Any discussion of the future can quickly turn into talk of heavenly utopias or hell-on-Earth dystopias. Or it can lead to conjecture about things we now believe are impossible like faster-than-light travel or quantum teleportation of living organisms.
However, the best way to gain real insight into what might happen in the future is to examine how we got where we are now from the past. Back in 1976 when POLICE Magazine was born, the first handheld mobile cellphone was three years old. Which means people looking forward from 1976 toward our present might be able to look at that fledgling cellular phone technology and at least make an educated guess that it would shape the future.
So that's what we are going to try to do in this article. Rather than create a wish list of police gear we would all like the future to bring, we're going to try to show how the technologies in development and the events of today will affect the law enforcement officers of the future.
Flying to the Scene
Self-driving cars are already a reality in 2016. Two decades from now this technology will be in widespread use in law enforcement, as officers will be able to work on reports and perform other duties while their cars drive them to their destination. The self-drivers will have manual overrides for emergency situations.
Thirty and 40 years out from now, we may finally see practical flying cars. However, the idea of a flying car for the masses is probably better in concept than it would be in reality.
Car crashes kill thousands of people each year. Imagine the carnage if each of those car crashes slammed into a home, a business, or a school from an altitude of say 100 feet. Does that mean it isn't possible that some massive technological breakthroughs in self-driving vehicle technology, automotive engines, and aeronautical engineering won't yield a practical flying car by 2056? No, not necessarily, but it just illustrates one of the problems that must be addressed before the public starts flying around above the highways instead of rolling over them.
That said, flying vehicles for first responders could be a reality in 40 years, as depicted in the movie "Blade Runner." The kinds of flight technologies seen in the Marine Corps V-22 tiltrotor aircraft or the Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) engines of the Harrier fighter jet may in the coming decades be miniaturized to the point they might be practical for emergency vehicles.
Such a flying emergency vehicle would probably have a very limited ceiling of operation, say 50 feet, and the drivers would have to be very well trained, but the possibilities are intriguing. Emergency vehicles such as patrol cars, ambulances and EMT rigs, and maybe even fire trucks could have the ability to fly and hover over the road or in off-road areas. This means emergency personnel could avoid traffic and arrive much faster to emergency calls.
From a police tactical point of view, a flying patrol vehicle would give officers a much better view of any scene before engaging with the public. This could be a boon to officer safety.
Of course flying patrol vehicles would have to be marked and equipped much differently than today's cars. In addition to having lights on the roof of the vehicle, the underside would have to be fitted with emergency lights as well as large floodlights.
By 2056 it's unlikely that patrol vehicles, whether airborne or earth-bound, will be running on fossil fuels. Twenty years from now they will probably all be electric, or at least the newest models will be. And out toward 2056, hydrogen fuel cells may be the engine technology of choice.
Today, patrol cars are crowded with computers, radar systems, controllers for lights, radios, and the list goes on and on. In 20, 30, and 40 years into the future a lot of that clutter will probably disappear or be replaced with new equipment that we can't even imagine.
By 2056 all of the information officers currently receive from in-car computers will be on a heads-up display or visible on a special helmet visor that allows the officer to see the road and detect threats. These displays will be driven by tiny computers that receive input from hundreds of sensors. They will connect with the outside world via signals from quantum computers running the cloud.
And officers won't need keyboards. They will speak commands to the vehicle and the vehicle will not only understand these commands—unlike today's Siri, Cortana, or Alexa—it will act on them instantly.
A decade or so from now, some patrol vehicles will carry small unmanned aircraft. These mini drones will deploy at the command of the officers during every police stop or call. They will be equipped with small high-definition cameras with low-light capability that will capture the entire scene from a bird's-eye view. This video will not only be captured as evidence, it will be streamed back to big data systems that will alert other officers to provide backup if the analysis indicates a threat.
The drones will also have high-intensity lights the officers can turn on when needed to mark the location for incoming public safety assets, warn fellow officers that something bad is happening, or just light up the scene. The high-intensity lights from the drones could also be used to temporarily reduce the vision of suspects.
As drone technology and imaging technology improves, these unmanned aerial systems will offer enhanced officer safety features such as holographic projection. A lone officer could be joined by a lifelike holographic partner to discourage an attack. These drones will also be equipped with sensors that can detect narcotics, explosives, and firearms inside vehicles.
Patrol vehicles in 2056 will be equipped with front, rear, and side scanners. These cameras will read license plates and other legally mandated information motorists are required to display as the officer patrols. Patrol vehicles driving at high speeds will have the ability to scan other cars from all directions even at long distances and the system will store this data in the cloud until it is deemed no longer valuable.
By 2056, the car chase will be a thing of the past. The new self-driving cars will not permit drivers to flee from police, and drivers still tooling around in older cars will also find it much harder to run from the cops. Technology will have advanced to the point that patrol cars have engine disabler systems. They are used to prevent motorists running from the police.
