When Sci-Fi Crime-Prevention Tactics Aren't Actually That Far-Fetched

The Purge seems implausible, but according to criminologists, some sci-fi films' law-enforcement methods could be possible one day—and some are in use right now.
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Judging by the reviews, Lena Headey and Ethan Hawke's new film The Purge may be pretty forgettable. But at least one aspect of the future-set movie intrigues: the premise. Set a decade from now, The Purge takes place in a world where the United States is thriving, where unemployment is less than one percent, and crime at an all time low. To safeguard this prosperity, the government indulges its citizens in an annual purge, a 12-hour amnesty in which all criminal activity is made legal.

It's an extreme solution, but one that's perfectly in keeping with the sci-fi genre, which historically has a habit of theorizing creative ways to combat crime. After all, future-gazing films have dreamt up everything from citywide prisons to cybernetic street cops. Just how far removed from reality are these seemingly outlandish approaches to keeping society safe? I decided to find out by asking a few experts in criminology just how plausible science fiction's crime-fighting policies actually are.

Orion Pictures

Robocop (1987)

Crime-fighting premise: With economic collapse bringing a future Detroit to the brink of ruin, the city hands control of its police department to Omni Consumer Products, a mega-corporation tasked with ridding the streets of crime. To that end, the company develops a series of robotic law enforcement droids, protocol-based machines that patrol the streets in the force's place.

"When you look at the technologies that the U.S. government is already employing, we're very close to 'RoboCop.'"

Criminologists say: "When you look at the technologies that the government is already employing, especially here in the United States, we're very close to RoboCop," says Dawn L. Rothe, director at the International State Crime Research Consortium and associate professor in sociology and criminology at Old Dominion University. "We're now producing airborne drones that have the automated intellectual ability where they are able to pick out a terrorist and make a decision whether to kill them or not. So we're already getting to this point, and I don't see that using a RoboCop, if you will, is so far fetched."

It's not just the idea of ED-209's patrolling the Nuke-infested streets of Detroit that's surprisingly plausible, though. The film's fascination with the involvement of the insidious OmniCorp is also prescient. "We've already started in on that trajectory," Rothe says. "Not only with the privatisation of our prisons, but also if you look at the state's use of private companies that are active not only in conflicts abroad, but even in issues of homeland security."


Dredd (2012) / Judge Dredd (1995)

Crime-fighting premise: In a dystopian future, the majority of humanity resides in Mega-Cities, sprawling metropolises where the judicial system as we know it has been replaced in an effort to combat the 17,000 crimes reported daily. In its stead are Judges, street-level law enforcement officers who act as judge, jury, and executioner.

Criminologists say: It sounds inherently unconstitutional, but it's another timeline that Rothe sees as potentially plausible. Indeed it's not so much of a leap from the War on Terror, where we've already seen that the state is willing to manipulate the status of suspects in order to deny them due process. Rothe also points to the mounting concern over the use of drone strikes, and the recent revelations that four U.S citizens died in action rendered by the government's controversial Disposition Matrix: "It's not any more far fetched than having a Judge actually do it in each of these separate areas," she says.

20th Century Fox

Minority Report (2002)

Crime-fighting premise: In 2054, a controversial but effective "PreCrime" program uses psychic visions to incarcerate potential murderers before they've acted.

Criminologists say: The Steven Spielberg flick is another movie that postulates an inherently unconstitutional approach to law and order, but one whose underlying logic is also entirely plausible. "Minority Report is concerned with the flaws and failures of justice and science against the backdrop of wrongful conviction, mass incarceration, DNA technology, and preventive detention—literally 'warehousing' criminals on the pretext of future dangerous behavior," says Michelle Brown, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee and co-author of the book Criminology Goes to The Movies.

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Daniel Bettridge has written for The GuardianThe Independent, and The Week.

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