Policing and “Safety in Numbers” in a Post-Panoptic Age

The editors of Anthropoliteia are pleased to welcome a special commentary from our own Kristin Castner.

Let’s face it: Americans are living in an age of extreme surveillance.  The government is listening to our phone calls, capable of controlling our computer cameras remotely and (perhaps) reading our Facebook messages.

Officers in a post-panoptic age are encouraged to be reactive responders guided by the clutter of big data technologies.

This condition of omnipresent surveillance is often called  “panopticism,” but it is hardly new.  First introduced by Jeremy Bentham in 1787, the term originally referred to an architectural model that permitted the visual display of many to an authoritative few.  Imagining it as the ideal prison structure, Bentham argued that a central tower permitted a single man to command visual authority over hundreds of prisoners.  Bentham presented this architectural arrangement as a powerful innovation in surveillance.  Whereas previous designs might have required as many guards as prisoners to be effective, his panoptic structure maximized prisoner visibility.  At the same time, the number of guards required to effectively monitor (and thus, control) prisoners was greatly reduced.

It was arguably the work of Michel Foucault that brought the concept of panopticism to the attention of criminal justice scholars. The panoptic mechanism fascinated Foucault because of its ability to “assure an automatic functioning of power.”  The result was a form of social control that occurred despite a prisoner’s inability to determine precisely when he was being observed.  Being unable to confirm active surveillance was crucial in Bentham’s panopticon.  A combination of uncertainty and a feeling of threat drove the behavioral modification of prisoners.  They had to assume they were always in view- and so, acted accordingly.

The Shift in Surveillance by Few of Many, to Surveillance of All by Few

In Bentham’s panopticon, a select few (guards) commanded authority over a discrete population of individuals (prisoners).  Today, however, it is no longer solely prisoners who are subjected to these surveillance measures.  A sense of constant surveillance is a banal fact of everyday life and is no longer confined to the architecture of a prison. Surveillance technology, including closed-circuit television (CCTV), has been around for decades.  As a result, most individuals are at least slightly aware of the potential for their activities to be recorded. However, despite being incredibly effective at monitoring individuals, the (over)use of advances like CCTV opens up the pool of “those to be watched” to a number that greatly overshadows that of the officers available to enforce them.  Might it be that the very ubiquity of surveillance technology substantially transforms its potential?

Jeremy Bentham's architectural panopticon

Bentham presented this architectural arrangement as a powerful innovation in surveillance. Whereas previous designs might have required as many guards as prisoners to be effective, his panoptic structure maximized prisoner visibility.

CCTV Impact on Crime and Behavior

CCTV has been used as a form of public monitoring for more than 20 years. Similar to the panoptic threat of the central tower and guard in Bentham’s prison, the addition of visible cameras in public spaces and/or high crime areas was intended to recreate a similar feeling of being watched.  A majority of police departments were quick to adopt CCTV, hypothesizing that their widespread use would result in less crime through the preventative tactic of threat.  But how effective is CCTV?  Over the course of 20 years, have individuals become more or less threatened by the mere knowledge of being monitored?  Moreover, is anyone actually watching often enough to produce a threat capable of influencing citizen behaviors?

none of the camera footage (since 2006) had been used to solve any actual crimes…. no one had been watching the feeds.

Between 1980 and 2000 alone, CCTV system sales rose by an astonishing 700% according to the National Institute of Justice.  Furthermore, police departments in Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia reported crime decreases of 17%, 36% and 37% following the installation of CCTV systems.  However, the literature around this topic often highlights the difficulty in guaranteeing that any decrease in crime is directly related to CCTV use and not other factors.  Issues such as the weather, seasonality of crime, CCTV operators and department size have all been cited as dynamics capable of skewing the findings of CCTV evaluations.  An interesting case is seen in the earlier adoption of CCTV systems by the Metropolitan Police in Washington, DC.  In 2006, the department invested in 73 cameras that were implemented across several high crime areas in the city.  By 2008, an article pointed to the fact that none of the camera footage (since 2006) had been used to solve any actual crimes.  Chief Lanier (who remains Chief of Police today) blamed this on the fact that no one had been watching the feeds.

