Understanding the Limits of Technology’s Impact on Police Effectiveness

Published date01 June 2017
Date01 June 2017
Subject MatterArticles
Understanding the
Limits of Technology’s
Impact on Police
Cynthia Lum
, Christopher S. Koper
and James Willis
Technology has become a major source of expenditure and innovation in law
enforcement and is assumed to hold great potential for enhancing police work.
But does technology achieve these expectations? The current state of research on
technology in policing is unclear about the links between technologies and outcomes
such as work efficiencies, effectiveness in crime control, or improved police–com-
munity relationships. In this article, we present findings from a mixed-methods,
multiagency study that examines factors that may mediate the connection between
technology adoption and outcome effectiveness in policing. We find that police view
technology through technological and organizational frames determined by trad-
itional and reactive policing approaches. These frames may limit technology’s poten-
tial in the current reform era and cause unintended consequences.
technology, policing, effectiveness, technological frames, police outcomes
Technology has become a major source of expenditure and innovation in law
enforcement in the last four decades and is often assumed to hold great potential
for enhancing the ability of police to do their work. At the most basic level,
Department of Criminology, Law and Society, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Cynthia Lum, Department of Criminology, Law and Society, George Mason University, 4400 University
Drive, MS 6D12, Fairfax, VA 22030, USA.
Email: clum@gmu.edu
Police Quarterly
2017, Vol. 20(2) 135–163
!The Author(s) 2016
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1098611116667279
technology is seen as a means to increase an organization’s technical ef‌f‌iciency,
def‌ined as maximizing outputs using the lowest cost, time, and resources possible
(see Rutgers & van der Meer, 2010; see also McGowan, 1984a). For example,
police adopted license plate readers to detect stolen vehicles because the readers
could enable them to automatically scan hundreds of vehicle license plates in
minutes, as opposed to manually entering selected plates into computer data-
bases one-by-one. Computerized records management systems replaced the hand
reporting, shelving, and analysis of paper police reports so that information
could be more easily searched, retrieved, and analyzed. Police cars and radios
were purchased so of‌f‌icers could react to citizen 9-1-1 calls more quickly.
However, aside from technology making the police more technically ef‌f‌icient,
technology is also thought to improve the outcome ef‌fectiveness of the police.
Although arguably a complementary component to ef‌f‌iciency (see Hatry, 1978,
2014), outcome ef‌fectiveness is distinguished from ef‌f‌iciency in the public admin-
istration literature by its emphasis on achieving specif‌ic outcomes (see, e.g.,
Goodman & Penning, 1977; Quinn & Rohrbaugh, 1981; Rutgers & van der
Meer, 2010). In policing, for example, technology is believed to improve the
ability of police to identify and monitor of‌fenders or bolster evidence collection
to resolve cases. Information technologies help facilitate the identif‌ication of hot
places and people to target them for crime prevention with the goal of reducing
crime and recidivism. Agencies have also acquired new social media technologies
to enhance communication between themselves and citizens to strengthen that
One important question for policing that we explore in this article is whether
technology helps police to be more ef‌fective in achieving outcomes or whether it
primarily increases organizational ef‌f‌iciencies (Lum, 2010; Maguire, 2014).
Of course, ef‌f‌iciency and ef‌fectiveness are not zero-sum trade-of‌fs; scholars
have long discussed the interaction between ef‌f‌iciency, ef‌fectiveness, and cost-
ef‌fectiveness (see, e.g., Hatry, 1978; McGowan, 1984a, 1984b). Hatry (1978,
2014) in particular has discussed the need to track performance in terms of
outcome ef‌f‌iciency rather than output ef‌f‌iciency (see Hatry, 2014, p. 21), an
idea which combines notions of technical ef‌f‌iciency and outcome ef‌fectiveness
in performance measurement. Nonetheless, questions about the ef‌fectiveness and
ef‌f‌iciency of police technology are far from settled in empirical research. Some
research as well as technical and vendor assessments assert that technologies can
make policing processes faster and easier, as illustrated by the aforementioned
license plate reader example. At the same time, research and police practice
reveal that using technology can sometimes reduce ef‌f‌iciency and may not help
achieve outcomes such as the prevention or reduction of crime or the improve-
ment of citizen trust, conf‌idence, and satisfaction with the police.
The dif‌f‌iculty in linking technological advances in policing with outcomes
such as crime prevention, improved community relations, or accountability
may have several causes. Independently, technology does not create outcomes
136 Police Quarterly 20(2)

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