Note: This post was originally published in a private blog on February 23, 2015, before the killing of Walter Scott.
Calls for equipping police with body cameras have been renewed following the deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner at the hands of police. Proponents believe that such measures will bring about greater police transparency, that video documentation will result in better accountability.
It matters, though, who is doing the documenting, and from whose point of view. There’s a difference between camera phones in the hands of citizens, and body cameras on police. Could an unintended (or maybe even nefariously intended) consequence be creating mobile extensions of the police (state’s) panopticon? [Foucault]
If citizens shooting the cops (that is, with their cameras) is a tactic of resistance, will body cams end up becoming a strategy that swallows the tactic of the people? [de Certeau]
As John Fiske points out, discourse (in this case, documentation) a) can’t be abstracted from the conditions of its production and circulation, and b) is both structured and structuring, both determined by and affects social conditions. In that sense body cam produced discourse has the potential to positively affect social conditions, but perhaps more likely is that the documentation produced by body cams will be determined by existing social conditions—and subsumed by existing power relations.
And let’s not forget that Garner’s death was caught on film. If documentation from citizens still were inadequate, how much less adequate would be documentation from the police themselves? Especially when the police have shown little indication that they themselves desire greater accountability (at least if Patrick Lynch is… representative).
Writing for The American Conservative and ETHOS Journal respectively, Jonathan Coppage and Mark Collins both note the role body cams have in increasing the degree of mediated-ness, with Coppage commenting on the reduction in relationship-building between police and the very communities they are supposed to serve stemming from police technologies as mediators. Collins, meanwhile, draws attention to the fact that police technologies themselves are still subject to being “mediated by their users and can collaborate in systemic oppressions against minorities.”
Malcolm Muggeridge famously said, “The camera always lies.” If power relations, and power/knowledge, remains unchanged, body cameras will at best probably be inadequate, and at worst, exacerbate the reach of the police state.
Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life
John Fiske, Media Matters: Race and Gender in U.S. Politics