A new device may cut down on police shootings

With body cams and smart guns, cops are starting to look very different than they used to.


S.E. Smith

Internet Culture

Published Oct 28, 2014   Updated May 30, 2021, 8:00 am CDT

In a perfect world, we would have an impartial witness to every incident when a police officer draws and fires a weapon. Now we have the next-best thing.

A newly introduced system, called Yardarm, purports to do just that with a sensor embedded in the grip of a police officer’s firearm. Like body cameras, the Yardarm is designed to address concerns about use of force and dwindling trust in law enforcement by providing a mechanism for tracking police officers, but it’s only as good as its electronic eyes.

Police departments in both California and Texas are testing the system, which uses an induction charged sensor to note when an officer unholsters a weapon and when it’s fired. In addition, the device gathers data on the location of the weapon and the direction of fire; in some ways, it acts like the black box of an aircraft, generating a wealth of electronic data about a potentially chaotic situation.

The Yardarm doesn’t just gather data for future evaluation. It’s a real-time monitoring system, transmitting data to operations control as well as other officers. It can provide information about a breaking situation where an officer might need backup, what other officers are doing on the scene of a chaotic event, and whether an officer has become separated from her weapon (as, for example, if she was shot and a criminal picked up her gun). The Yardarm could revolutionize policing in the U.S., if used responsibly.

It’s hard to escape the obvious concerns about police brutality issues in the United States, which have erupted over the course of 2014 in response to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., which seemed like a tipping point for those angered by excessive force and police shootings. Officer-involved shootings seem like such a part of life that Mother Jones claims an unarmed black men is shot by police officers approximately every three days. Such shootings occur primarily in urban areas. And there’s a widespread perception that officers are not held accountable, backed by the sluggish action on Officer Darren Wilson, the police officer responsible for Brown’s death.

Thus, a tool that helps police track how guns are used presents some obvious benefits in the eyes of those concerned about police violence, as well as many departments. However, Yardarm has some significant flaws that can’t be addressed, no matter how well the technology is designed.

Obviously, the first issue is that it can neither record what happened in the minutes or hours leading up to the shooting nor the data about the surrounding environment during and after a shooting. Body cameras are necessary for this, and even they often provide an imperfect picture. Without this data, it’s difficult to collect information about whether a shooting was justified, if an officer made a good call in a given situation, and how a police shooting might have been averted.

While the Yardarm may record data, testimony from human witnesses—notoriously flawed sources of information—would still be necessary to collect information about what happened at a scene. Police cameras aren’t the only way to resolve this situation. Cellphone videos, which are a growing phenomenon associated with police shootings, also provide a wealth of information. However, civilian filming is sometimes thwarted by police, despite being perfectly legal, and as with other evidence, such videos can potentially be destroyed or tampered with, creating yet another shortfall or potential loophole in the search for information about what really happened during an officer-involved shooting.

As with body cameras, the Yardarm presents another problem: Can members of the public trust officers to keep it on? Both devices are potentially vulnerable to deactivation or tampering, which means that even supposedly reliable technological testimony could turn out to be so much hot air; it can be difficult to prove a negative, or a malfunction, and thus an officer’s data might not necessarily be reliable. These issues are challenging to address, even with real-time data transmission, especially in corrupt police departments where there may be an incentive to manipulate data. Hacks and other data breaches are equally problematic.

There’s another obvious flaw to the technology: It doesn’t resolve the issue of personal weapons. Numerous police officers have personal weapons, including those they carry off-duty and on the job. When an off-duty officer is involved in a shooting, as was the case in Ferguson, Yardarm wouldn’t provide any data for a situation that could potentially turn explosive. Short of requiring officers—or everyone—to equip personal firearms with the tech, which might be construed by some as a violation of privacy, there’s no clear solution to this problem.

At the Verge, Carl Franzen points out, “It’s unclear whether anyone besides police departments—defense attorneys, for example—would have access to the data and under what conditions.” This raises an important question about both the integrity and utility of the data. If police departments rely on internal investigations and refuse to release data, public trust and confidence may not necessarily be boosted by the use of Yardarm in police weaponry. Citizens might be concerned that justice is not truly being served, and that police officers are hiding the truth—an accusation that already haunts police departments.

Should the evidence go to court, though, it would become part of a trial to determine a police officer’s level of responsibility, and it could be a gamechanger. The ability to record how many shots were fired, for example, would highlight questions about whether it’s really necessary to shoot an unarmed mentally ill teen 16 times. Yardarm’s key tracking data about the direction of fire and related details could also prove immensely useful when reconstructing the events of an officer-involved shooting, and corroborating witness statements or checking them against the available data.

Yardarm is not a failsafe solution to police shootings, but it is a step in the right direction. It, along with other tech, could prove to be a beneficial approach to both police PR problems and public safety—because studies show that police officers wearing monitoring tech tend to be more careful about their actions. When Big Brother is watching Big Brother, police officers are more likely to focus on deescalation, conflict resolution, and nonviolent approaches to ending a potentially violent situation.

Use of force went down by 60 percent when the Rialto Police Department started wearing body cameras, highlighting the value of a simple preventative move; by making sure police knew they would be accountable for their actions, officers improved their behaviors.

Technology may be slowly but steadily changing the nature of policing, which is good news for civilians and police alike. The question of whether it will be implemented and used honestly, however, remains up for grabs.

Photo via Diana Robinson/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Share this article
*First Published: Oct 28, 2014, 10:30 am CDT