Uniforms and Armor
The officers of 2056 won't just wear uniforms; they will wear sensor arrays. Sensors sewn into their uniforms will monitor a host of biological functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen saturation, and body temperature. If the officer is experiencing distress, the sensors will send an alert to headquarters to check on the officer's well-being, which will be done remotely via surveillance cameras and other devices. GPS senders sewn into an officer's shirt have been in use for decades. They are smaller than a cellphone SIM card and can detect where the officer is located within inches. This permits agencies to pinpoint officers during emergencies, track their movements at scenes, and facilitate collaboration between officers.
Armor technology is constantly evolving and improving to meet new threats. Officers in 2056 will need armor against projectiles, energy weapons, and old-fashioned blades.
So future body armor will evolve from the woven and non-woven fabrics of today into a lightweight combination of fabrics, carbon nanotubes, and energy-absorbing, non-conductive gels. This combination will protect officers from rifle and pistol bullets and energy weapons. The new armor will be extremely light and made out of a breathable material that is neither hot nor cold to wear. Officers will be required to wear head and body armor at all times on duty.
Today, scientists are conducting experiments with invisibility using projected images on thin reflective sheets. By 2056 these experiments will have yielded new types of shields and tactical uniforms that can cloak an officer as he or she makes a potentially dangerous approach. Tactical teams will use these cloaking tools during critical incidents. Some agencies will also provide them to patrol officers, but because they will be expensive and fragile, most agencies will restrict their use to tactical teams.
Robots on Patrol
The most common uses for robots in law enforcement operations today involve surveillance and hazardous device disposal. These robots travel on tracks or wheels and are actually remote-controlled by officers. But bi-pedal robots are in development. And with advances in computing power and developments in artificial intelligence, by 2056 bi-pedal semi-autonomous robots may be in service with police agencies.
These robots of the near future will probably be used in two ways. They will accompany officers on patrol and help respond to dangerous situation,s or they may even supplement or replace some of the more common duties performed by law enforcement officers today.
In the same way that Air Force drones are now executing missions that would in the past have to have been flown by combat pilots, it's possible that 40 years from now robots controlled remotely by officers working in a central control room may take over some of the law enforcement duties now performed by humans.
Police officers today carry multiple communications and information devices, including portable land mobile radios, smartphones, and tablets. In the coming years we are going to see these devices merge into one, and by 2056 an officer will be able to receive calls for service, details about suspects and locations, and other critical information either through a worn device such as eyeglasses or an armored visor.
Body cameras are the hottest law enforcement technology of 2016. In the coming decade just about every officer in the United States will carry a body cam, and this presents a major problem in terms of data storage that will have to be solved. So in the next 10 years or so, new video compression techniques will be developed to reduce the volume of data agencies will have to store.
By 2056 high-definition images of almost every police encounter will be captured from numerous angles by camera systems on officers, on drones, on buildings, and even on the public. Computerized film editing will be used to compile all of this video evidence into a seamless documentary-style film of the incident.
Officers will also carry drug and alcohol detection devices in the future that are much easier to use and more sensitive than current blood or breath tests. These devices will be able to determine whether a person is impaired through a quick read from the person's skin.
Such alcohol and marijuana stick sensors will be carried on the officer's belt. By simply asking a driver to hold the stick, the officer could determine the exact amount of alcohol in the driver's system and any presence of marijuana. When the presence of alcohol or marijuana is detected, central dispatch will be automatically notified to monitor the situation via vehicle, on-officer, and drone cams.
Facial, fingerprint, and eye scanners on officers' belts will have been in use for more than a decade by 2056. They will pull up data about a driver's history, arrest record, and warrants in seconds. Small devices will scan a person's face or eyes without physical contact. Fingerprints will also be detected by the suspect touching the device. The speed of accessing databases like NCIC will be almost instant because scans of legally mandated information tags on the driver's car will have already preloaded information on that vehicle and its owner. When a hit is detected, backup officers nearby will be automatically notified.
Electrolasers and Smart Bullets
The conducted energy weapon (CEW) is currently the most effective less-lethal tool in the law enforcement arsenal. But it has limitations, particularly in terms of range and follow-up shots.
Current CEWs require two wired probes fired from the device to make impact with the subject to connect the circuit, and the probes spread as they leave the cartridge. That means the farther away the subject is from the officer, the harder it is to hit that subject with both probes. So one advance we can expect in the near future is a CEW that offers expanded range perhaps by minimizing the spread of the probes.
But decades from now officers will have true electric guns that can fire a stream of non-lethal current at a subject at ranges of as much as 100 feet. The current will be conducted through a stream of plasma or other conductive material and follow-up shots come with each pull of the trigger. Experiments with these so-called electrolasers are already in progress.
