues and some would even say that’s racist was some of the assumptions that I am going to use in this illustration.
But it’s a society wide problem, so you have an underprivileged poverty-stricken individual in a disadvantaged group or a marginalized group in society and you start out with poor prenatal care and poor education and poverty and poor health and poor nutrition and not the best educational experience and discrimination in employment and perhaps some fractured families. Perhaps even a history in the culture of the neighborhood or in the family of antipolice sentiment or involvement in crime.
Then 17 years later a police officer ends up having to use force against the member of whatever this group might be and they say, “Oh, the police are racist.” Well, what about the other 17 years of progress of this person’s life where all of these influences whether it be explicit or implicit bias that work against their opportunities we can’t fix all of that by saying, “Oh the cops are racist, we need to fix that.”
So it is a much bigger problem than can be solved by sending everybody through eight hours of sensitivity training. So again, I think it is – I am not saying it doesn’t exists but I am saying that it is more a perception problem than anything and the public continues to be told that police are racist.
We continue to look at statistics that on its face would look like minorities are treated differentially and so if the public wants us to deal with the issue of racism, we’re either going to have to jump through some hoops and have some theater of training and sensitivity training and then show everybody our certificates or we’re really going to tackle the whole problem from the deepest roots in society and that’s not something that’s necessarily the police’s responsibility that wholesale change.
[0:17:59.5] MM: Yeah, I think this is going to be something that’s ongoing for years to come. There has been some progress but I think there is definitely lots of room for improvement for sure.
[0:18:09.3] JS: One of the other things that I might say Megan is that we learn this in looking at crime statistics like the UCR or the FBI statistics that come out every October for the previous year. First of all, they only look at certain types of crimes, eight categories of crimes and a lot of things that people are concerned about like domestic violence, drugs, drunk driving, those kinds of things.
Those don’t show up in the headlines because they are not one of those big ticket items and so we get this overall national impression of crime. When you ask people about their own neighborhoods, they think their neighborhoods are safe and they think the neighborhood next to them is not safe. So I’ll make this application to policing. When we ask people, “What do you think about your police department?”
One of the 18,000 agencies that employ somewhere around three quarters of a million police officers, most people like their agency and are confident in their agency and their responses about their agency would be different than their responses about law enforcement as a whole, about the other 18,000 agencies. Now, that can work the other way too. If you’ve got a crappy department that hasn’t been treating its citizens well, then you’re going to have local thoughts about racism or inefficiency or incompetence or corruption on the local level.
We need to be careful when we look at this statistics and ask. The hopeful part of that is individual police agencies don’t have to fight for all the other 17,999 agencies if they improve relationships with their public and their agency and their jurisdiction then they can overcome this national suspicious attitude about law enforcement.
[0:19:50.4] MM: Yeah, those are excellent points. Thank you for bringing that up and at the beginning of my previous question, you had stated the statistic of 24% for documenting the perceived race of individuals at traffic stops. So that is actually a great segue into the next question that I’d like to ask, so good job there. Thanks for setting that up for me.
There’s an overwhelming majority of Americans, 84%, want police to prioritize their time by obviously responding to these violent crimes and then on the other hand, only 42% want police to spend time performing administrative task like reviewing reports and then of course, that other 24% that you had mentioned.
Thankfully, there is technology that offers solutions for these pain points that help law enforcements become more efficient when processing this data, faster at responding to these types of calls and more objective and then we found that the less understanding the public has of these tools, the less likely that they are to trust technology or even the police to use the technology properly.
In your eyes, is technology helpful in law enforcement and at the end of the day, what does it actually do for agencies?
[0:21:05.8] JS: Well, one of the education things that we have to face is, if that is really the perception that we are spending too much time behind the desk, crimes are solved in the office and behind the keyboard and comparing reports and doing all of that administrative stuff that I mean it is not just shoe leather and of course, old fashioned police work interviewing people, so that is part and partial of fighting crime is doing those things.
I think some of the statistics gathering that federal and state and local regulators are asking us to do, they were important but they take away from response time and so if the public doesn’t want us to do what their elected officials have told us to do, then that’s a political process that can be changed and says, “Let’s unfeather our police officers and let them get back to fighting crime.”
