Thin Blue Lie: The Failure of High-Tech Policing

Image of Thin Blue Lie: The Failure of High-Tech Policing
Release Date: 
March 18, 2019
Metropolitan Books
Reviewed by: 

“Thin Blue Lie fails to convince us that ‘technologies adopted by law enforcement have actually made policing worse . . .’ The book is subjective, it’s written in a tone that’s cynical, accusatory, and often bitter, and it’s uneven to the point of feeling rushed and incomplete.”

In his book Thin Blue Lie: The Failure of High-Tech Policing, Matt Stroud tells the story of a reporter with the Arizona Republic who visited the headquarters of Taser International in 2004 to write a “feel-good” profile of a local high-tech company making it big.

When the subject of product safety came up, company officials insisted that their device, which was being used by numerous police forces to subdue potentially violent suspects by delivering an incapacitating electric shock, had never been cited by any medical examiner as a cause of death. “‘That’s great,’ the reporter replied. ‘Can I see the autopsy reports?’“

The company’s inability to respond to what was intended as a “throwaway question” soon changed the attitude of the public toward the Taser and raised serious questions about its safety. Thin Blue Lie documents in great detail the evolution of the Taser as a tool in modern policing, and Stroud presents a convincing argument that its manufacturers didn’t operate in good faith when it came to the reliability or safety of their product.

The author’s scope in this book attempts to be far-reaching. In examining the use of technology by police, he looks at electroshock devices such as the Taser, computerized statistical analysis, CCTV, facial recognition, cell-site simulators, and body cameras. Throughout, his thesis is clear, as stated on the book’s flyleaf: “transformative technologies adopted by law enforcement have actually made policing worse—lazier, more reckless, and more discriminatory.”

Indeed, his title says it all: Stroud has concluded that police “lie” and that high-tech policing is a “failure.”

The title was likely borrowed from the article “Blue Lies Matter: How Video finally Proves that Cops Lie” (Buzzfeed, January 17, 2017) by Albert Samaha. Indeed, Stroud cites Samaha when he makes the following declaratory statement about video technology: “All over the country, cops were caught lying about suspects and crimes on camera.”

The history of the Taser dominates the book as Stroud tells the rather chilling story of how the company controlling the production and distribution of the device, Taser International, continually operated in bad faith. At the same time, however, Thin Blue Lie also attempts to cover other technological advances in a similarly negative light, with mixed results.

His examination of computerized statistical analysis begins with Compstat, a system originally created in the 1990s by Jack Maple for the New York Police Department’s transit police. Expanded to serve the entire NYPD by Maple and commissioner William Bratton, it gathered data on criminal activity in each precinct and provided analysis that allowed the NYPD to locate crime hotspots and strategically deploy resources.

Stroud is almost bitterly contemptuous of Compstat and any other attempt by police to use data analysis to identify and target trends. Although readers who can think for themselves know how common it has become, from business marketing and advertising to professional baseball, Stroud implies that law enforcement was avoiding larger social issues by focusing on computer screens and numbers. In fact, when noting that Bratton was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1996 for an article addressing a drop in crime rates attributed to Compstat, Stroud calls the media coverage “fawning.” A loaded word that jumps out as unnecessarily aggressive.

Stroud’s treatment of the use of closed-circuit television, or CCTV, is downright odd. When he first broaches the subject, he spends so much time emphasizing the fact that CCTV was invented in Nazi Germany that the reader can’t help but wonder if Stroud believes it’s an evil tool of fascists. He covers the early failures and limitations of the technology and focuses on a rather ill-advised statement by an unnamed police officer in 1973: “We consider ourselves as the good shepherd watching over the flock.”

This quote was resonant enough to become the title of the chapter, but Stroud drops CCTV a few pages later, observing that in the mid-1980s these cameras were viewed as “an inevitability.” One wishes he’d given this important law enforcement and counter-terrorism tool the complete attention it deserves.

Facial recognition systems receive a similar, puzzling brush-off. After mentioning that it was first used at Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa Bay to build an image database to test against existing law enforcement records, Stroud dabs at this particular technological tool only briefly in the rest of his study. He points out that the 2001 Super Bowl test produced no notable results, and pretty much leaves it there. Since facial recognition is currently a hot-button topic in relation to cellphone data harvesting, one wishes Stroud would have spent more time on this one, too.

He also briefly considers cell-site simulators such as Stingray devices, employed to track cellphone usage at specific locations. An important tool in counter-terrorism, Stingrays deserved an entire chapter on their own, particularly given Stroud’s observation that the company producing them has forced customers to sign non-disclosure agreements to keep their use a secret.

Finally, the other tech tool Stroud considers is the body camera. Alleging bribery at every turn by corporate officials selling the tool to police, he echoes Samaha’s anecdotal conclusion that bodycams document police wrongdoing more often than they support their actions in the field.

According to Stroud, when law enforcement releases bodycam footage to show officers doing good things or the right thing, this is merely “propaganda.” The real truth about police, he suggests, lies in the bad videos only.

He then wraps up the bodycam discussion by noting that numerous states have since passed “countertransparency body-camera laws” that remove their footage from the public record. A surprising and eye-raising development. But rather than investigate who’s behind this movement and why so many state legislatures think it’s a good idea, he drops the subject with the sinister implication that it’s simply because police don’t want you to see it. Ever. Another delicious bone for the conspiracy theorists.

A significant difficulty with the book is that Stroud researched and wrote it from the outside. Relying on countless news articles, web posts, and a few interviews with carefully selected individuals, he makes no attempt to capture the point of view of law enforcement, except to document instances where they publicly supported a tool that failed in one way or another.

Did he seek out interviews with the LAPD, the NYPD, or police departments in Chicago, Dallas, or Boston to get the actual thought processes behind their decisions to deploy technological tools to their officers? Whether they feel betrayed by false claims and horribly misleading training and coaching provided by the vendors to their staff? Why they still feel this approach has a future? If Stroud did, there’s no sign of it here.

His only concession to objectivity is to quote Elizabeth Joh, a law professor at the University of California at Davis, who stated that “the typical approach to the use of new police technologies involves the oversight of courts, legislatures, and local government bodies.” The problems arise, she notes, “when private companies influence policing through their role as vendors,” since they are not subject to the same oversight as police.

Joh’s thesis, that technological advances in policing should be subject to oversight, that legal standards should be set for investigative techniques that use these technologies, and that vendors should have a lesser role, represents a balanced, commonsensical position that’s missing from Stroud’s polemic, which implies that the whole thing should be thrown out. Immediately.

At the end of the day, Thin Blue Lie fails to convince us that “technologies adopted by law enforcement have actually made policing worse—lazier, more reckless, and more discriminatory.” The book is subjective, it’s written in a tone that’s cynical, accusatory, and often bitter, and it’s uneven to the point of feeling rushed and incomplete. A thin blue failure.