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Will the Panopticon Save Us From the Police?

Since the shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer over a week ago, the idea of arming police with personal body cameras to record their on-duty actions has gained fresh currency.

German Lopez at Vox wrote [1], “If police officers were required to wear body cameras, questions about their conduct — like the ones that have arisen in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting — could be avoided.” Derek Thompson at The Atlantic  noted [2], “Although military technology has arguably given law enforcement an unreasonable amount of power, there is another piece of technology that could help restrain the militarization of America’s police in the future: a camera.” And Nick Gillespie of Reason insisted [3] that “While there is no simple fix to race relations in any part of American life, there is an obvious way to reduce violent law enforcement confrontations while also building trust in cops: Police should be required to use wearable cameras and record their interactions with citizens.”

The idea is to attach small, portable cameras to police officers’ collars or sunglasses that can then provide objective evidence to be called upon to settle any disputes or complaints about misconduct. The California city of Rialto has been conducting a rigorous and increasingly high-profile police body camera experiment over the past couple years, and has found results to exceed what expectations even their staunchest advocates could likely have had. As the New York Times reported [4] a year ago,

In the first year after the cameras were introduced here in February 2012, the number of complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent compared with the previous 12 months. Use of force by officers fell by almost 60 percent over the same period.

Officers had been randomly assigned cameras and instructed to turn them on for any encounter with civilians. The Times continued, “Officers used force 25 times, down from 61 over the previous 12 months. And those wearing cameras accounted for 8 of those incidents.” The Rialto police chief William A. Farrar observed, “When you put a camera on a police officer, they tend to behave a little better, follow the rules a little better … And if a citizen knows the officer is wearing a camera, chances are the citizen will behave a little better.”

Yet even setting aside the natural privacy concerns raised by strapping recording devices to every patrol officer circumambulating their city’s streets, it is worth raising a smaller, subtler, but nevertheless potentially significant concern: the increasingly intermediated cop. One only has to glance in the window of a local patrol car to see the sprawling array of screens, keyboards, and communication devices designed to link the officer to all the information they could need. The problem being, of course, that the most important information the common cop needs still can’t be pulled up within his car: the knowledge gained from building relationships with those in the community he patrols.

That relationship-building is a core component of a police officer’s mission, and may be almost entirely divorced from the work he can get done on his car’s mounted notebook computer. It also requires a certain amount of discretion, getting to know a neighborhood’s warts as well as its virtues. The conversations that give an officer an accurate picture of the seedy but not destructive side of his citizens’ lives could very well be more difficult or awkward should the policeman’s sunglasses be rolling film.

Mark Steyn, in addressing the more expressly dangerous and frightening distortion of the police seen in the militarization of the Ferguson PD, gave some interesting and relevant history [5]:

To camouflage oneself in the jungles of suburban America, one should be clothed in Dunkin’ Donuts and Taco Bell packaging. A soldier wears green camo in Vietnam to blend in. A policeman wears green camo in Ferguson to stand out – to let you guys know: We’re here, we’re severe, get used to it.

This is not a small thing. The point about ‘the thin blue line’ is that it’s blue for a reason. As I wrote a couple of months ago [6]:

‘The police’ is a phenomenon of the modern world. It would be wholly alien, for example, to America’s Founders. In the sense we use the term today, it dates back no further than Sir Robert Peel’s founding of the Metropolitan Police in 1829. Because Londoners associated the concept with French-style political policing and state control, they were very resistant to the idea of a domestic soldiery keeping them in line. So Peel dressed his policemen in blue instead of infantry red, and instead of guns they had wooden truncheons.”

So, when the police are dressed like combat troops, it’s not a fashion faux pas, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of who they are.

When the police are moving around dressed as Google Glassholes, might they also be living a misunderstanding? Body cameras may ultimately be necessary to protect us from the police, and the police from themselves. But the Benthamite logic that keeps our present-day peace will be fundamentally different from that governing the polis-protectors of Sir Robert Peel.

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Comments Disabled To "Will the Panopticon Save Us From the Police?"

#1 Comment By SteveM On August 18, 2014 @ 9:01 am

The most important element of “militarization” is not the hardware, it’s the Goon Squad mentality between the ears of well…the Goons.

If a cop’s activity has to be video recorded to prevent him from abusing citizens, he shouldn’t be a cop at all. Putting a camera on a Goon Cop is like putting a leash on a dog. The dog is still a dog and the Goon is still a Goon.

