Police department testing use of artificial intelligence in writing of police reports...good idea or bad?

FORT COLLINS, CO - Why does this feel almost like a setup? At a time when defense attorneys are poking holes in the use of digital photography in law enforcement, the use of artificial intelligence in police report writing seems like it is also ripe for challenges from those same attorneys. Yet police in Fort Collins are testing the use of AI to complete police reports, according to CBS News so we may have that answer sooner than later. 

The new technology, using Axon AI to assist police in completing their reports, is being rolled out on a trial basis at Fort Collins Police Services, with approximately 40 officers working different shifts testing the platform to see if it can get cops back out on the streets faster. Axon is one of the leading manufacturers of in-car and body-worn cameras for police. 

As anyone in law enforcement can tell you, filling out police reports, especially in cases where an arrest is made and evidence is collected, can be time-consuming, and can take police off the streets and keep them inside the station. Many departments have transitioned to in-car computers to save some of that, however more complex cases require police officers to be inside the station house or precinct. 

Robert Younger, technology sergeant with Fort Collins said the agency is considering investing in the software on a long-term basis, since initial reviews from officers participating in the trial have been positive and encouraging. 

“I’ve had officers come up and say, ‘Please don’t take this away from me. This gets me back out doing what I love to be doing,'” Younger told CBS News Colorado’s Dillon Thomas. 

The technology assists by transcribing a “verbatim log” of police interaction with the public, but will also help in writing a draft of a police report, Younger said. 

“When they are done recording, they press stop. That audio immediately starts uploading to the cloud. Once there, it starts a transcription process,” Younger said. 

Thomas was shown an example of a test run, where an interaction between an officer and the public was recorded as a train was going through town with the horn blaring, an important test because Fort Collins sees numerous trains transiting the town on a daily basis. 

According to Thomas, the program made a near-perfect translation of the interaction between the officer and a female and was able to differentiate between when the woman was talking and the officer was talking. 

Officers need to conduct their investigations in an interview format, asking questions of the subject. AI can then review the conversation and create a summary which is written as a draft. 

Some may be concerned that as with a program like Chat GPT, the Axon program can get “creative”  and add its own ideas. That feature is disabled in the Axon software. 

“They’ve told it to just listen to the actual facts of the story. And, when in doubt, ask the officer a question,” Younger said. 

In the sample reviewed by Thomas, the AI program left questions in the draft, asking the officer to provide further details of their surroundings in areas where it couldn’t readily determine that on its own. AI also asked the officer to give further descriptions of a potential suspect in their own words. 

“The good thing about this system is it requires a lot of human interaction and intervention,” Younger said. “There is no way for them to just copy the information straight out of the AI system into the report. There has to be human intervention.” 

Officers are also required to certify that they have reviewed the entire report and acknowledge its accuracy before it can be exported to a supervisor and records. 

According to the officers participating in the trial, they believe they have cut their time spent working on reports by about ⅔, or 67%. 

Fort Collins Police report officers in that department spent about 19,000 hours in the course of a year filing reports. They are hopeful they can shave that number down to 6,000 hours per year if the entire department transitions to the software, thereby achieving the goal of having more police out on the streets. 

“The advantage of that is it gives the officers back out doing what they want to do, which is being back out and engaging with the community,” Younger said. 

Younger believes it will cost the city approximately $1 million to implement, but he didn’t have an exact number. In order to move forward, the department would need to get approval from the city to get budget approval. Younger said once that is done, the program could be rolled out to the entire department in a matter of weeks. 

The foray by Fort Collins into artificial intelligence in police work comes at a time when longstanding police practices such as digital photography are coming under increasing scrutiny by defense attorneys. 

In one case, attorneys note that “collection” and “preserving” digital evidence “is fraught with technical and legal issues,” noting that police agencies “must adhere to stringent protocols to ensure they maintain the chain of custody for digital evidence,” according to the law firm of Cheronis & Parente LLC. 

The firm notes that electronic devices must be secured “against unauthorized access or data corruption.” They also note that digital data “can be easily altered or deleted.” 

The use of digital evidence in court presents opportunities for defense attorneys to challenge “the reliability or relevance of electronic evidence, question the chain of custody process, or present alternative interpretations of the data.” They also note that judges and juries must “be digitally literate to some degree, as they must understand and weigh complex technical information.” 

It is unknown if the use of artificial intelligence in the way Fort Collins is proposing presents any concerns such as those identified by digital photography. But be sure there is some civil rights organization such as the ACLU out there trying to find a way to attack its use. You can bet on it. 

So the jury is out on the use of AI in police work. It will be interesting to see how the program works out in Fort Collins and whether the benefits (of which it appears there are several) outweigh the negatives.

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