Body Cameras and Social Control

Body Cameras and Social Control

The recent shootings of unarmed boys and young men by police officers in Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland, Ohio, and Salt Lake City, Utah, have stirred wide-ranging discussions as well as demonstrations focused, in part, on the question of the use of deadly force. Most of the conversation isn’t about the rules, but about whether, in each case, the rules were followed.

Put differently: for the most part, we aren’t debating the question of whether or not police should use deadly force. We’re only questioning whether officers in each case acted justifiably, legitimately concerned for their own physical safety and that of the general public.

Whether there was a legitimate and sufficiently serious threat isn’t even the question. The question is whether or not the officer’s perception that such a threat existed was reasonable.

In two cases, video is providing evidence about the exact nature of the situation and the basis of the claim of a reasonably perceived threat. In Cleveland, it was a surveillance camera. In Utah, it was a body camera on the officer who ultimately fired the fatal shots.

In Ferguson, no video of the critical confrontation that ended in the death of Michael Brown is available.

These instances, and others, have prompted many police departments across the United States to begin requiring officers to wear cameras. A technological step beyond the dash cameras that have been in use for some time, these cameras become a part of the officer’s “kit,” to be activated whenever the officer is responding to a situation.

I think it is clear that having video evidence in these cases can help clarify the sequence of events. It also seems clear that video doesn’t always settle the issue of whether or not lethal force was justified.

Setting aside the evidence dashboard cameras and body cameras and citizen journalists can provide, the age of easy video introduces a new form of social control we would be wise to consider.

Back in the 18th century, Jeremy Bentham proposed a number of design changes for England’s penitentiaries (and other facilities). Among his proposals was something known as a panopticon. As a penitentiary, the panopticon involves a sort of axle and wheel architectural design. The “wheel” is the set of individual cells, divided from each other by solid walls, with a small window in the outside wall (to provide light) and a fully open face (whether a barred wall or a window) toward the center. The “axle” is a central tower, with glass on all sides, from which a guard may observe any and all cells and their occupants.

Essential to the effectiveness of the design was the isolation of the inmates from each other and the orientation of their cells to a central observation point, establishing a relationship of sorts between the guard and the prisoner, but no other relationships. Further, what was absolutely critical was that the central tower was designed so that the inmates could not tell whether a guard was watching them or not.

Knowing that they could be observed at any moment (and quite possibly were), but that they could not know whether they were being observed in this particular moment, the panopticon was designed to secure prisoners’ cooperation with a minimum of physical restraint or force. In effect, the prisoner makes himself/herself behave, for fear of being observed doing something that might cause problems with the unobserved observer.

Such a method of social control only works on people with a certain degree of rationality. One must be able to observe one’s surroundings so as to perceive the threat of observation. One must be able to repress certain “undesirable” impulses in favor of behaviors conducive to other goals. And one must not wish to be a martyr, or a victim of torture, or even less drastic punitive measures.

This describes most people. And so, for most of us, the panoptic form of social control works.

Which means that police body cameras may have an effect totally separate from securing a more or less accurate record of events.

The presence of the camera may cause officers and the people they encounter to moderate their more violent or disruptive impulses out of fear of being observed and being punished. This would be expected to be true whether or not the camera was turned on and operating properly . . . as long as none of the individuals involved (including the police officer) know whether or not the camera is operating.

The potential of being observed (and found out) would be expected to be sufficient to induce us to live more consistently on our “good” sides.

All of this sounds good, and I’m not saying these aren’t benefits. I simply want us to be thinking about how this method works.

Surveillance is a form of social control. The panopticon was designed precisely for that purpose. The surveillance camera, the dashboard camera, the body camera, and other contemporary and more mobile forms of panopticism not only record behaviors . . . they change them.