Guns that fire bullets using gunpowder are not going away any time soon. And they will likely still be in use in law enforcement for the foreseeable future, but the use of such lethal force will be heavily restricted by 2056. Because of better armor and better less-lethal weapons such as electric pistols, officers will be required by law and policy to use less-lethal tools on threats, even deadly threats, at close range. Outside the effective range of such tools, officers will still be allowed to defend themselves with lethal force.
By 2056 state-of-the-art lethal weapons may include small, portable railguns that use electromagnetism to fire their projectiles. Hand lasers are also a possibility, since scientists are hard at work now on the problem of reducing the size of laser weapons. Guided bullet weapons are also likely to be available in 2056. Sandia Labs announced in 2012 that it had developed a "smart bullet" that could change directory in mid-flight to follow a laser.
One sobering thought about future weapon technology is that any man-portable weapon developed for law enforcement or the military is going to be adopted by criminals and terrorists.
Virtual Reality Training
Contemporary law enforcement training is a combination of classroom, hands-on, and simulator instruction. As we move deeper into the 21st century, technology will play an even greater role in police training. The next generation of simulators will feature fully immersive virtual reality, which is now in its infancy with devices like Oculus Rift. Forty years from now police training may involve scenarios conducted with robots as the subjects officers must interact with.
Police training in the next few decades will also expand to include much more education before officers hit the streets. Language skills in Spanish will be a nationwide requirement for all officers. Other languages in demand will include Arabic and Pashtun, as refugees from the Middle East and East Asia war zones will have established enclaves in many American cities.
By 2056 high school will have become more career oriented, and in every state, there will be police high schools. Students will study general education, public service and protection, and language courses to obtain a Justice High School Diploma. These students will then be able to attend a university or college for an additional year to earn a bachelor's degree in justice studies. Most departments will require this training or the equivalent before a prospective recruit can apply to the police academy. Police academy training will have a higher percentage of basic training focusing on communication skills, cultural diversity, and conflict de-escalation training. "Intercultural police" training will now be the norm for most progressive departments. Weapon and use-of-force training will be minimized.
Many hours of academy training will focus on how to use police technology. The training will include practical hands-on exercises in which students must demonstrate proficiency.
The emergency vehicle operations side of academy training will be more intense and involved if recruits seek qualification for using flying vehicles. They could also be substantially less involved if officers are to be assigned self-driving patrol units.
Law and Policy
Both the laws officers enforce and the laws and policies that regulate officer actions will change substantially in the next 40 years.
The first big change is in the area of drug enforcement. Marijuana usage will most certainly be legal nationwide by 2030. It's not difficult to imagine what that will be like. Marijuana laws after 2030 focus more on underage use and driving after use. The sale of marijuana is highly regulated and the legal farming industry is big business. But weed bootleggers are still a problem, as some violent outlaws try to avoid state and local taxes.
Movement of illegal aliens into the United States from Mexico has greatly diminished as a result of development of the manufacturing industry in border towns. Yet, terrorists still come to the U.S. by the southern and northern border. Police departments along the northern and southern border go through special training on federal immigration laws, which have become more strict in order to counter the terrorist threat.
As we progress toward the middle of the century, federal law will mandate that every person arrested in the U.S. will be processed with metric facial print, eye scan, and DNA samples. DNA samples are now are taken from oils or sweat from the palm of hands. They are entered into a data bank, which is accessible within seconds by law enforcement officers nationwide.
All vehicles in the U.S. are now required to have front, back, and side information tags that can be read by law enforcement scanners. Failure to display a plate results in the impoundment of that vehicle at the owner's expense.
Perhaps the greatest change in American policing by 2056 will be that officers in the field will receive immediate legal guidance on their actions. Officer-worn cameras and other cameras as well as sensors will send all officer actions to analysis systems that will use artificial intelligence to judge whether the officer's actions are in-policy or lawful. If the action is unlawful or out of policy, the officer will be warned with a verbal or visual alert. Officers who continue with the action will be disciplined and perhaps prosecuted.
Looking at some of our thoughts on the future, today's officers reading this article may find some of what lies ahead exciting, some of it disturbing, and some of it scary.
But the goal of this article was not to present you with an ideal vision of the future where all is well for officers and nothing has changed. It was to get you thinking about the future and how it will be derived from the present, both good and bad.
The one thing we know about the future is that change is inevitable and new technologies and new ways of thinking bring pain to many people. You won't like everything about the future but you can't change it once it happens because the future is being born now. The way we live and work in 2056 will grow out of all the challenges we face in 2016, and how we react to them.
Christopher Kuch holds a PhD in criminal justice. He has taught for more than 25 years and has written about a variety of police issues. Kuch served as a deputy sheriff in Ohio and is on the adjunct faculty of Galatasaray University in Istanbul, Turkey.