Theorizing police body-worn cameras

In recent years body-worn video cameras (BWCs) have attracted the interest of police forces around the world. However, in a process reminiscent of that found previously both in the deployment of city-center CCTV cameras and of the electronic monitoring of offenders, policy-makers’ support for the nascent technology has preceded either a clear vision of the aims of the systems or clear empirical evidence as to their effectiveness. In each case, criminologists have subsequently sought to evaluate the new technologies as they have been piloted or implemented, but it is not clear to what extent this body of research has influenced policymakers. While one could interpret such a “cart before the horse” approach as evidence of a disregard on the part of elected officials for measured and evidence-led public policy, or, specifically in relation to policing, charitably simply accept that a “low-information environment is not unusual in the world of police technology adoption” (Lum et al. 2019: 95), another way of approaching this otherwise curious phenomenon of “technologies in search of a purpose” is in terms of their congruence with wider social changes, asking instead why it is that at a certain historical juncture certain types of approach in crime control and criminal justice find favor and come to be adopted (Garland 2001). It was once memorably remarked that there are two problems with the new surveillance technologies; the first being that these technologies don’t work, the second one being that they do (Marx 2011). If by this we mean that the technologies may lack effectiveness yet potentially intrude privacy and negatively impact on society and politics, then in addition to challenging their use where this is questionable, it may be beneficial also to understand the wider social currents pushing them forward.

This chapter will examine police body-worn cameras from a theoretical perspective. The central argument of the chapter will be that the development and expansion of the use of body-worn cameras by the police is intelligible as an “expert system” within contemporary techno-bureaucratic rationality. The new visibility that BWCs introduce is paralleled by that brought about by public use of smartphone cameras to “sousveil” the police, with both forms of camera sometimes challenging and sometimes consolidating established policing practices. Key here are the power relationships at play, and it issuggested that BWCs will intersect many wider challenges already facing policing today such as issues of democratic accountability, police legitimacy, including among minority citizens and communities, and cost effectiveness. The chapter will begin by outlining the principal possible uses of police BWCs before situating them within a broader schema of visual surveillance technologies. In the following sections it is argued that whereas theoretically there are certainly some “panoptic” qualities of these roving cameras, police BWCs are not obviously “disciplinary” in the Foucauldian sense, and that their role in supporting police power on the street is often rather more forceful in nature. Contrasting police use of BWCs with “surveillance capitalism,” it is suggested they can be considered instead an instance of “surveillant security.” It will be concluded that BWCs represent just the first steps towards the technological transformation of policing, with all the threats to and opportunities for democratic policing this poses.

The uses of police BWCs

As video cameras that are worn by police officers and connected to digital storage devices, police BWCs have a number of potential applications, which are, in fact, essentially the same as those of CCTV cameras (Jones 2013). First, it is possible they may act as a deterrent to potential offenders. Second, they may deter suspects, witnesses, or other members of the public from responding in a hostile manner when approached by a police officer. Third, they may act as a deterrent to police officers themselves in acting inappropriately, discriminately, and/or unlawfully. Fourth, the video recordings generated may be a useful source of evidence in an enquiry and in obtaining a conviction in a criminal court. Fifth, cameras that are capable of live-streaming video will enable senior officers in a command and control unit to share the view of officers on the ground in real time. Lastly, cameras linked with facial recognition systems will be able to identify individuals caught on camera, thus facilitating enquiries. Whether and to what extent police BWCs are actually effective in each of these different uses is a matter for empirical research, and the research findings on many of these matters are currently mixed (Lum et al. 2019; Malm 2019).

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