Danger, Will Robinson: Can Robots Protect Us from Corruption?

Technology is a frequent recourse for anticorruption advocates, be it in the form of crowdsourced reporting, tree tracking, or drug verification.  To that list, one can now add one of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s recent initiatives: robots.

We may not yet be at the point where, like something out of a summer blockbuster, robots can chase down offenders or take the lead in corruption investigations. Nevertheless, building upon their earlier efforts in Kinshasha, a group of engineers has recently been hired to install a traffic robot in Lubumbashi. The robots, eight feet tall and looking like something out of the 1960s, have traffic lights embedded in their torsos and are equipped with cameras which allow them to record traffic violations. The theory behind these cybermen? Robots can’t be bribed, thereby circumventing the notoriously corrupt (human) police force of the DRC, whose officers could either baselessly stop drivers and demand money or be bought off by a driver who truly has committed an infraction.

There are many good things about this initiative. Encouraging Congolese startups (and women in business and science–the engineering team that developed the robots is all-female) seem like worthwhile goals. And if people are somehow intimidated into being better drivers, as some Congolese have claimed is occurring, then the DRC’s horrific traffic accident rate may drop. However, are these robots really effective as corruption-fighting tools? Continue reading

Get Out Of Jail Free: The Corruption of Police Benevolence Cards

Get out of jail free cards are only supposed to exist in Monopoly. But they also exist in New York, in literal card form – at least for minor traffic infractions. These are the Police Benevolence Association (PBA) Cards. The New York Police Department claims that the cards carry no special privileges and should not influence an officer’s decision whether or not to issue a traffic ticket. The police unions, however, tell a different story. Al O’Leary, a spokesman for the PBA, said that the union expects officers to refrain from writing tickets for those with PBA cards as long as they are not a danger to others. (Of course, this in turn raises the question of why the police are writing traffic tickets for anyone who is not a danger to others.)

Perhaps the most frequent recipients of the cards are family members of police officers. O’Leary justified that by saying officers deserve a perk for their families because “[t]he risks our officers take every day make them different from other people.” Special privileges for family members would be corrupt enough. But union leaders admit that they also hand out cards as “tokens of appreciation” to politicians, judges, lawyers, and reporters. Indeed, the New York Police Benevolence Association’s includes an article headlined: “Call it a PR tool or a get-out-of-jail-free card: Each year, local PBAs hand out stacks to the well-connected.” In Nassau County, special cards are given to large donors to the police foundations. While the cards are particular notorious in New York, they exist in many police departments around the country.

This is corruption, plain and simple. And this corruption is shockingly blatant. Yet to the extent that the cards have generated significant controversy, it has been about the fact that the cards are now easy to buy on eBay, rather than the fact that they exist in the first place. One city councilman called for an investigation because selling the cards was “an insult to the people who do work for the NYPD.” Another, who admitted to holding a card himself, said: “Selling the courtesy to the highest bidder is wrong and probably should be illegal.”

These critics miss the point. The issue is not whether people other than the select favored of police officers gets out of tickets. Councilman Dan Garodnick got it right when he said: “Our traffic laws should not be enforced with winks and nods. I don’t know which is worse, the existence of a get-out-of-jail-free card or the fact that the cards are being hawked on the internet.” Continue reading