Conor Friedersdorf is a California-based staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.
Officers are railing against the traffic app's cop-tracking alerts, demanding that Google stop the service to drivers.
On the streets of Los Angeles, where everyone is looking for a route that skirts traffic, Waze is our jam. The Google-owned mobile-phone app draws on everyone in its network of users to determine what roads are moving at what pace, information that allows it to offer optimized, often unexpected directions when crossing town at rush hour. Its map is also populated with information from its most avid users, like the location of a stalled car, road work, or a police cruiser.
Thus the present controversy.
After the recent murder of two NYPD officers as they sat in their car, cops around the country are understandably wary of more premeditated killings. Less understandably, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has written a letter to Googleasserting that Waze–an app the cop killer had but didn't use to locate his victims–could be "misused by those with criminal intent to endanger police officers."
He isn't alone.
Sheriff Mike Brown of Bedford County, Virginia, who leads a technology committee for the National Sheriffs Association, says that Waze is a "police stalker" that endangers cops. "The police community needs to coordinate an effort to have the owner, Google, act like the responsible corporate citizen they have always been," he said, "and remove this feature from the application even before any litigation or statutory action." And Jim Pasco, who leads the Fraternal Order of Police, claimed that he can think of 100 ways it could endanger officer safety. "There's no control over who uses it," he said. "So, if you're a criminal and you want to rob a bank, hypothetically, you use your Waze."
These warnings are difficult to take seriously.
There is good reason to object vehemently when someone posts the home address of a police officer online. Cops are perfectly within their rights to demand bullet proof vests, safety features on their police cruisers, and other precautions. But Chief Beck of the LAPD is surely too smart to maintain a belief that a premeditated killer bent on targeting police officers needs a traffic app to locate them.
Let us count the alternatives. Cops tend to congregate at police stations. They make regular appearances at the courthouse. They drive around town in marked cars wearing uniforms and congregate informally in the same parking lots day after day. As Scott Shackford points out at Reason, "would you like to listen to Los Angeles Police and Fire scanner traffic? It’s right here!" If someone intent on locating a police officer still found themselves unable to do so, which strains credulity, there is a widely known, pre-mobile phone app called 911 that anyone can use, anywhere in any American city, to summon police immediately to any location.
Any police officers who were earnestly worried about Waze compromising their safety can stop. Use the app yourself. It'll be obvious that there's no cause to fret. In fact, you may begin to suspect that representatives of law enforcement organizations dislike the police locator feature on Waze for unrelated reasons, but guessed that a tie to the deaths of NYPD officers was the only rhetorical tactic with enough emotional resonance to bully Google into a change. If the mottos on the sides of police cars stated the whole truth, they'd proclaim, "To protect and serve–and, during down time, to generate revenue for the city." I suspect some of the opposition to Waze by police brass is grounded in the fact that, when its automated voice announces that there's a cop car ahead, drivers slow down.
Speed traps? It turns out that Google has an app for that.
There are, I hasten to add, plausible safety critiques of Waze.
Perhaps drivers who report what they see while using the app are distracted when doing so. Maybe Waze users drive more dangerously when they see that no cops are around.
But my experience driving with the app has been that it improves my perceived safety. I less frequently find myself surprised by a police cruiser that's giving a motorist a ticket while parked too close to the shoulder or on a sharp curve. And doesn't my added alertness in those situations make the police officers in question safer? Indeed, UPI notes that some police officers in tech-savvy locales like Waze:
"We want to be seen," Sgt. Heather Randol, spokeswoman for the San Jose Police Department, told the San Jose Mercury News. Part of the department's service is "being highly visible on patrol to reduce crime," she said.
SFPD spokesman Albie Esparza said the app could be helpful in reducing road accidents. "Someone is less likely to speed if they know a police officer is around the corner. It also helps with public safety so people know where there is an officer to get help."
The app should be left alone to go about its business.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.