Police, Technology, and Liberty Reconsidered

A Northern New Jersey newspaper reports today on the latest in forensics, use of DNA evidence to solve burglaries and other property crimes:

"Everyone now has a couple of Q-Tips in their crime scene kits," said North Bergen Police Lt. Frank Cannella, referring to the swabs used to absorb saliva, blood and other bodily fluids that contain DNA.

And that makes the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., one of the best known members of the Harvard faculty all the more puzzling. It isn't entirely surprising that the Cambridge police sergeant who arrived after a burglary call didn't recognize Gates; the era of the beat patrolman, even in dense urban areas like Cambridge's Ware Street, ended decades ago. The sergeant and the woman who reported the break-in also live miles from Cambridge. (As a former contributing editor to Harvard Magazine, where the caller worked, I have often visited the nearby publication offices on Ware Street, and and have never given a thought to who might be living in one of the old frame houses next door in a district of Harvard offices and apartments.)

What is sad is that a dispatcher's use of freely available technology, not advanced databases, could have defused the whole event. As of 11:10 on July 23, Gates's name, address, and telephone number were still available on line through Google and probably other means. (You can even get the Harvard housing office brochure about the house with rent information online.) A dispatcher could have searched the address, found occupants' names within seconds, used them to determine Gates's appearance and Harvard connection, and relayed all of this to the officers on their way to the scene. I'd be surprised if they didn't have laptops and/or smartphones with them that could have found the same information. And since Professor Gates said he had entered through the back door and turned off the alarm system, shouldn't the dispatcher also have known about the system's existence -- most cities now require registration to penalize repeat false alarms -- and let the officer know that the owner probably was the person observed at the door?

With the right background information the sergeant could have recognized Gates, addressed him by name, and explained that verifying identification was a formality in clearing the call. John Cook on Gawker quotes from a Gates interview refusing to blame the caller:

We depend on the police-I'm glad that this lady called 911. I hope right now if someone is breaking into my house she's calling 911 and the police will come! I just don't want to be arrested for being black at home! I think this was a bit of an extreme reaction.

To me the episode is not only about race, class, and Harvard. It may be just as much about basic service management that could have defused the situation. Were Cambridge police procedures worthy of a world center of computing research? And are the Web's incursions on privacy necessarily opposed to the citizen's liberties? Sometimes there are unintended consequences of not using technology. 

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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