Technology, Net-widening and Police Violence: Deskilling and Desensitizing

Written by Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.

It seems very American to place an extraordinary level of trust in the idea that technology can solve human and social problems. “Police problems” are no exception to this misplaced trust in technological fixes. Technological alternatives to traditional police weapons well illustrate this point. Advocates of police use of “less-than-lethal weapons,” like Tazers and CEDs, often argue that these devices decrease police use of deadly force, reduce the overall number of use of force incidents, and limit the number of people seriously injured. This, however, is certainly not the case. In fact, the introduction of alternative use of force technologies results in an increased frequency of use of force by the police often with fatal consequences. Because police now have ready access to these technologies and because they are hawked by manufactures as “less-than-lethal” the calculations police use to apply force have changed. Often resulting in a deskilling of the police and a desensitizing of the public to police violence—no one riots because the police stunned-gunned a drunk for non-compliance or because a cop pepper-sprayed a group of protesters.  

While the overall severity of force used by the police may somewhat decrease with the adoption of “less-than-lethal” technologies (fewer people are likely to be hit in the head with a nightstick), more people are likely to be stunned-gunned by the police in less serious encounters. The introduction of these alternative weapons actually increases the overall number of use-of-force incidents and the number of people who die as a result of these encounters continues to rise. Likewise there is little creditable research showing police armed with these alternative weapons are any less likely to use deadly force.

The video below begs the question.  Has the introduction of these technologies deskilled the police and was any level of force needed at all in this situation?     

Police officers possessing less-than-lethal weapons are often more inclined to use these weapons in situations where they would not have been legally justified in using traditional weapons, or for that matter any level of force at whatsoever. This phenomenon is known as net widening. As use of force technologies improve, police become more likely to apply force in a greater number of situations, in less serious situations, to more vulnerable people and resort to force in cases where people simply do not immediately comply with their directives.

Victor E. Kappeler, Ph.D.
Associate Dean and Foundation Professor
School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University


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Published on May 06, 2014