Efficiencies that come from technology are huge not just in terms of time and productivity and return on investment, those kinds of things but also in actually solving crimes and taking bad guys off the streets. One of the things that particularly has been a bugaboo for police officers since the ubiquity of video, not just body cams but home cameras and business cameras and self-rooms from spectators.
If you’ve got to go, those things are filmed in real time and so you have to review them in real time and you have to excise innocent faces if they’re going to be released to the public and it is just so, so time consuming to assimilate and review all of those things and that’s a place where technology is invaluable in terms of gleaning the best information out of that. Simple things, evidence processing that can be automated.
Report writing that can be automated, cross checking intelligence databases to be more efficient, those things are just timesavers. They are crime solvers and public safety enhancers and so you know in summary, the role of technology is going to be of increasing importance as the years go on. Now then, the question is, when do we lose the personal touch? When do we lose just like going back to medicine, when is the surgeon going to be replaced by a remote robot?
When is the police officer going to be replaced by technology? Well, probably never and we need to keep that human component and enhance that because that’s where the public confidence is going to come in, not that we have this great piece of software or hardware or audio video surveillance but whether our officers are responsive, compassionate and patient to take the time to walk people through what they are going through in some of the most difficult times in their experience.
[0:23:57.1] MM: Yeah, absolutely and empathy I think is a huge part and especially as a law enforcement agency or police officer, I think that is definitely something that might be hard for a robot or AI to learn but I do know that that’s something that is being worked on. So interested to see how that all plays out in the years to come. You did mention a few minutes ago about the city council and stuff.
There is still challenges surrounding certain cities don’t allow AI like facial recognition or drones, how would you get the city council representatives to be educated on something like this? This might be something that can be passed or allowed within their city limits.
[0:24:42.5] JS: Well, you know an essential philosophical truth about policing and government in general is the public will not be policed beyond its permission to be policed and governed and so despite the increasing, I would say, intrusion of government activity and everyday life, we are still a freedom loving people and an independence loving people and a privacy loving people and so this skepticism against technology that can be perceived as invasive is reasonable and needs to be addressed and there need to be protections put into place.
I think telling success stories when we saw serial killings and kidnappings and child abuse and sex traffickers, when those crimes are solved and people’s lives are saved and bad people are taken off the streets because of the use of technology those stories need to be told loudly and frequently so that we see the value of those investigative tools in public safety.
[0:25:48.3] MM: Yes, I wholeheartedly agree with that one. So leave us with this, what do you think will be the trends in the 2023 in general for law enforcement agencies next year?
[0:26:01.1] JS: One of the things that we realized in police work is police work is police work. I have been writing with different police departments from LA to Arkansas to New York City, 50 different agencies over a span of about 40 years and police work is police work. It really is the same kind of issues from backwards. Those are our work, grew up to metropolitan areas and so the fundamentals of human behavior are not going to change.
Our perceptions of what we want out of our government and out of our armed government agents is something that we as armed government agents need to participate in defining and asking whether our role is where it should be or not. One of the things that is true about public perception as your survey pointed out is that most people get their information from the major news outlets in media.
Part of what is going to be a concern in the next two years is really dependent on what the media decides to report on and what issues seemed to put the voter’s conscience that the politicians are going to rail about and so you know, we were worried a year ago about defunding and that has been so thoroughly disgustingly ineffective and wrong and bad and dangerous and rejected by the public and even by some of those antipolice movements.
That we’re not really worried that much about defunding. Well, that would have been a big worry a year or two ago. So I guess I am saying I don’t know other than people need to continue to believe that they’re safe and their police department is going to keep moving in a direction of accountability and safety and equitable enforcement and hopefully will be able to continue to improve the confidence levels that the public has in us by maintaining the personal and professional standards that we’ve been continually improving, the last four decades of my career anyway.
[0:28:01.2] MM: Chief Shults, it has been an honor to have you on today. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me and with our audience and I’d be anxious to have this, you know, a similar conversation maybe this time next year to see how everything unfolds.
[0:28:15.7] JS: Well, if I am around I’d be glad to do it.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[0:28:18.3] MM: This has been another episode of Veritone’s Adventures in AI, a worldwide podcast that dives into the many ways technology and artificial intelligence is shaping our future for the better. Talk with you next time.
Retired Police Chief