Why Filming Police Violence Has Done Nothing to Stop ItBreaking News
tags: technology, surveillance, policing, Michel Foucault, panopticon
Much of what we think about surveillance comes from the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Foucault examined the ideas of the English reformer Jeremy Bentham, who proposed a prison—the panopticon or Inspection-House—in which every cell was observable from a central watchtower. The possibility that someone might be watching, Bentham believed, would be enough to prevent bad behavior by prisoners. Foucault observed that this knowledge of being watched forces us to police ourselves; our act of disciplining ourselves as if we were always under observation, more than the threat of corporal punishment, is the primary mechanism of “political technology” and power in modern society.
The hope for sousveillance comes from the same logic. If police officers know they’re being watched both by their body cameras and by civilians with cell phones, they will discipline themselves and refrain from engaging in unnecessary violence. It’s a good theory, but in practice, it hasn’t worked. A large study in 2017 by the Washington, DC, mayor’s office assigned more than a thousand police officers in the District to wear body cameras and more than a thousand to go camera-free. The researchers hoped to find evidence that wearing cameras correlated with better policing, less use of force, and fewer civilian complaints. They found none: the difference in behavior between the officers who knew they were being watched and the officers who knew they were not was statistically insignificant. Another study, which analyzed the results of 10 randomized controlled trials of body camera use in different nations, was helpfully titled “Wearing body cameras increases assaults against officers and does not reduce police use of force.”
Reacting to the DC study, some scholars have hoped that if cameras don’t deter officers from violent behavior, at least the film can hold them accountable afterwards. There, too, body cameras rarely work the way we hope. While careful, frame-by-frame analysis of video often shows that victims of police shootings were unarmed and that officers mistook innocuous objects for weapons, attorneys for the defense screen the videos at normal speed to show how tense, fast, and scary confrontations between police and suspects can be. A 1989 Supreme Court decision means that if police officers have an “objectively reasonable” fear that their lives or safety are in danger, they are justified in using deadly force. Videos from body cameras and bystander cell phones have worked to bolster “reasonable fear” defense claims as much as they have demonstrated the culpability of police officers.
It turns out that images matter, but so does power. Bentham’s panopticon works because the warden of the prison has the power to punish you if he witnesses your misbehavior. But Bentham’s other hope for the panopticon—that the behavior of the warden would be transparent and evaluated by all who saw him—has never come to pass. Over 10 years, from 2005 to 2014, only 48 officers were charged with murder or manslaughter for use of lethal force, though more than 1,000 people a year are killed by police in the United States.
As he stared at Darnella Frazier, Officer Chauvin knew this, because it’s impossible to work in law enforcement in the US and not know this. The institutions that protect police officers from facing legal consequences for their actions—internal affairs divisions, civil service job protections, police unions, “reasonable fear”—work far better than the institutions that hold them responsible for abuses.