Vigilantism and Technology: Citizenship in 2018

Vigilantism and Technology: Citizenship in 2018

The act of sharing is an indelible part of our modern existence. Whilst social media is still awash with photos of holidays and brunches with friends, increasingly users are utilising the power of sharing in an effort to fight crime and help organisations tackle modern slavery. In more recent years, social media platforms have seen users upload instances of alleged police brutality, lucid testimony of sexual harassment and animal cruelty, encouraging individuals to share their perspectives on criminal activity.

Technology has become a new partner in crime fighting. Since 2012, police forces have utilised data mapping alongside other predictive tools to help anticipate instances of crime and deploy police more effectively. However, in more recent years, these kinds of technologies have been rolled out to the lay population which allow users to record, video and snap instances of crime. Popularised by infamous apps such as Vigilante- now rebranded as Citizen- which encourages users to witness, record and document live crimes taking place near them. Whilst these technologies are certainly well intentioned and are designed to promote citizenship, the rise of vigilantism is changing the face of not only modern policing but also impacting the legal process that follows.

Traditional mapping tools have enabled police forces to better predict crime by recording the location and type of crime. Trend led analysis has enabled boroughs to more accurately deploy staff at pertinent times and in select locations, enabling front line police to carry with them greater insight into challenging areas and to better anticipate and predict crime. Whilst crime mapping adds insight into the crime profile of an area. Utilising mapping tools to plot past crime can embed ingrained and systematic discrimination. When this kind of trend led analysis begins to drive predictive crime models, this can help substantiate and systematise historic biases. While this piece of tech has proved useful for developing criminal profiles- criminal profiling is of huge consequence. The statistics surrounding UK stop and searches evidence the fruition of these systemic biases; “among the broad ethnic groups, there were 4 stop and searches for every 1,000 White people, compared with 29 stop and searches for every 1,000 Black people”. Further, the highest rates were found among the three Black ethnic groups - Other Black (at 70 stop and searches per 1,000 people), Black Caribbean (at 28 per 1,000 people) and Black African (at 19 per 1,000 people). Whilst this data is by no means cause for celebration, this data represents the lowest rate of stop and search amongst these minority groups in 8 years. This may indicate that data mapping is enabling police to enact more strategic stop and search, technology appears to have enabled police forces to work with greater insight and precision rather than perpetuate unfounded and prejudicial searches.

App technologies are beginning to make a lot of noise for their crime fighting ability. Apps such as SelfEvident and Vigilante are being used throughout the UK and USA to enable the general public to report and capture the type of crime in real time and log it into the app’s system. The idea behind this system is that police can later draw on these real time reports and witness statements and develop a broader sense of what happened by garnering a range of perspectives that help to fill in the blanks. Users can upload photos and, as the app itself describes, “capture the emotion of what happened.” This can also include the filing of an oral or written statement that the police can later use as evidence. These technologies are a fascinating addition to crime fighting. Departing from the traditional model of crime reporting, where one would immediately ring 999 upon witnessing a crime, civilians are encouraged to provide real time information rather than provide a statement after the fact.

The rise of video technologies in combatting and reporting crime, has risen dramatically over the past decade. “Body cam” footage is used broadly in US criminal circuits to help ascertain the sequence of events, and an objective vantage point from which to view arrests. Lately, as US police officers have been increasingly called into question for their handling of arrests- particularly when dealing with young black men- witnesses have taken to filming events as they have unfolded, to ensure that a rounded picture of events is secured. The disturbing footage filmed by the girlfriend of Philando Castile which captured the moments before his fatal shooting, described events from the perspective of those in the car. In the UK, body cameras have been introduced as a de-escalation tool, and were informative following an incident where a police officer was attacked with a hammer. Body cameras have also been used by police to provide support to victims of domestic abuse by recording behaviour at the scene and to calm situations in front line policing. Fundamentally, this footage provides vital additional testimony and prevents the leverage of “he said” “she said” tête-á-tête in a courtroom.

These technologies have transformed how crime is reported and processed. Not only has technology enabled citizens to take a more proactive approach to crime reporting but has also increased the immediacy of reportage and changed how we view reliable testimony. These technologies provide laymen with the agency to report crime as it is witnessed and take greater responsibility within our criminal justice system Lay access to these technologies for reporting crime can help the police form a more intelligent understanding of crime, trends and criminal networks by utilising community systems to develop greater front line resources and intelligence.

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About the author:
Catherine is one of the Future of Law's digital editors. She graduated from Durham University with a degree in English Literature and worked at a barristers chambers before joining Lexis Nexis.