Millennials Demand Digital Collaboration With Police

Last month, a teenage bystander at a Texas pool-party recorded the overblown response of a police officer who had been called to break up a minor fracas, leading to public outrage, an investigation, and the officer's eventual resignation. Footage from the now infamous incident aired globally, raising questions among both citizens and police about how technology is changing the face of policing, particularly when in the hands of millennials.

How do millennials, individuals born during the 1980s (18-34 age demographic), feel about and engage with law enforcement, and how do their attitudes differ from previous generations?
The problem is not that this demographic considers cops to be the bad guys.

A recent survey by Fusion, a multi-platform media company catering to millennials, revealed that 83 percent of individuals under thirty-five have a positive opinion of the police, with only 8 percent falling on the "bad cop" side of the spectrum. Nor is it that millennials believe themselves to be less safe than their parents or grandparents. The same survey found that 90 percent of those under the age of thirty-five feel secure in their neighborhoods, with four out of five expressing satisfaction with local police services.

Instead, the divide seems to exist in the degree of trust and communication between younger citizens and law enforcement, a rift that transcends racial and socioeconomic lines. New Accenture research reveals that younger Americans have a less favorable perception of police-community interactions than their older counterparts; only one third of millennials, compared to 50 percent of individuals over thirty-five, believe that the police treat citizens courteously in everyday interactions. This may be, in part, a function of exposure: as some of the biggest consumers of technology and social media, millennials are exposed more regularly to images and viral videos of police misconduct.

So, what can be done to mend the growing disconnect between police officers and this skeptical, institution-wary, yet technologically advanced subset of the population? The solution may lie with technology.

In a 2012 study, Accenture determined that 72 percent of U.S. citizens considered social media to be an appropriate forum for the reporting of criminal activity and advocate greater use of digital channels, such as a websites or portals, to communicate with law enforcement. A more recent poll found that a majority (60 percent) of 18-34 year olds are willing to use digital channels to report suspicious behavior and crimes in progress to police, with 58 percent saying they would especially like to use new technologies to report non-emergency situations. Most millennials also believe that digital communication, as well as tools like CCTV and data analytics, can increase the effectiveness of local police services (76 percent).

There are obvious logistical advantages to developing new digital platforms to facilitate information exchange between police and the communities they serve. In addition to allowing officers to reach a broader swatch of the population, harnessing technology for crime reporting would be more cost-effective and would likely yield higher rates of civic involvement, without comprising citizen safety. This is particularly true in communities where crime reporting is low due to fear of retaliation.
In the absence of new digital channels, millennial participation in crime fighting programs will remain limited. According to Accenture, only 44 percent of millennials would take part in a traditional neighborhood watch program, compared to 56 percent of individuals over thirty-five. It may be that millennials, who are accustomed to having everything at their fingertips, perceive these programs as outdated or inefficient or are simply unwilling or unable to make time to attend.

Despite a consensus that technology would lead to improved outcomes in policing, young people aren't granting law enforcement a free pass. Fewer millennials approve of the use of body-worn cameras and other recording devices by police officers: only 56 percent compared to 70 percent of adults over the age of thirty-five. It could be that they perceive these devices as more advantageous for the officer than for civilians or do not wish to be recorded without permission. This might explain why teens and twenty-somethings, like the Texas pool-party videographer, feel compelled to pull out their phones during encounters with law enforcement; it allows them to level the playing field for all participants and to communicate their experience to the world.

So what does this mean for law enforcement? Despite the preponderance of media attention on deteriorating state of police-community relations, there is room for optimism. More than three-fourths of millennials believe that increased use of technology would lead to more effective policing, both in terms of response time and accuracy of crime reporting. This conviction is something that law enforcement must seize upon and foster.

With new digital technologies opening up much needed lines of communication, millennials could in time become the biggest advocates of digital policing.