Author's note: This story about 2030 is not a prediction of what will happen, but an imagined, plausible future based on trends and events in the present. Scenarios of possible futures are useful to help planners envision what the future could be, and then plan ways to optimize on opportunities or mitigate the damage from obstacles that may arise. In this instance, trends regarding retail operations, hotels, tax revenues, fines and forfeitures, and autonomous vehicles are all happening today—although we've imagined how they might extend into the future. The question for police leaders is: what can you do, and what do you want to do, about it?
The coronavirus pandemic in the spring of 2020, its rebound in early 2021, and the third wave the following year before herd immunity slowed the virus, killed more than a quarter-million Americans.
The virus left in its wake entire industries destroyed or crippled. People stopped going to the movies as everyone began streaming almost everything into the home. Small colleges shuttered their buildings; community colleges transitioned to almost all online courses. Private, non-profit universities suffered the most. Many of their campuses, jewels in the smaller communities where they resided, were now empty reminders of a time long past. Retail never quite made it back, either.
Almost 10,000 businesses closed in 2019, a high although not unexpected number, as retailers fought to avoid bankruptcy. In 2020, 15,000 more closed forever. By 2030, online penetration of the market meant more than 80,000 small businesses were images of the past. The survivors created online and delivery services for people who were used to the world showing up at their door. Pre-pandemic forecasts of 25% of retail going online were low; more than a third of all transactions were done in cyberspace.
Hotel occupancy taxes, the lifeblood of tourist and resort communities, lagged far below their peaks in the 2010s. More than 40% of all small hotels closed for good. Even larger hotel chains discarded underperforming properties. Roadway construction funding was repurposed to roadway repair and maintenance, although fuel taxes were raised to pay for bonds that had already been issued. Major air carriers had shrunk from 22 major carriers in 2008 to 17 in 2019. The decade of the 20s saw that number drop again to 12, with regional carriers being consolidated to sustain a semblance of profitable route structures.
By 2030, sales tax revenues had leveled off around 15% below where they had been in 2019. Property taxes settled at rates of about 10% lower than in 2020. City and county budgets descended, then stabilized at about 30% below the levels before the “Great Reset.” Some hotels made it, especially in beach or mountain resort communities within driving distance of major urban centers. Others were repurposed as homeless housing or ad hoc senior health communities.
Transient occupancy taxes fell like a rock and stayed at the bottom of the pool. This slashed that revenue stream; it also meant jobs lost for hotel, service and restaurant workers struggling to feed their families. Utility companies were increasingly joining cable companies as yesterday's providers of home entertainment and energy. A radical shift in habits killed some industries; technology killed the rest.
The onshoring of production had helped to stabilize employment, and almost everyone liked seeing “Made in the USA,” even though the prices were higher. The oil industry had suffered, with many producers declaring bankruptcy as the coronavirus hit when they were already engaged in a death match with foreign competitors trying to undercut their profits and drive them out of business. Even with a revitalized industry sector, unemployment figures drove legislation to enact a universal basic income and major medical coverage in 2024 to support those who never really got back on their feet.
In short, things were less expensive, but people had less to spend. Gas was cheaper, but people didn't need it as much. Humans are social creatures, and enjoy congregating in groups. The ways they gathered, though had changed. Sports venues and concerts reemerged, but took a few years before distancing requirements were eased. Tourism had cratered and never came back. The five dozen or so ocean cruise lines had been reduced to the ultra lines with low occupancies and river cruises that offered small boats with strong health protocols. Some cruise ships were now permanently anchored in former ports of call as floating casino hotels. Others were moored in ghost fleets, quietly waiting for passengers that would never board.
The old ways were broken, and the new ways had taken their place. Policing wasn't immune to either economic or technological change—in fact, it was in the bullseye of one change that transformed policing forever.
The Police—Then and Now
The 2010s were filled with a societal dialog over the conduct of the police, especially in contacts where implicit bias may have been a factor. The 2020s changed the discussion to one where people were asking if the police were really a priority in the “next normal.”
People were staying home, ordering in, going to school and working from their living rooms. Family crimes were up; domestic violence, child abuse and elder neglect were serious issues. Daytime burglaries, though, had dropped, as had traffic collisions, assaults at (formerly) crowded bars and gatherings, and street drug sales had morphed to a largely online sales and delivery platform. No more check fraud since there were no more checks. The biggest sustained spike in crime? Online intrusion into work and play.
Since the police had so little expertise in these types of crimes, people looked elsewhere to resolve their tech crimes and online issues. Police work was marginalized in cyberspace and became different in profound and lasting ways. In fact, police work reset more quickly than anyone might have imagined. Most of the pressure on the police to change was economic; however, the coup de grace was the impact of automation in vehicles and the intelligent roadways those cars used.
Smart Cars, Smart Roads
Police work was on life support from a technology that saved lives, eased the suffering and lowered crime—self-driving vehicles. Cops weren't the only ones on the endangered list due to autonomous vehicles. By 2030, almost all commercial and transit fleets were automated. Truckers were relegated to being passengers that only parked trailers into their loading bays (into automated factories that loaded them without workers).
