Introduction: The ayes have it—Should they?: Police body-worn cameras
“You can observe a lot by just watching”—Yogi Berra (Gorman 2015). But what can you and they see? The clearly written chapters in this compact volume about seeing—the first to focus exclusively on police body-worn cameras (BWCs)—are fine representatives of a rapidly expanding research field. In asking about looking, the chapters are necessary reading for researchers and those setting policy in this area. They advance understanding of some of the central conceptual, ethical, policy, and empirical factors seen with a surveillance technology that is galloping, rather than the more common pattern of creeping, in its diffusion. The cameras exist within a wide universe of contexts and ideas that this Introduction will consider. These can be slighted under the rush to innovate, political pressure, and the lure of federal funding. The book is most welcome because many of its chapters concern social, ethical, and epistemological issues beyond the multitudinous quantitative studies available on outcomes and attitudes toward the cameras (Chapman 2019 and Lum et al. 2019 offer summaries).
The author of an introduction has it easy. He or she can write as a pontificating generalist, rather than as the expert specialist. Thus, there is no need to say anything new—unlike the authors in this volume. A further advantage is that, unlike the authors, the introducer can raise questions, but need not answer them. The writer of an introduction has merely to set the stage and locate the topic within a broader context and can, in good conscience, draw from his or her prior work. The perspective offered here is expanded on in Marx (2017) and Morente and Marx (2019).
The sociology of knowledge offers a powerful way to locate the topic. It is a reminder, in line with philosopher Alfred N. Whitehead, that every way of seeing is also a way of not seeing, and with social observer Georg Simmel that separating the seemingly connected and connecting the seemingly separated can advance understanding.
Bentham on the need for research and new tools for social control
The development and adoption of BWCs and the voluminous evaluation research on the topic can be historically situated in the Enlightenment and in particular in the work of Jeremy Bentham (Quinn 2019). Bentham's work as a politician, theorist, and reformer underlies contemporary efforts in several ways. He sought a more rational ordering of the world through technology and empirical documentation and assessment. He wanted Parliament to use crime statistics, “in the formulation and evaluation of policy.” He argued for the use of observation and measurement for setting law and courses of action. His ethos is reflected in the chapters in this book and the many quantitative studies of the cameras under the support of the National Institute of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security that emphasize evidence-based policing. Any veterans of the largely qualitative criminal justice studies of the 1960s must be pleased with the turn toward systematic, quantitative empirical research of the last 50 years. Such research is essential, but so are other methods such as thought, imagination, and ethnography (e.g.. the observational study of Rowe, Pearson and Turner 2018).
Quantitative studies are often limited in their direct application to policy given ethical, political, and longer-term considerations. They are also often limited in its generalizability. Social science correlations are rarely as strong as those in natural science, are more difficult to replicate with equivalent results, and there is often less consensus regarding the choice of methods and conclusions. A flashing yellow light is needed, even when something appears to “work” according to the criteria measured. Those seeking a tighter connection between research findings and policy are often frustrated with their weak link, just as those urging caution can be troubled by the rush to implement.
Bentham's emphasis on rationally approaching governance is also seen in his advocacy of using technology for prevention and deterrence, something clearly present with BWCs. He argued that crime might be lessened through creating a more equitable society, but more immediately through improved physical means. Bentham followed, and helped inspire, an ever evolving protective and preventive tradition from the inventors and builders of the first locks, safes, moats, walled castles, armor, and biological identification systems to the present environmental design (Newman 1972), situational crime prevention (Clarke 1997), and related efforts (Byrne and Marx 2011; McGuire and Holt 2017).
Bentham's proposals fit well with a classification framework for technologybased engineering of social control efforts (Marx 2015) Such prevention efforts involve target or facility removal, target devaluation, target insulation, offender weakening, incapacitation or exclusion, victim warning and. when those fail, offense!offender target identification and documentation. The last form applies most clearly to BWCs. Expanded visibility (whether through undercover means, cameras, tracking devices, sensors, and more) can contribute to deterrence and, if prevention fails, it increases the likelihood that rule breakers and their behavior will be identified and recorded.
A rational approach could also be seen in the linking of accountability with visibility to limit the crimes of authority. Bentham wrote of “sinister interest” in which the vested interests of elites conspire against those of the public. This fits well with the demand for openness and documentation with respect to police actions.
Bentham's vision for a new form of prison—the Panopticon, with its two-way street vision—was intended to control the prisoners, as well as the guards. Such control contains the seeds of our expectations regarding freedom of information and openness in government. Government had to be closely watched and calibrated to see that things worked according to plan and to guard against abuses of power.
Much of social (as against computer and business) writing on the new surveillance is explicitly or implicitly critical. Surveillance is asymmetrically done in the dark in contexts of inequality by those with greater power. Subjects neither consent, nor are informed, and if they are aware and challenges are possible, this often comes down to whose account is believed, with a decided tilt toward those in authority. But what if there were a technology that, if not able to reverse all of the above, could at least create a more level playing field by making the tool available to all and offering a documentary record of contested events? Such is the claimed promise of BWCs. Subjects see the cameras and their permission may even be requested. This contrasts markedly with the unseen (and often intentionally covert), nature of much other data collection. Informing and obtaining consent from subjects and offering them other protections (e.g., sharing the data, procedures for grievances) helps legitimate use of the tool and authorities can say, “we have nothing to hide.”
In creating a mobile, visible record, body cameras carry some remnants of the prescient Bentham’s never-built Panopticon, where unseen guards in towers peered into the actions of inmates. They are a technical means intended to bring self-control, but not because of subjects’ uncertainty of whether or not they are being watched. Instead, it is the certainty of being watched that is believed to create self-control. The ethos of accountability through visibility remains but is extended upward. Bentham’s proposed prison offered a means of controlling both prisoners and their guards. However, when supervisors, as the guards of the guards, were complicit in the latter’s wrongdoing, there could be no public accountability, let alone awareness (absent the rare whistle blower). In contrast, depending on how used, the mandatory body-worn camera (with good discretion policies regarding its uses) can be a strand in the democratization of surveillance along with bystanders with cell phone cameras. This broadens the audience for results to the public, not just to police and their managers. That in turn can greatly increase public pressure for change as seen in the Black Lives Matter movement. The characteristics and consequences of the BWCs illustrate what is new about contemporary surveillance technologies.