Violent encounters between the police and members of the public are not new. What has changed is that incidents are now routinely captured by smartphones in the hands of those involved or passing by. Together with footage from security cameras, patrol car dash-cams, and police body-worn cameras, these images circulate via social and mainstream media. Our current moment of intensified attention to the problems of policing and particularly racialized violence is one outcome of the diffuse, ambient surveillance produced by this confluence of cameras and new media. Yet police violence was never invisible, nor is this the first such politicized moment.
The sounds and images of police-civilian encounters were key elements of a research project we undertook that also included several years of fieldwork, at a police academy in Washington state and at police-community meetings in the city of Seattle (USA). The article that came out of this work, Cops, Cameras, and the Policing of Ethics (written for a special issue of the journal Theoretical Criminology on the anthropology of policing), traces cycles of crisis and reaction in US policing, including the one we are in now. This post for the syllabus project is designed to be read with that article, and we write directly to students as well as their teachers.
Our research began with the observation that simply putting cameras on cops was an attempt to impose “good behavior” and a mechanism for accountability through surveillance ––a kind of externalization of ethics––which would certainly have effects, but not necessarily the desired ones. In contrast, officer training focuses on recruits turning themselves into the kind of person who will behave rightly under conditions of duress––an intentional internalization of behaviors and perceptions––along with other forms of socialization. Neither ethical mode appears adequate in the light of daily fatal shootings that are increasingly well-documented, which in turn warns against naïve hopes that visual surveillance and the proof it can produce will on their own affect change. The introduction of new technologies seems rather to constitute a still underdetermined space of ethical experimentation and formation. If new media are both “instrument and product of social shaping” (Lievrouw and Livingstone 2002, 7-8), then closer examination of existing ways of making police subjects might offer insight into the potential and also limits of the programs for police body cameras.
Under the subheadings below, we discuss and provide links to some of the audio-visual material the comes up in our article, which could reasonably be read before, or after, or back-and-forth with this post.
Cycles of crisis
The start of the 21st century is not the first time that police violence has been mediatized. One the incidents that most marked US law enforcement in recent history was the 1991 video of the beating of unarmed black motorist Rodney King by Los Angeles Police Department officers. The late-night scene was captured by neighborhood resident George Holliday on his new camcorder, and after trying to give the footage to the police department, which ignored him, he contacted local media.
What was then “the most explicit and shocking news footage of police brutality ever to be seen on television” aired around the world (Skolnick and Fyfe, 1993: 3). The officers, however, were acquitted in 1992, and Los Angles erupted for six days: 53 people were killed, over 2000 injured, and more than 11,000 were arrested. Around the country, other protests occurred on a smaller, but sometimes longer, scale.
In interviews, older officers time and again turned to how this had shaped their interactions with the public, but also department practices and regulations. In the wake of the riots, the United States turned its attention to community policing models and technology, in much the same way that now it is investing in body cameras.
The presence of new media technologies has passed a certain threshold of saturation in public spaces, and among the many ramifications of this reality is a kind of diffuse, ambient surveillance. For example, this 2010 encounter opens our article:
“What are you doing? Get off of me!” yells a girl. An officer is struggling to secure her hands. Another teenager thrusts herself between the scuffling pair, sweeping her friend to the side to face the officer. He seizes the wrist of the new teen with one hand, and with the other, punches her in the face. Then he has her turned around, body up against the patrol car and one arm behind her back.
The physical sequence took less than 10 seconds, but the altercation had begun minutes before and someone passing by had begun recording with a cell phone.
Another, far graver event is presented in the next linked video. A man crosses a downtown street in front of a patrol car, carrying a small knife and a block of wood. The officer stops and leaves the car, walking through the dash-cam’s field of view, yelling to put the knife down. No response is heard, seconds pass, and fatal shots ring out. (The shots here can be heard in the video, but they are not shown)
The officer who killed First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams seconds after exiting his patrol car eventually resigned, although he was not charged.
The first incident would likely have have passed unobserved if it had not been recorded; the second would perhaps not have produced even a resignation. Both incidents were used to request that the United States Department of Justice step in to investigate whether the Seattle Police Department engaged in unconstitutional policing through the use of excessive force or discrimination.
Videos, training, and the practice of ethics
At the police academy in 2012, however, little in the classroom, or in the informal teaching that occurs throughout the day, had to do with the diffuse surveillance into which the cohort would graduate. Yet video recordings, while little taught or discussed as a topic, played significant roles in pedagogic methods.
The instructor used the scenario of a skateboard-hating Baltimore officer to set up a mock “community discussion.” The video provided a lesson on “emotional intelligence,” which he explained as training their responses to be consistent rather than emotional (e.g. excited or angered), even in taxing situations.
Other videos used in class showed the serious injury or killing of a police officer. We are not linking to an example here, and yet readers will almost certainly have already seen a video of death at the hands of an officer, posted with urgency by friends to their social media feeds, and featured prominently on the websites of major newspapers.
Between techno-optimism and techno-pessimism
Finally, we suggest taking a look at the SPD’s body-worn video YouTube channel and skimming some of the videos. New media technologies and surveillance are both factors in and proposed solutions to the police violence and lack of accountability addressed by BlackLivesMatter. We propose here a series of questions for students to consider in relation to the media that were so central to our research, assembled in this post:
- How is the proliferation of cameras in public affecting policing encounters?
- Who uses the technologies (patrol car cameras, body-cams, smartphone) that produced the videos linked to here, and to what purposes? More speculatively, to what ends might they be put in the future and with what effects?
- How do these videos constitute a field of visibility? Of whom and for whom?
- To what extent do images ever “speak for themselves,” and what kinds of factors enter into their interpretation?
- How are videos used as evidence, both in critiques of racial profiling and violence, and in the defense of officers in court?
- What can be made of them through formal visual analysis––what is left out of the frame? How are they shot? How can they be described stylistically?
- How does SPD’s body camera YouTube channel adjudicate between transparency and privacy?
- To what extent do the technologies discussed in this post and/or in the longer article extend the police’s surveillance capabilities?
- What are the possibilities and limits of cameras as a solution to the problem of police violence?
Anthropoliteia’s #BlackLivesMatter syllabus project is only one effort among a growing number across sites, disciplines and genres, from theater and film to Canada, the Zinn Education Project, and many university departments.
Lievrouw LA, and Livingstone S (2002) Handbook of new media: Social shaping and consequences of ICTs. London: Sage.
Sandhu A and Haggerty KD (2015) Policing on camera. Theoretical Criminology. DOI: 10.1177/1362480615622531.
Skolnick JH and Fyfe JJ (1993) Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force. New York: Free Press.
Charles Hahn is a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Washington, whose research interests include environmental anthropology, visual anthropology, science and technology studies, and law enforcement. Meg Stalcup is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Ottawa, and the visual media editor for Anthropoliteia. She works on security and technology in Latin American and North American cities. Follow @megstalcup