Policing the Future

Policing at a deep level. This edition published by Penguin Books 1974. Cover art by David Pelham.

The science fiction writer Jack Vance coined a memorable proverb in his novel The Star King – “Law cannot reach where enforcement will not follow.”  We may not like it, but there’s a lot of truth in it.

We might hope that, as the human race becomes more civilized, the level of crime, particularly violent crime, will diminish.  In his 2011 book The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard, presents evidence that our species has become progressively less violent over the millennia from prehistory through to the present day, despite the terrifying global wars, and seemingly endless conflicts, witnessed during so much of the twentieth century.

But even so, it seems likely that we can expect some form of policing to be a feature of human civilization for the foreseeable future, and that it will have to take full advantage of whatever developments in science and technology, or even within the human being itself, may be available in order to carry out its task effectively.  Some of those developments might seem incredible by today’s standards, but science fiction may give some pointers on where they may eventually go.

There is little doubt that telepathy, or some variant of it, would be a dramatic advantage to law enforcement.  In his classic Hugo Award winning 1953 novel The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester describes a future society where telepathy is well established but restricted to relatively few people, the most proficient occupying positions of power where they can use their abilities to the full.  Not surprisingly, this includes the police – specialised extra-sensory perception allows telepaths to identify the intent in others to commit crime before it happens, and to take action to prevent it.

A police inspector puts it well when talking to Lincoln Powell, the first-class telepath who is Prefect of the Police Psychotic Division (there’s a name to conjure with): “A man can’t walk around with a disturbed pattern, maturing murder, and go unnoticed these days.  He’d have as much chance of going unnoticed as a man with three heads.”  And once you know who they are, you can stop them.

Similar benefits would occur from precognition.  The 2002 film The Minority Report, loosely based on Philip K Dick’s short story of the same name, explored the idea of a police force which employs mutants who have visions of the future, allowing them to visualise crimes before they occur.  It might not always be crystal clear who is actually going to commit the crime, but the police have a head start in the investigation and can do their best to stop it happening in the first place.

But there is a clear ethical obstacle in all such developments – the purpose is to apprehend and, as necessary, detain and convict someone for a crime they have not committed (yet).  In democracies which hope to abide by the rule of law, we don’t arrest and incarcerate people for something they have not done.  In fact, this is not too far removed from a problem already confronting criminal justice systems – with an increasing ability to identify a person’s propensity to commit crime from psychological, and possibly even genetic, evidence, is it right to lock them up as a preventative measure?  After all, we already do it for the mentally unbalanced who show a tendency towards violence.  The phrase “pre-crime”, as used in the movie, is already being applied to this dilemma.

We law-abiding citizens are probably all too keen to see potential criminals removed from society, but we might not feel quite the same if we find that our own genetic make-up suggests a previously unknown tendency towards crime.  Or, in due course, if some bureaucratic telepath probes our mind to decide that we might one day have a strong temptation in that direction.  The prison cell beckons to protect our fellow citizens from us.  Then we might feel otherwise.  And just where does it stop?

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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