APB, which premieres Monday on Fox, tells the story of Gideon Reeves (Justin Kirk), a tech billionaire who takes over the 13th Precinct of the Chicago Police Department after seeing firsthand how ill-equipped the force is to fight crime. As part of his administration, Reeves gives the cops cool toys and technology, like protective body suits; stun guns with lethal and nonlethal settings; souped-up, bulletproof cars; and lots and lots of drones. In the real world, serious conversations are taking place about how law enforcement uses cutting-edge technology like Stingrays and predictive policing based on algorithms.
I spoke with co-showrunner Matt Nix, who also created the USA thriller Burn Notice, about the equipment Reeves hands to the cops, and the policy implications of privatizing policing.
June Thomas: In APB, an arrogant billionaire takes a job he’s really not qualified for. I don’t know if you expected the show to be quite so topical.
Mat Nix: Whatever do you mean!
It is based on reality, though, right?
Yeah, it’s inspired by a true story of a wealthy man in New Orleans who had been the victim of some burglaries. After battling with the city over police protection, he decided to fund a small police force within the police force that would patrol the center of town, and he made an app so you could report crimes. It’s certainly not the same, but it did demonstrate that this was something that could really happen, and did really happen—where someone decided to fund an upgrade to the police force.
Which of the technologies on the show are really possible?
In the pilot, there are drones that are weaponized with Tasers. That has never been done by a police force, but it’s done in the military. Those things exist right now. Although they look futuristic, there are no technical obstacles to making a drone that has a loudspeaker on it and a mic and can fire a Taser. We have weapons that have lethal and nonlethal settings—that’s one place where we took a certain amount of license, in the sense that there’s not currently a Taser bullet that carries enough charge to do that.
In guiding the technology in the show, the kinds of liberties we took were the practical liberties of how long something might take. For example, in the third episode, Gideon uses a chair from the aerospace division of his company that reads biofeedback from pilots to monitor their stress levels. He repurposes the monitors into an interrogation chair, which allows them to passively monitor the stress levels of the suspect. Are there seats in rockets and aircraft that monitor the stress level of the pilots? Absolutely, that’s something that exists. Can you rip all that out of a chair and install it in an interrogation chair in the space of a few hours? That might be difficult. But everything is basically possible based on contemporary technology, and the license we take is that we allow ourselves to do it a little bit more quickly. Then again, one of the conceits of the show is that he’s not limited by money.
The truth is: The major obstacle to the use of police drones in the real city of Chicago is the Federal Aviation Administration. They won’t let you fly drones in certain areas, so that’s another thing where we’re allowing that, off screen, somehow, Gideon has made his way through that bureaucracy and made it possible—or he’s just paying fines all the time!
Let’s talk about those policy restrictions. In the pilot, I don’t remember much discussion of warrants. When the drones are out chasing the bad guys, they’re also doing some very intrusive surveillance.
It’s definitely something we address more deeply as the series goes on. Whatever you think of Donald Trump, one thing that’s clear is that he’s a guy who is really frustrated with the nature of government, red tape, and bureaucratic obstacles. He was partially elected on a platform of cutting through those things. In the real world, we’ll see if he’s successful, but in the world of the show, one of the things that we explore is the idea of this guy who has been running his own business and has been able to do pretty much whatever he wanted suddenly being forced to realize that just because something is technically possible, that doesn’t make it right
Let’s talk about the equipment the 13th Precinct has—body armor, special guns, powerful cars. I’ve heard police departments complain that they can’t compete with the materiel that criminals have. Isn’t it just as much of a nightmare that the bad guys will get their hands on the kind of technology that Reeves makes available?
With regard to weaponry, it was a priority for us to not portray this as a militarized police force. This is a civilian police force with enhanced equipment. It’s not that they are getting more powerful guns. They are getting more capable guns. They’re getting guns that can fire Taser rounds when necessary and lethal rounds when necessary. Frankly, we might want criminals to get their hands on those kinds of guns.
A lot of what we’re exploring is the capabilities of big data and networking. We do it in a TV-friendly, graphics-on-a-screen kind of way, but a lot of it is data analysis. In the second episode, one of the big innovations is that the police are going to set up a perimeter, and Ada—the computer scientist—says, Why don’t we figure out the optimal path for people to drive through this area so that we always have units at the mathematically closest point to possible targets rather than just setting up a big circle? That’s math.
There are certain areas, like drones, where the question of an arms race between the police and the criminals is real. The cops have bulletproof cars with powerful engines, they have this body armor, and they have these guns—but most of the show is just about being smarter. I’m not terribly worried about criminals getting their hands on algorithms.
One other thing that we explore really in every episode is the limitations of the technology. We realized very early on is that the recipe for a very boring show is: There’s a problem, Gideon gets a toy, and the toy fixes the problem. Technology by itself doesn’t solve anything. It’s how it’s deployed.
When CSI was big, there were anecdotal reports that juries came to expect CSI-like forensic evidence, and if they weren’t provided it, they weren’t willing to bring a conviction. Are you worried that APB might lead cities or individual citizens to demand the kind of equipment and algorithms that the cops at the 13th Precinct have?
I’m not too worried that people will say, Why don’t we have a billionaire?
This is coming no matter what. The question isn’t Is this going to be portrayed in television? or Are people going to get used to the idea of police using drones? The answer to that, whether APB is on the air or not, is absolutely yes, The question is not whether it’s going to be portrayed on TV but how it’s going to be portrayed, and are we doing that responsibly. Are we presenting these things as easy answers? Are we presenting civil rights—questions of due process—as bureaucratic red tape to be brushed aside by people who know better? Or are we presenting those as real issues to be grappled with and balanced and dealt with? In the confines of a show that has a lot of action, where people crack wise—we’re not a documentary—that is something we try to be very conscious of and make sure that whenever we show these things that are coming, we acknowledge that there’s another side to it. We always remind the audience that technology is only as good as the people behind it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.