Reading the body-worn camera as multiple: A reconsideration of entities as enactments

Public discourse often frames body-worn cameras (BWCs) as technologies that can be used in the service of transparency, accountability, and reform. In the context of policing, common justifications for adopting them are to support crime control efforts (Coudert, Butin, and Le Métayer 2015), provide additional evidence (Drover and Ariel 2015), mitigate the possibility of abuse by or against law enforcement officers (Ariel et al. 2017), and enhance perceptions of police legitimacy and procedural justice (White, Todak, and Gaub 2017). Accordingly, these explanations present BWCs as objects that can influence social dynamics—and potentially positively so. Take, for example, the growing number of studies and assessments focused on the effectiveness of these devices: many have attempted to isolate the impact of BWCs on law enforcement officers’ actions and use of force (Henstock and Ariel 2017; Wallace et al. 2018), as well as their influence on policing outcomes, such as citizen complaints (Hedberg, Katz, and Choate 2017; Jennings, Lynch, and Fridell 2015), reporting (Dawes et al. 2015), and arrests (Braga, Sousa, Col-dren, and Rodríguez 2018). In doing so, their approaches presume that BWCs are distinct objects, losing sight of how immediate circumstances and wider contextual relationships mediate how they operate in practice.

Scholars of surveillance and Science and Technology Studies (STS) remind us that technological objects are not fixed or static entities. Instead, they come into being through technosocial entanglements. As explained by Haggerty and Ericson (2000), surveillance is better understood as an assemblage, which captures a multiplicity of relationships and connections, many of which are contingent. STS reinforces their point, offering a large body of literature that emphasizes how individuals—human or otherwise—are not necessarily preexisting actors that prompt or effect change. Instead, phenomena materialize and can become reconfigured through engagement (e.g., Barad 2007). Moreover, these dynamics cannot be disentangled from inequalities and social categories of difference (e.g., race, gender, class, disability) that inform how different actors—be they technological, human, or otherwise—emerge.

This chapter extends analytic insights from STS by reconsidering common descriptions of BWCs and their repercussions in wider debates. Specifically,

we query BWCs as objects “enacted in practices” (Mol 2002, vii). As such, we do not assume BWCs are stable or complete objects, even though they may appear tangible. Following de Laet and Mol (2000) and Latour (1986), we argue BWCs are better understood as mutable mobiles—that is, things whose materiality and capacity can change (or be changed) through various practices even though they are perceived as keeping their shape. This framing illuminates how BWCs are multiple, not static or singular, when enacted in the world. Rather than present BWCs as things used by human actors to do policing, we look at how BWCs actively do with other actors—such as law enforcement officers, citizens, communities, and other technologies—to constitute policing practices. This conceptualization, in turn, prompts a rethinking of contemporary policing and efforts to reform it, not simply a reconsideration of BWCs and their influence.

In the pages that follow, we present our analysis in four parts. First, we discuss representations of BWCs, detailing how they have been discussed as technologies that can help remedy some challenges rooted in police-community relations. Evaluation research arguably reinscribes notions that BWCs are interventions that can have direct effects across different policing contexts, because they isolate BWCs as variables and pursue causal explanations about their impact (or lack thereof). Considering both public discourse and research about BWCs, we outline their shared framings of these devices and then explore how reflections on the ontological turn in STS offer alternative modes of interrogating BWCs. To demonstrate the value of this ontologically oriented lens, we adapt the situated approach employed by Woolgar and Lezaun (2013) to analyze controversies surrounding trash bins in the United Kingdom. Following their example, we look closely at a grounded example that narrates BWCs as they are enacted in practice. After discussing how this conceptualization departs from common framings of BWCs and their impact, we conclude with a reflection about how rethinking BWC politics through ontology has potentially profound implications for discussions of police transparency and accountability.

Common representations of BWCs

In the United States, the embrace of BWCs emerged largely in response to a number of controversial police-civilian interactions resulting in the deaths of unarmed Black citizens. With social movement groups and organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Black Lives Matter, calling for proactive mechanisms to ensure police transparency and accountability, various groups, including politicians, researchers, advocacy groups, and even police organizations, put forth recommendations to implement BWCs (Bennett 2018; Birds and Sousa 2016). An oft-cited justification for adopting BWCs is their “civilizing effect” on both police and community members (Headley, Guerette, and Shariati 2017). The rationale is that recording police-citizen interactions using BWCs would de-escalate anti-social behavior (e.g., disproportionate use of force) and encourage more desirable behavior (e.g., respect, greater understanding): that is, if one knows that their actions are being recorded, they may believe their chance of being caught is higher, thereby enhancing the perceived cost of committing crime or acting inappropriately (Braga et al. 2018). The likeliness of crime and complaints against police were correspondingly expected to decline (Ariel et al. 2018).

BWCs are often marketed as a tool that helps organizations efficiently meet a large number of goals and mandates. Some research suggests BWCs have observable benefits: Ariel et al. (2018), for instance, claim that BWCs have a deterrence effect, which, they argue, can discourage police use of force when officers are required to wear them. There are also assertions that BWCs improve police-community relations, especially in communities with a history of distrust towards law enforcement, by helping to make police departments become more transparent to the public (Goetschel and Peha 2017). Crow et al. (2017) describe the corresponding benefits of transparency as citizens being more likely to trust police and more likely to subscribe to their legitimacy and procedural fairness. These benefits—enhanced trust and legitimacy—are expected to make citizens more cooperative and compliant during police encounters (Hedberg et al. 2017), because citizens should expect a higher level of police professionalism when BWCs are present. As a surveillance mechanism used to hold people accountable, BWCs are assumed to improve the quality of police job performance (Headley et al. 2017), even though qualitative findings from interviews with Black communities affected by police violence do not support any of these claims (e.g., Kerrison, Cobbina, and Bender 2018).

Public discourse and research often frame BWCs as entities that impact behavior in ways that either overtly posit a cause-and-effect relationship or convey a “causal-linear frame” that draws on tacit beliefs to imply such a relationship (see Sherwin 1994). As studies continue to assess BWCs’ impact in relation to a range of actions, including reducing excessive force, abuses of power, fatalities, and complaints, they reinforce a presumption that we can measure BWCs’ “successes” or “failures” (e.g., to reduce force or not reduce force) in ways that are bounded and static. Although rigorous quantitative analysis is important, it is a misnomer to think that it alone offers a definitive verification of truth-claims about BWCs. Evidence based on research, like public and policy narratives about BWCs, relies on foundational assumptions and is subject to interpretation. Thus, rather than presume that BWCs are objects that can have finite and consistent effects, we examine how they come into being in order to shed light on their more complicated realities. Before illustrating how BWCs can be understood as enactments, not as entities, it is important to first explain on how our line of argument draws on a distinct trajectory of intellectual thought that is decidedly different from more common analyses of BWCs. In particular, we employ insights from STS scholarship, that attends to ontological concerns, which we elaborate upon in the next section.

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