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How 'APB' infuses tech into the life-and-death world of police

Showrunner Matt Nix reveals what goes down when a brash, Elon Musk-like millionaire applies technology to fighting crime.

Justin Kirk is a tech billionaire who takes over a troubled Chicago police precinct in "APB" on Fox.

Fox

A thousand stories blow through the Windy City. The one featured in new cop show "APB" isn't true, but it's inspired by the real ways law enforcement applies high-tech thinking to old-fashioned police work.

In the show, which premieres on Fox Monday, technology millionaire Gideon Reeves, played by Justin Kirk, persuades Chicago's authorities to put him in charge of the city's crime-ridden 13th District after his best friend is murdered. High-tech high jinks ensue.

"Burn Notice" creator Matt Nix, a self-described "total geek," was brought in to rework the original pilot and take charge of the show. Nix drew inspiration for Reeves' character from maverick Tesla founder Elon Musk, both as a problem solver and a showman. He also drew on Virgin founder Richard Branson's optimistic brashness.

One charismatic tech luminary Nix avoided invoking was Apple's Steve Jobs, who was known for a somewhat abrasive management style. "Obviously he was a genius," Nix says, "but we didn't think a show where someone's constantly saying 'Do it better!' was going to be much fun."

Just the facts, ma'am

It isn't just these well-known tech figures who provide real-life inspiration for "APB." The show was inspired by a 2015 New York Times Magazine article by David Amsden about the real-life rise of private-sector involvement in US policing.

"It's actually quite common for law enforcement agencies or fire departments to discuss collaborations with big tech firms," Nix says. "They're extremely stimulating discussions that come up with solutions which are really interesting, innovative -- and completely unaffordable."

"APB" explores what would happen if money was no object. But it's not as simple as buying "the perfect toy," and Gideon quickly discovers he has much to learn from the officers of the 13th Precinct. For example, he equips the precinct with the fastest, most powerful cruisers money can buy -- only to be shown those cars aren't ideal for how a realistic police chase plays out.

"Very rarely does a piece of technology simply solve a problem without the vigorous application of police knowledge," Nix says. "We really did not want to say America's cops are idiots and all they need is a smart guy to come in and tell them what's what. Without a cop who knows what he or she is doing, that technology is basically worthless."

Natalie Martinez in "APB." High-tech equipment means nothing without a good cop in charge.

Fox

Nix is keen to avoid the "CSI effect," where TV audiences believe forensic techniques or policing technologies are more reliable than they really are. And he avoids fantastic plot devices. He rejected one story idea, for example, because it involved a handheld scanner that could see inside shipping containers.

"You can't just point X-rays at something," he says. "You need another cop on the other side holding some sort of plate for the X-rays to hit. Plus you'd microwave anyone who comes near. There was no way to do it without giving every cop in the 13th District cancer."

Of course, the writers do take some dramatic license.

"When Gideon builds something, I don't think people wanna see the six-month testing phase," Nix laughs.

The show dramatizes big data, one real-life technology that has the potential to revolutionize everything from business to health care, as well as policing. In the opening episode, Gideon analyzes the data points from reported sightings of a suspect to work out where officers should search. In another episode, Gideon's team devises an algorithm to find the optimum perimeter for police cars to patrol.

But technology doesn't immediately solve every problem, as most people who have dealt with technology know the first solution doesn't always work.

"You may not have defined the problem correctly," Nix says. "There may be a technical failure. You need to learn from those failures and come up with a new solution. That's more interesting than just buying a toy."

The fastest police cruiser isn't necessarily the best car for the job.

Fox

"I always go back to the thrill of Iron Man," he says. "It's impossible to build an Iron Man suit out of missile parts in a cave in Afghanistan. But it's a really fun thing to see, seeing it go wrong a little bit, seeing a smart person grapple with that solution. If he already had that first Iron Man suit and he didn't have to build it in the cave, that's boring. I wanna see him build the Iron Man Suit."

Many movies and TV shows that deal with technology, from "Westworld" to "Black Mirror," offer dire dystopian warnings. But Nix sees an inherent optimism in technology. "To go on CNET for a review is to go, 'Hey, I've got a problem, and I bet there is a solution. I bet there is an opportunity to make something better.' That's what this show's about."

Let's be careful out there

It's not just about the gadgets, but how they're used responsibly. At a time when police officers face the public in military gear and police shootings divide communities, the cops of "APB" are quickly issued non-lethal weapons, but Nix stresses that's just one part of the solution.

Removing guns from the equation isn't an option -- "this is the United States, that ship has sailed," Nix says -- but tech can provide officers with information and security that reduces the urge to reach for their weapons.

"The more you know about that person you're pulling over," Nix says, "the more you know about that house you're going into, the more protected you feel if you've got body armor that you really trust, the less likely you'll feel you need to use lethal force."

Another episode, in which Gideon uses drones to spy on citizens, tackles one of the defining issues of our era: pervasive state surveillance.

"It's a really short step from cameras watching for terrorist activity to cameras watching for anything illegal," Nix says. But he argues privacy and security don't have to be mutually exclusive.

"It's not a question of police on one side and civil rights on the other side. Maybe there's a technological solution that allows us to have both."

Nix questions whether private sector technology, if taken to extremes, could facilitate a surveillance police state or a profit-driven privatized police to enforce a draconian control over the public.

"If you fined everybody for every violation, you could make everybody poor in a few days," he says. "You could empty all resources from a neighborhood. You'd be justified, it's legal -- they broke the law, right? But we don't want that as a society. We don't want perfect enforcement of the laws. We want discretion. We want human beings."

"The biggest message of the show," he says, " is that the technology is as good as the people behind it."

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