An evaluation manual of video surveillance authored by Jerry Ratcliffe further supports the adoption of a cautious approach when gauging CCTV impacts on crime.  Among the more important findings, the manual suggests that CCTV systems are more effective tools in certain situations, spaces and in areas where a close relationship with police is present.  Perhaps most important to the question at hand is the manuals section, “Do the Local Police Have the Resources to Respond to Incidents?”  It begins with the reflection that “there is scant evidence that CCTV significantly reduces public order and violent offenses, but the impact of these crimes can be reduced with a quick and effective police response…”  It goes on to discuss those offenders most likely to be deterred by CCTV systems- those that have already been apprehended as a result of CCTV footage.

Panoptic Reversal; from Separated individualities to Concealed Masses

The surveillance environment of modern America varies drastically from that of Bentham’s panoptic prison.  Foucault marveled at the panopticon’s ability to “abolish and replace” compact, anonymous masses into “separated individualities”.  The panopticon in its original form was able to achieve this through an ability to threaten -and subsequently influence- individuals to modify their behaviors.  The proliferation of surveillance monitoring by American law enforcement agencies appears to have fostered a reversal in how such technology functions, suggesting that perhaps the public’s growing familiarity with these technologies has lessened their ability to instill panoptic threat.  Is it possible that a growing number of people subscribe to a belief in “the safety of numbers”- where because everyone is “being watched” any individual’s fear of “being caught” is significantly lessened?

Rather than a state of constant surveillance supporting “separated individualities”, the panoptic models of Bentham and Foucault have been reversed.  It might be argued that the anonymity and compactness of society often serves to conceal individual behaviors versus instilling a believable degree of threat among the public.  As Ratcliffe’s study found, it is typically those individuals who have “played” the CCTV system and “lost” (were apprehended) that subsequently mimic the panoptic fear of Bentham’s prisoners.  Police response is a new key-determining factor of success in modern policing initiatives.  The emphasis upon reactive response accompanies a growth in the number of individuals who require proof that someone is not only watching, but also willing (and able) to act.

Conclusion: Implication for Policing in the Post-Panoptic Age

The mere knowledge that monitoring is occurring, or can occur, is no longer enough to drive automatic modifications of behavior.  Unlike Bentham’s prison, a physical exercise of power by those in authority is increasingly required if compliance is the desired outcome.  Rather than constituting a mode of social control capable of reshaping prisoner behavior, surveillance tools require that officers reshape their behavior towards more reactive interventions.

The government is capable of computer surveillance

Whether departments are capable of this or not is now the more important question in discussions of CCTV. A department’s adoption of surveillance technologies does not attest to its abilities as a proactive force as much as it places great expectations upon the shoulders of its officers.  Technology in and of itself means nothing without an ability to wield it effectively.  Why bother moving from technology to technology when previous tools were never fully understood or given the time to be utilized effectively?  It would be akin to a department investing in the most well equipped cruisers in the country, only to realize that none of their officers were capable of driving them.

Officers in a post-panoptic age are encouraged to be reactive responders guided by the clutter of big data technologies.  What’s more is that, for these measures to be effective, frequent enforcement and proof of authority are often required to prove a significant (and deterrent) reduction in crime.  Returning again to the panopticon of Bentham’s prison, it would appear that modern technology has expanded the number of those being monitored past the actual capacity of modern law enforcement.

If it is true that an expansion of surveillance from a preventative method designed to govern a fixed and confined population has evolved to one that is aimed at nearly every member of a society, this raises questions about whether officers will be progressively expected (and able to?) actually monitor and respond.  Should these or similar shifts occur, a new model for understanding the mode of police power is arguably required.

Kristin Castner is a Ph.D. candidate in Criminal Justice from Temple University, with an M.A. in Anthropology from The George Washington University, and serves as Section Editor of the DragNet column for this blog. The focus of her current research revolves around topics in police surveillance & technology, proactive/personal policing models, intelligence lead policing and the policing of the police. Her thesis addresses the panoptic nature of police surveillance technology, as well as the impacts such technology has upon the personal relationships of officers with other officers.  

3 thoughts on “Policing and “Safety in Numbers” in a Post-Panoptic Age

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