How COVID-19 Will Affect the Future of Policing

Like all of us, law enforcement will face a world of reduced public interactions, devastated economies, and changed ways of life.


Predictions of the future of policing are usually a mix of glossy tech wizardry and ideology. Warnings of pervasive surveillance compete with calls for eased access to private data. Prescriptions for community policing fight for attention against marketing pitches for software intended to predict the danger posed by suspects. Most of this crystal ball-gazing assumes that law enforcement agencies will have unlimited resources to do what they want. But the post-pandemic world is likely to be poorer than what came before, and to feature changed habits and priorities. Law enforcement under such conditions may well have a reduced role by necessityyet still be incredibly intrusive in some areas of life.

Writing for RAND Corporation, retired police chief Bob Harrison describes a hypothetical 2030, roughly a decade after multiple waves of COVID-19 gave rise to a world of reduced public interactions, devastated economies, and changed ways of life.

"The virus left in its wake entire industries destroyed or crippled," writes Harrison. People stopped going to the movies as everyone began streaming almost everything into the home. Small colleges shuttered their buildings; community colleges transitioned to almost all online courses… Retail never quite made it back, either."

It's a grim forecast, but one that squares with the International Monetary Fund's description of the global toll of lockdown measures intended to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus as the "worst economic downturn since the great depression." U.S. unemployment is now above 20 percent and federal debt soars above already frightening heights.

The collapse may well cast a shadow over the next decade, resulting in reduced prosperity, less travel, and a greater share of work and trade moving online. Along with plummeting traffic fines because of the adoption of self-driving vehicles, Harrison suggests, that means reduced revenue for governments to spend on services including law enforcement.

His world of 2030 is one in which domestic disputes are rife among people spending more time at home. He also foresees a boom in online threats such as identity theftan area in which most police departments have limited skill or jurisdiction. And "since the police had so little expertise in these types of crimes, people looked elsewhere to resolve their tech crimes and online issues," Harrison forecasts. He doesn't specify what "elsewhere" means, but private cybersecurity and identity-protection services might have a rosy future of expanded demand.

Harrison's imagined 2030 features mass consolidation of police departments and shared resources along regional lines. And, like most futurists, Harrison sees greater use of technology, though he leans more to cost-saving measures than full RoboCop fantasies. That's especially true when it comes to automating crime reporting and police dispatch to reduce expense. "By 2030, virtual call-takers screened public queries so effectively that people didn't notice the difference from talking with a human," he writes. "Dispatch had been virtualized in the early 20s, so now they were tracking to replace humans altogether to facilitate a police response to crime."

Harrison's vision is interesting, but it's not comprehensive. Other intriguing hints at the future of policing can be found from sources that peered into their crystal balls before the novel coronavirus elicited its first cough.

"Nearly every person carries around with them a device that can log and transmit amounts of data that would have been unthinkable a little over a decade ago," Michael Gelles, Alex Mirkow, and Joe Mariani noted last year for Deloitte Insights. "Simply looking through the call history of a phone at a crime scene can be a huge source of data that can break open even large investigations."

Now, governments around the world are leaning on their populations to install contact-tracing apps on their cellphones. For the moment, the apps are voluntary in most places and intended only to fight the pandemic. But it's easy to envision governments finding new uses for technology that tracks people's movements and is paid for by the end user and not from public coffers.

Already, Hawaii requires visitors to the state to carry working cellphones, on pain of arrest, "to help ensure people are abiding by the traveler quarantine order." Travelers must also check in daily using a Safe Travels System web app that records their location. It's a crude system that seems designed more to deter tourists than to track them. But the approach is only a step away from a relatively inexpensive means of continuously monitoring people's locations. That's tempting for governments and dangerous for the public.

"GPS monitoring—by making available at a relatively low cost such a substantial quantum of intimate information about any person whom the Government, in its unfettered discretion, chooses to track—may 'alter the relationship between citizen and government in a way that is inimical to democratic society'," Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor warned in her concurring opinion in United States v. Jones (2012).

Technological solutions—at least lower-cost ones—are likely go-tos for cash-strapped police departments with narrowed missions. Tight budgets may preclude the "swarms of police drones" and "autonomous police vehicles" of some of the more gee-whiz predictions, especially in Harrison's scenario of limited in-person crime—why spends lots of money to monitor spaces where people no longer congregate? But cameras and facial recognition software are cheaper than personnel, especially if police can convince (or force) private businesses to contribute their own systems.

"With an estimated 30 million security cameras in the United States, tapping into privately owned devices could allow the government to build a CCTV network on the scale of China (at least in terms of population ratio) at a fraction of the cost," The Constitution Project pointed out last year.

Some policing philosophies may make less sense, or take on different meanings, if more of daily life moves online. Street-level, relationship-based community policing is championed by criminal justice reformers such as those at the Charles Koch Institute as a means of building trust and reducing conflict between police officers and the people they serve. But even before the pandemic, Deloitte's Gelles, Mirkow, and Mariani discussed how "the instant availability of information on social media, for example, is reshaping the nature of some social ties." That's precisely what RAND's Harrison envisions for the agoraphobic world of 2030, but more so. If Facebook, Twitter, and their successors become the main form of community for people fearful of contagion, community policing might mean little more than cops trawling through online posts and leaving the occasional comments.

Or maybe strapped police departments will cut costs further and just scrape the internet using predictive technology intended to rate people's potential for engaging in crime. Existing software does just that based on posts, pictures, and other online information. Officers are then apprised of the supposed risks they face from members of the public. The technology is certain to be refined, and its use (and abuse) seems inevitable as a cost-effective means for targeting scarce law enforcement resources.