The fundamental solution is not technological, it’s to not recruit sociopaths into law enforcement.

#2 Comment By hetzer On August 18, 2014 @ 9:13 am

It must be direly embarrassing to be the police chief admitting that his boys beat people less when there is the threat of a little public accountability involved.

I think you are right that this is a bandaid solution to the problem of police militarization and brutality that we face. But bandaid solutions seem to be the only kind available these days.

#3 Comment By jk On August 18, 2014 @ 9:27 am

Another negative unintended consequences for a drawn out, meaningless war?

All that military surplus needed to go somewhere or get destroyed right? Congress and people back home would decry all that nice military hardware not being utilized to its full potential. So the natural fiscally responsible though bureaucratic response is to gainfully employ it back home!

All the reservist and national guardsmen have all this training and experience from downrange also to apply back home to “solve” our problems? Treat everyday police patrol like a combat mission.

Say’s law: supply creates its own demand.

On a more serious note: Camera’s for Cops? I think this is great, this is accountability. No more (or at least less off) he said, she said.

#4 Comment By Escher On August 18, 2014 @ 9:28 am

Lets hear it for SteveM. These cameras and other monitoring devices will not address the mindset of modern policemen, which is to subjugate and cow the civilians they are supposed to protect.
I think psychological tests and evaluations should be required for all police hires. In addition, ex-soldiers, especially those returning from combat, should be automatically disqualified from frontline police jobs.

#5 Comment By Jason Segedy On August 18, 2014 @ 9:58 am

You make some very compelling points, Jonathan.

When I first read, last week, about the idea of equipping police officers with cameras, I thought: “There is a certain sad irony that we are solving one technologically-abetted problem (that of police brutality enhanced by military-grade technology) by potentially creating another one – fixing the surveillance state by adding more surveillance, if you will”.

I agree with you that perhaps there is a place of cameras, but I too, share your impulse that there is a simpler, more sensible (and more human) solution – have the police engage much more fully, and on a human level, with those that they are policing. In American culture, our impulse is to always try to solve every problem by adding another layer of sterile technology, rather than by enhancing and facilitating interpersonal human relationships – which in every culture throughout the world (including ours) are, in fact, the glue that holds society together.

A good first step (literally) would be to get the police out of their cars and return to patrolling neighborhoods on foot and by bike. They will be more aware of what is going on in the community, and they and those that they are protecting will gain the valuable face-time that is a pre-requisite for an authentic human connection.

#6 Comment By tz On August 18, 2014 @ 10:28 am

But they are building the relationship they want. Jackbooted goon v.s. powerless compliant citizen. Like they have in many other countries.

Here is a case of it going wrong (but the chief resigned, so it may reverse):
Stallone Cobra posters?

The cameras wont fix tHe mindset, but how does anyone propose to fix a mindset. Can you convince the residents of Ferguson they aren’t oppressed? With more tear gas? Or less? Maybe.

But how do you convince someone who intimidates, wants to break in doors to serve warrants, pull his gun or taser that he should give up war and become a peace officer? They have sold the job as an aggressive soldier that the next citizen might kill you, and that the badge gives you the right to demand citizens jump on one foot and that if tney don’t comply they can be arrested.

If you want peace officers, you must start with peaceful citizens whose inclination is to deescalate.

But the war-on-terror mentality where citizens have been told to fear and want a Jack Bauer to torture someone to death so they will feel safe is difficult to overcome.

#7 Comment By KFS On August 18, 2014 @ 10:35 am

That’s all well and good but most likely beside the point. This Ferguson MO area has been having “demonstrations” and protests that lead to rioting and looting for 8 days now. What we are seeing is not a reaction to police but a barbaric insurrection. How would Israel deal with it? Hmmmm?

Whats the more important issue, police in combat gear or a barbaric insurrection on American streets? Most of the media and politician commentary is ridiculously out-in-left-field pander to barbaric behavior by bad or stupid people.

#8 Comment By The Wet One On August 18, 2014 @ 11:06 am


I’m pretty sure the cops have always been goons, to those not in the majority or the master class. The truncheons weren’t for beating on the aristocracy or monarchs of the day after all.

#9 Comment By Chris Mallory On August 18, 2014 @ 11:43 am

“Officers had been randomly assigned cameras and instructed to turn them on for any encounter with civilians.”

Cops are civilians.