Almost half of all vehicles on roadways were already partially or fully automated, and roadways communicated with cars to keep them apart at safe distances and ease congestion. Three of 10 insurers had disappeared, since liability was lower, and had shifted from the owner to the manufacturer. Even the gig economy lost a major source of employment as Uber, Lyft and everyone else automated their fleets.
Car manufacturers didn't worry much about those losses, but they worried a lot about declining sales resulting from shared ownership plans and an end to America's love affair with cars. Many older Americans had been car enthusiasts in their youth, but the passion cars used to evoke was gone. Since most cars looked pretty much alike, everyone knew there was no going back.
Vehicular automation meant 40,000 lives each year weren't lost due to traffic collisions. The 1.2 million impaired driving arrests each year weren't occurring, nor was almost half of all police activity that involved traffic enforcement or collisions. Pretext stops also almost disappeared, something that was celebrated by social activists. Along with these changes, millions of dollars of revenue from fines and forfeiture, and parking tickets, stopped flowing into city coffers. Penalty assessments were gone, but the court construction, driver training and other programs they paid for weren't needed, anyway.
Courts, jails and prisons cut their workloads and populations in half by 2025 due to a lack of business. In law enforcement, a lot of smaller agencies had been absorbed into their county's sheriff's departments as their communities declared insolvency. Others had formed consortia to regionalize dispatch, records and administrative functions. Some police departments were fighting extinction tooth and nail, with the “way things used to be” a powerful drag on innovation. Autonomous vehicles, declining budgets and the new American stay-at-home culture, though, forced the issue even if chiefs and sheriffs didn't want to act.
Thriving in the New Normal
Police agencies that survived relatively intact through the turbulence didn't do so by accident. They were being led by executives strong enough to understand the need to transform, and staff that helped convert their vision for the future into real change. The ones doing well shared some things in common. They found that to thrive in the aftermath of severe budget and staffing cuts, it required visionary leaders who engaged in the process of futures planning that led to action. Here are some of the things those leaders implemented:
Expanded Their Online Community Contact and Crime Reporting Platforms
This allowed anyone to make an appointment and have a teleconference with an officer (or another member of staff) to report a crime or discuss neighborhood issues. By 2030, virtual call-takers screened public queries so effectively that people didn't notice the difference from talking with a human. Dispatch had been virtualized in the early 20s, so now they were tracking to replace humans altogether to facilitate a police response to crime.
Formed Community Teams
These teams were comprised of police officers, community service officers, code enforcement, family counseling, mediation and psychological services reps. These reps were police staff in most instances; their job was to be a one-stop-shop for all issues inside families and neighborhoods. The teams sought to facilitate safety and quality of life, not to “police” people. They rarely talked with someone they didn't already know or weren't already looking for. This approach solved problems and lowered arrests, and assaults on officers dropped to near zero as tele-policing limited the chances of an adverse contact.
Established Regionalized Tactical and Mobile Field Force Units
One core function in policing had become extinct. Traffic enforcement and collision investigation became marginal skills as more and more highly automated vehicles filled the roads. Drunk driving disappeared as quickly as plastic bags at grocery stores had the previous decade when people began being charged for them. As self-driving cars, buses and trucks increasingly filled the roadways, traffic units slid into the tar pits of history and folded shop by 2027.
To save costs and retain expertise, tactical and mobile field force units were regionalized. State regulations mandated that no community with fewer than a half-million residents had its own team. Cops grumbled a lot when this happened, but the teams had the highest levels of training, the least use of force and better outcomes than anyone could have imagined.
Changed the Hiring and Training Process
By 2030, there were only half as many police departments as in 2020 (this was done through legislation in 2024 to speed the process along). Since fewer cops were being hired (or needed), agencies could be much more selective about who they chose. In 2026, the state finally passed laws requiring all police officers to have at least a two-year degree, and for all supervisors to have four-year degrees.
Successful police departments had feeder systems to hire kids in college, sponsor their tuition costs and have them work 20 hours a week to learn the tools of their future trade. Basic academy training went online, leaving only the applied skills to be taught before recruits hit the streets. The cops coming into policing in the 20s were different; their sense of civic duty was higher than anyone in decades, probably since 9/11. Experience shapes beliefs, and these kids saw people step up, help others and save lives during the pandemics. Public safety and the military saw a spike in applicants that had yet to recede.
The “Great Reset” was painful for everyone. Job losses and unemployment hurt families and communities. Entire business sectors disappeared as travel and vacation habits changed and people transitioned to an online, at-home, or virtual life. Policing saw staffing cuts that would never come back, and a redefinition of what policing should do to protect their populace. While no one knew what the next normal would be, agencies that formed “plan-ahead” teams to support planning and crisis management and red teamed the future found themselves primed to seize opportunities no matter what was thrown their way.
Bob Harrison is a retired police chief who is an adjunct researcher at the non-profit, non-partisan RAND Corporation, working in the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center. He is also a course manager for the CA POST Command College. Harrison consults with police agencies in California and beyond on strategy, leadership and innovation.
This commentary originally appeared on Police One on April 16, 2020. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.