It's a fair bet that the post-pandemic world will look different in many ways than what came before. There may be fewer police officers performing more constrained roles in the months and years to come, with less direct interpersonal contact with the people they supposedly serve. That might be good news when it comes to minimizing conflicts between police and members of the public. But it could also mean we'll be subject to a cut-rate surveillance state.

NEXT: Reopening States Aren't Faring So Well. Neither Are the Ones Staying Closed.

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  1. “The virus left in its wake entire industries destroyed or crippled,” writes Harrison. People stopped going to the movies as everyone began streaming almost everything into the home. Small colleges shuttered their buildings; community colleges transitioned to almost all online courses… Retail never quite made it back, either.”

    Yeah, most of that was already happening without the virus.

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  2. I think this has definitively proved once and for all that modern county police forces and state police aren’t really necessary at all. Police in my state have effectively stopped doing anything beyond responding to car accidents. The world hasn’t ended.

  3. Of course, there is always the fantasy that this will be the power grab that gets citizens to drop social media completely.

    (and every child left alive gets a pony)


    Regarding comments on drones, we are trying to save lives, not be big brother. If this plan saves 1 life, then its worth it. All its doing is spreading an automated notice about social distance. No recording or pictures are taken, just a tool of encouragement to follow the rules.

    1. Hans, are we the baddies?

  5. Covid will be forgotten only slightly slower than a Las Vegas mass shooting. Still, pretty fast.

    1. SARS MERS Ebola and no doubt others were do far forgotten than everyone acted as if the coronavirus predictions were novel and worse than anything in memory.

      1. They also forgot the 1968 flu pandemic, which killed more Americans than the Vietnam War did!

        There was no shutdown back then!

        1. Back in my day, there were only three TV channels and kids would get whipped by their teacher for talking out of turn! We turned out fine!

    2. The American “ability to forget” is both a blessing and a curse. Emotional people over-react even more when they have no historical reference for the new worst-thing-ever. But if they did not forget that thing they would never stop mewling.

  6. It’s not covid that destroyed industries and crippled the economy. It was our hamfisted response to it.

    It would have been better if we’d just let coronavirus burn itself out and shot for herd immunity. It wasn’t that long ago where allowing fear to change our behavior was derided as ‘letting the terrorists win’ – why should we let a virus win even more easily?

    Remember, flattening the curve was never about saving lives from covid-19. The deaths to covid-19 are unavoidable. Suck it up, accept the fact that we live in a world of risks, and let’s get government to let us get on with our lives.

  7. You can’t save lives by scaling back physical policing. Just make exhaling in the presence of a cop sufficient for a charge of assaulting a police officer and deem the boot on the throat an allowable defensive measure.

    As long as those heroes get home every night, your childrenz can remain safe!

  8. Already, Hawaii requires visitors to the state to carry working cellphones, on pain of arrest, “to help ensure people are abiding by the traveler quarantine order.”

    *** takes deep breath ***

    May I enquire as to exactly how this “ensuring” is supposed to work?

  9. Wait. In the next couple of years we may consider a trip to Hawaii. Are they going to expect I have an app? If so, they can go fuck themselves. I don’t need to go to Hawaii. Would be nice to see the Robin Masters estate but fuck them with a rusty rod in the ass.

    This app thing is absurd. And I know people who think it’s a great idea because they’re not able to look beyond they’re ‘we must save granny’ and ‘it’s a good thing’ stupidity as they suck their thumbs to realize the bigger potential nefarious consequences of such a thing.

    Personally, I’m going to a low-tech phone where all I need is a fucken phone line and text. All the other bull shit I don’t need.

    1. their.

      Hey, I’m three bourbons in.

    2. I thought of the primitive phone thing too but unfortunately they will prolly ensure they don’t work or ban you from whatever because we aren’t sporting their silly, privacy invading app. Glad I have more years behind me than in front. It’s gonna be a shitty world going forward.

  10. There may be fewer police officers performing more constrained roles in the months and years to come, with less direct interpersonal contact with the people they supposedly serve.

    Or maybe they might drop the pretense about “the people they supposedly serve”, admit they’re mercenaries and an occupying army and this whole bit about police forces cutting back due to being strapped for cash is just wishful thinking. If you haven’t been paying attention, police forces in a lot of places are expected to be a revenue-generating operation rather than an expense. If your police force isn’t writing enough traffic tickets, seizing enough assets, issuing citations over petty rules, fining and court-costing and feeing and alternatively-sentencing enough to pay their own way, what’s the use of even having a police force? Under this interpretation of “community policing”, it’s the police’s job to make sure everybody in the community gets shaken down for the vig on a regular basis. They sure as hell won’t be going hungry in our forthcoming austerity society.

  11. Tax paid policing has no future.
    “The whole good cop/bad cop question can be disposed of much more decisively. We need not enumerate what proportion of cops appears to be good or listen to someone’s anecdote about his Uncle Charlie, an allegedly good cop. We need only consider the following: (1) a cop’s job is to enforce the laws, all of them; (2) many of the laws are manifestly unjust, and some are even cruel and wicked; (3) therefore every cop has agreed to act as an enforcer for laws that are manifestly unjust or even cruel and wicked. There are no good cops.” ~Robert Higgs

  12. The biggest effect will be to further destroy the bond between police and the community, to an even greater extent than happened in the 1920s as a direct result of Prohibition. At least then, it was an offshoot of a movement which had been developing within society, and for decades. Even the repeal of Prohibition didn’t repair most of the damage.

    This time, it is simply control, imposed by the government, which is taking unilateral action which is again affecting the citizenry across the political spectrum. And, this time, the rift is also taking place within the law enforcement community, as some sheriffs and police chiefs side with the populace, against the governors.

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