#10 Comment By southern cross On August 18, 2014 @ 12:23 pm

Goons only act like goons with little people. They cringe and scrape in the presence of their masters. To stop goon behavior you have to regularly remind the goons that you are the master. You do that by kicking bigshots out of power and prosecuting them for crimes and corruption. And by stripping goons of their jobs and pensions and throwing them in prison.

We’re a democracy. We can do that. Controlling our government is one of our most important jobs. Police are servants, and the behavior of our servants is up to us.

#11 Comment By Lawrence Wallen On August 18, 2014 @ 4:06 pm

Many of the commenters are right about the longterm solution being the recruiting of better cops, but we have to deal with what we have now. A body cam will tone down both cops and unruly citizens and will likely vindicate more cops that it convicts. Once this piece of equipment is standard on a police uniform the desire to be a cop on the part of those who want to be a cop to push people around will cause them to find some other line of work. People who want to be cops for the right reasons will welcome the cams because they will protect them from jerks who make up charges.

#12 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 18, 2014 @ 4:34 pm

“What we are seeing is not a reaction to police but a barbaric insurrection. How would Israel deal with it? Hmmmm?”

Depends on whether they were Jewish settlers or the natives.

Nice. America taught by apartheid state, the tail wagging the dog, teaching apartheid state tactics. As an empire, we’re the world’s greatest success (as those things go) but as a republic, that nicety had to be sacrificed to make empire. What goes around – comes around.

Even if brakes were put on overseas war that creates the profits that fuel too much of our diminished manufacturing economy, it’s clear that those profits would continue to flow by arming the domestic military police, aka Homeland Security.

#13 Comment By philadelphialawyer On August 18, 2014 @ 7:16 pm

Cameras are all well and good, and should be on whenever the cop is on the street, with no “controls” for him to turn on and off.

But I don’t see the camera as the end all and be all, nor do I see “relationships” in that way either. I don’t particularly want a “relationship” with a cop, any more than I want one with a fireman or sanitation man. I want cops to obey the law while enforcing the law. Frankly, the thought of “community policing” makes me ill. I no more want a busy body cop trying to have a relationship with me than I want one beating me up for no reason.

The police should be strictly controlled. There should be no room, whatsoever, for the police to police themselves, and that includes drafting and implementing “protocols” or “policy” the following of which insulates them from review. The courts or the DAs or both should have control over the cops. Not the cops themselves, and not directly elected, partisan officials either. There should also be a powerful, completely cop- and cop- influence free review board, with full power to investigate all complaints, including anonymous ones, and discipline, suspend and fire cops, without a jury trial or a full blown civil service review.

The cops should be demilitarized. There should be very, very few “SWAT” squads, and they should be used sparingly. The “anti terrorist” BS should be ended. (As an aside, I know of a town in NJ with a few thousand residents, only a mile square in territory, that has a “mobile anti terrorism unit.” This is total overkill, completely unnecessary and wasteful.) The body armor and helmets should come off, and the weaponry dialed way, way back. The DHS should be scrapped.

Attitudes do need to be changed. But they won’t be changed if the Blue Wall of Silence, the “I was only following protocol” defense, the “officer safety” uber alles mentality, etc, etc, all are allowed to continue. The forces we now have must be retrained, and the only way that they will understand that we mean business is to destroy the cozy, law unto themselves, cop can do no wrong, political, PR and legal cocoon they now operate in. And all new hires should be indoctrinated accordingly.

#14 Comment By William Dalton On August 18, 2014 @ 11:01 pm

“When the police are moving around dressed as Google Glassholes, might they also be living a misunderstanding? Body cameras may ultimately be necessary to protect us from the police, and the police from themselves. But the Benthamite logic that keeps our present-day peace will be fundamentally different from that governing the polis-protectors of Sir Robert Peel.”

More police are falsely accused of abuse by those who are abusers, but when police adopt the military mentality they are more prone to become abusers themselves. The presence of cameras on cops will help in both regards. Building confidence between law enforcement and community is most important, and the presence of that all-seeing eye may be a hindrance, but I have the feeling that within a generation we will all be wearing “Google Glass” to protect ourselves from lawsuits and to deter attackers. Courts may become forums for competing recording devices.

#15 Comment By MikeS On August 18, 2014 @ 11:03 pm

“Will the Panopticon Save Us From the Police?” For me the more pressing question is “Will anything save us from the barbarism of so many urban dwellers?” Day after day of rioting and burning, and the focus is still on the police. I find this amazing.

#16 Comment By Pat On August 19, 2014 @ 9:56 am

Why stop at the police? Let’s outfit the politicians with these gizmos.