We need more than surveillance to prevent police violence

Digital freedomPrivacy news
5 mins
just surveilling the police won't prevent violence

This post was originally published on October 13, 2020.

When you think about intrusive surveillance, you might conjure up an image of an all-seeing eye following you around as you go about your daily activities. And studies have shown that the presence of surveillance starts to dictate how you act and behave.

Much of this concept references the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault, whose 1975 book Discipline and Punish critically examined the evolution of the penal system in the modern age. This included 18th-century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s “panopticon,” a prison design consisting of a central observation tower with cells arranged around it in a circular format.

[Interested in more privacy hot takes? Sign up for the ExpressVPN newsletter.]

Due to the design of the panopticon, each prisoner is aware that they could be under observation at any time. The use of powerful illumination means guards stationed in the central tower are able to easily monitor any prisoner’s activity. Prisoners have no way of determining whether guards are observing them or not, so must always assume that they are. Hence, the constant possibility of surveillance forces them to self-monitor their behavior, which gives guards what Foucalt refers to as “disciplinary power.”

Foucault extended the concept of the panopticon away from physical incarceration to modern society. He argued that governments routinely use the threat of disciplinary power to keep citizens in check and force them to behave in what they deem is an acceptable manner. And we can see the evidence of his arguments everywhere around us: CCTV cameras monitor public spaces and beam back live footage to a central control room; schools and workplaces adopt surveillance tactics; the NSA tracks our movements online; and ISPs monitor our digital footprint.

It was the concept of this omnipresent power that first drove the idea of police body cameras. Legislators argued that if police officers knew everything they did or said was monitored, it might help to rein in excessive force and the use of violence among police. 

Canadian technologist and inventor Steve Mann took the idea a step further when he coined the term “sousveillance” in 2002. Mann argued that checks and balances are necessary for a system to function, even thrive. He warned against one-sided surveillance, such as government surveillance against citizens. For him it was imperative that this was balanced by sousveillance (whereas “sur” means “above,” “sous” means “under” or at ground level) that targeted government officials and employees.

Police body cams: An example of sousveillance?

Over 1,000 people are killed by the police in the U.S. each year, placing it firmly at the top of countries for the number of civilian deaths by law enforcement agencies, both on an absolute and per-capita metric.

The perplexing fact is that police officers have been required to wear body cameras in several states in the U.S. since at least 2014. The District of Columbia’s police department initially started a trial project with 400 cameras, growing to 2,800 just two years later. Similar projects have run in Maine and New York. The U.S. Department of Justice budgeted 23 million USD to support police body-worn cameras in 2015, and 95% of large police departments in the country outlined plans of implementing such programs. 

Police cameras aren’t meant to only regulate the behavior of law enforcement personnel. Since they’re visible on an officer’s body, they’re meant to inform civilians that they’re being watched too. This should result in friendlier interactions all around. What’s more, high-profile civil society organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union overwhelmingly support having the cameras.

But studies (and recent events) point to the fact that the cameras aren’t having the desired effect. The authors of one such study suggest that this could be due to the gradual desensitization of officers to the presence of cameras. Another theory is that the heat of the moment supersedes all other thought, evoking a flight-or-fight response. In that situation, a camera isn’t going to do much to regulate anyone’s behavior. 

Another study, by authors in Israel, the U.S., and the U.K., analyzed eight police forces in six jurisdictions around the world policing a total of two million individuals. They compared the behavior of an experimental group that wore cameras to a control group that didn’t wear cameras. 

Results were similar: When compared for actions involving the use of force, such as handcuffing individuals or pinning them to the ground, there was “no overall discernible effect” with the use of body cameras. In fact, in some cases, the use of cameras exacerbated the use of violent force.

‘Objectively reasonable force’ is allowed

One of the reasons behind the extremely low rate of police convictions in the U.S. is the 1989 Supreme Court decision to allow the use of force by police officers as long as it is “objectively reasonable.” 

Considerations of reasonableness include:

  1. Whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the officer or others
  2. The severity of the crime
  3. Whether the suspect is actively resisting arrest
  4. Whether the suspect is a flight risk or attempting to escape custody

Critics have argued that this broad and vague definition has prevented necessary checks and balances for policing in the U.S. Studies such as the ones cited earlier confirm that the cameras aren’t working, and it’s possible that police officers are aware that the law is on their side. 

Circling back to the panopticon, the core reason why it had an effect on prisoners was because they knew that a sword dangled over their head. If they stepped out of line, they would be punished by the prison guards. It’s a similar case for citizens; if we’re caught browsing illegal sites or reading content we’re not supposed to, Big Brother will step in. 

What’s the threat for law enforcement? There’s very little appetite to hold them accountable for their actions, both from a federal and institutional perspective. Without the possibility of retribution, there’s no foundation for any sort of behavioral changes.

Much like many things tech, the use of body cameras for surveillance could turn out to be a false dawn. Big Tech isn’t the savior it always promises to be.

I like to think about the impact that the internet has on humanity. In my free time, I'm wolfing down pasta.