Situating police BWCs and related technologies

Different manufacturers each produce their own species of BWC, belonging to a genus that we now term “Police Body-Worn Cameras.” But police BWCs are also part of a family of video surveillance technologies, which in turn are part of a still wider order of video technologies in general. Within this broad technological taxonomy, familial relationships become apparent, as follows. First, we can note that CCTV cameras are similar in many respects to police BWCs, except that they are typically wall- or pole-mounted. BWCs can be thought of as little mobile CCTV cameras. Second, police vehicle-mounted cameras (and “dashcam” cameras in general) are in many respects similar technologies, but here designed specifically to record the driver’s viewpoint. Third, handheld video recorders and more recently smartphone video cameras have enabled members of the public to document their experiences, including the accidental recording of police violence (Goldsmith 2010), and intentional “sousveillance” in general (Mann and Ferenbok 2013). Fourth, wearable “action cameras” such as the GoPro range are rugged cameras often used to record action, outdoors, and extreme sports. Fifth, video cameras mounted on or in desktop computer monitors, laptops, tablets, and smartphones have become popular ways of live-chatting, video conferencing, and (in the case of mobile devices) live-streaming events.

All of the above technologies have come into being against the backdrop of the silicon age and thence the rise of the Internet, giving rise in turn to important sub-developments such as the emergence of mobile computing (including via smartphones) and the proliferation of the Internet of Things, and set shortly to be enhanced further by such technologies as machine learning (enabling facial recognition, for example), big data analytics, and 5G mobile networks. The point of identifying these various technologies is simply to emphasize that police BWCs are not wholly unique and are instead a specific application of various more general technologies for which a multitude of uses have already been found elsewhere in society.

It is important to note that this raft of video technologies, and especially the phenomenon of “first-person view” imagery that they generate, has influenced popular culture and media representation. Moreover, as Young (1996) has argued, official representations of crime, policing, and justice cannot neatly be separated from those found in fiction or the news media. Instead we must be alive to the inevitable circulation of images within society and the complex semiotic relationships thus generated. Of particular significance in the viewing and consumption of first-person video is the way it places the viewer in the position of the person who recorded it, in many cases lending it authenticity and emotional involvement, and in turn helping explain why this visual perspective lends itself so well to use and re-use within TV shows and computer games.

Policing and the power of watching

As a technology police BWCs have certain capabilities, uses, and future applications. From a theoretical perspective one obvious way to interpret their possible wider societal role is as the further manifestation of the “electronic panopticon,” in which the power of the gaze is detached from a purely institutional setting, and even from the fixity of conventional CCTV cameras, and comes to rove amongst society. Indeed, police BWCs do seem to exhibit certain panoptic qualities. However, in relation to the supposed purposes or consequences of surveillance it is less clear that Foucault’s theory offers the most persuasive account.

Michel Foucault’s (1979) theory of disciplinary surveillance has been remarkably influential and remains part of the theoretical canon within surveillance theory, but for some time surveillance scholars have recognized its explanatory limits and have sought to transcend its schema (Lyon 2006; Murakami Wood 2007). Foucault understood that surveillance is inescapably intertwined with power. His insight was that the experience of being watched can have an effect on people, whether that be in the workplace or in public places. In its rhetorical exuberance, however, Foucault’s text overstates its case, depicting disciplinary surveillance initially as a superlative mechanism of control, entrapping all within its machinery of visibility— before backtracking rapidly into the concession that even its very epitome, the modern prison, had never in fact “worked" as intended, offering the implausible suggestion that this manifest dysfunction was in fact somehow functional in terms of the operation of a network of police spies and informants serving insidiously to control society. This “dark” side of “high” or “political policing” is undoubtedly oft-overlooked, and interesting accounts have been offered of its operation Brodeur (1983; 2007), but the reality of most police work remains one of “low policing,” a more compelling interpretation that has been offered by Bittner (1970). As Bittner shows, the problem the police face in the reality of their daily work is not as Foucault imagined. The police are rarely the force who oversee and subdue a transgressive public with their mere presence, but instead are a branch of the state entrusted with special powers to intervene and use actual force as and when required, deployed especially precisely when control has broken down, when “something needs to be done—and now.” Even as policing morphs today into a wider-ranging agency for tracking down criminality wherever it is to be found—whether that be in boardrooms, the environment, online, or emanating from afar, as “knowledge workers” and policers of risk across social space (Ericson and Haggerty 1997) the police retain a distinctively practical and problem-based disposition and approach—and the shift to a pre-emptive “pre-crime” approach (Zedner 2007) can be understood in this light as actually a continuation of this imperative, as the implementation of a ‘precautionary principle” of engaging with potential risks and threats within society.

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