Police Visibility: Privacy, Surveillance, and the False Promise of Body-Worn Cameras
In 2015, President Barack Obama formed the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing to help evaluate and develop policing practices that reduced crime while fostering community trust. The Task Force was spurred in part by the conflicting testimony surrounding the 2014 killing of eighteen-year-old Black Ferguson, Missouri, resident Michael Brown by white Ferguson Police Department officer Darren Wilson. In their final report published in May of the following year, the eleven-member committee endorsed the adoption of police body-worn cameras (BWCs), but also raised concerns about potential privacy issues they could pose to the police and public alike. The Task Force commented that “the use of BWCs by the police can significantly reduce both officer use of force and complaints against officers.” But they warned that “when the public does not believe its privacy is being protected by law enforcement, a breakdown in community trust can occur” (Task Force on 21st Century Policing, 32).
Organized into an introduction, six chapters, and a conclusion, Police Visibility: Privacy, Surveillance, and the False Promise of Body-Worn Cameras sheds light on these conflicting tensions at the center of police BWC adoption. Situating his work primarily within the fields of surveillance studies and information law, Bryce Clayton Newell (Assistant Professor of Media Law and Policy at the University of Oregon) conducted a multi-year study (2014-2017) of the Spokane Police Department (SPD) and Bellingham Police Department (BPD) in Washington State, during their initial BWC adoption phases. Newell found that BWCs do not serve as instruments of police accountability as reformers had hoped. Rather, BWCs serve the interests of the state, and can be used as a form of anti-democratic domination at the expense of civilian privacy. Newell supports these conclusions through both qualitative data (officer interviews, observations during ride-alongs and department meetings) and quantitative data (yearly questionnaires).
The author uses visibility as his analytical and theoretical lens to evaluate BWCs. He contends that while BWCs can serve as a method of police “technoregulation,” influencing their behavior through the application of technology, they also increase the “collateral visibility” of the private citizens the police interact with (10). Collateral visibility opens private citizens up to privacy abuses and exposure through Washington State’s Freedom of Information (FOI) laws and media sites such as YouTube. In other words, the line between police visibility and citizen visibility is a faint one; you cannot separate (or, at least it’s difficult to separate) the visibility of private citizens from the visibility of the police when they are utilizing BWCs.
The fear of increased visibility through FOI laws and bystander filming weighs on SPD and BPD officers throughout Newell’s interviews. As a result, civilian and police visibility occupy a central place within the narrative. Three of the six chapters (not including the Introduction and Conclusion) confront these issues (Chapter 2: Privacy, Speech, and Access to Information; Chapter 3: Bystander Video and “the Right to Record”; Chapter 6: Public Disclosure as “Direct to YouTube” Alternative). Regulating BWC footage and data collection is difficult, and there is a fundamental tension, Newell contends, between regulating to protect potentially innocent private citizens and regulating to protect the police. This point is put into sharp relief by the fact that it took until June of 2016 before Washington State enacted any specific exemptions for BWC footage, two years after the SPD and BPD adopted their BWCs. According to Newell, laws establishing a legal standard to deny access to specific pieces of footage—like those in Washington State—are a positive development and necessary tool to protect civilian privacy.
The questionnaires gauging officer attitudes toward BWC adoption are especially revealing. In Chapter 4: Policing as [Monitored] Performance, Newell presents the data he collected through his reoccurring, quantitative, multi-year questionnaires. In each of the four questionnaires (2014, 2015, 2016, 2017), officers in both departments overwhelmingly identified BWC adoption as a “very positive” or “somewhat positive” development, with a high of 83% for SPD respondents in 2016 and 91% of BPD respondents in 2017. Though positive attitudes toward BWCs dropped markedly for the SPD in the final survey in 2017, the adoption of BWCs was still viewed as positive by almost two-thirds of respondents (98). In interviews, many officers saw BWCs as positive for several reasons, including being able to counter false civilian claims and charges of misconduct, recording evidence that could be used to help secure a prosecution, and to record civilian conduct (102). But many of the reasons why officers viewed BWCs as necessary also stemmed from grievances following the high-profile deaths of Black citizens by or in the custody of law enforcement. The officers Newell interviewed often framed law enforcement as the victim in these circumstances. For example, one officer said he would wear a camera “only because of Baltimore” (referring to the community backlash following the death of Freddie Gray, a Black man who died in police custody after a “rough ride” in a police van that almost completely severed his spinal cord) (103). It’s unclear what a BWC would have accomplished for the officers involved in Gray’s death, but comments made by officers to Newell nevertheless reveal their fear of public accountability.
In fact, the fear of accountability—both to the public and department higher-ups—due to BWC footage access pervades much of these data. The clear double standard that officers hold toward the equal application of the law is striking. Many of the officers Newell interviewed were taken aback by the proposition that they could be held accountable by the release of less-than-flattering BWC footage. The presence of cameras, said one SPD officer, forces officers to adhere to an impossible “perfect standard,” when they “are simply fallible human beings” (112). No matter that private citizens are held to this “perfect standard” in an age of pretext stops (or Washington’s “mixed-motive” stops), reasonable suspicion, and probable cause.
In his conclusion, Newell charts a path forward for BWC regulation. Reiterating that BWCs “legitimize official, state narratives” (167) to the detriment of individual privacy, he concludes that BWCs do not improve police transparency, but have become yet another tool wielded by the police for “information politics and police image work” (168). But BWCs, the author admits, are here to stay, so more legislation and regulation are needed, including “sunlight provisions” that allow for the declassification of BWC footage that balances both state and civilian interests. If civilian privacy is not protected and law enforcement agencies are left to determine what should be disclosed to the public, then people’s antipower—that is, their ability to interfere with the workings of the state—is severely restricted, Newell warns. Leaving police agencies to regulate their own surveillance technologies will undoubtedly lead to increased police power.
Some brief critiques of Newell’s work. In Chapter 5: The (Techno-)Regulation of Police Work, the author comments that “attempts to regulate the police, whether through law or technology, should not serve to entrench or exacerbate existing problems of trust between the public and the police.” Newell worries that BWC might reinforce “us versus them” and “‘warrior’ mentalities” that already pervade modern policing culture (150). This logic could naturally extend to any form of tangible accountability that might be enacted against policing agencies. But it shouldn’t forestall reform efforts. To say that the warrior mentality can be further exacerbated by the adoption of BWCs is not necessarily incorrect, but it also comes with the assumption that any form of accountability is too much accountability. Also, while the deaths of Michael Brown and other Black Americans are brought up throughout Newell’s narrative, race is somewhat absent from the larger analytical discussions. This is no doubt due to the racial demographics of Spokane and Bellingham: they are majority-white cities with negligible Black populations. Nonetheless, more ethnographic and quantitative studies on how race impacts and shapes local police surveillance are needed.
Bryce Newell has produced a well-researched study on BWC adoption and attendant privacy and visibility issues with implications for civilians and the police alike. He attempts to untie the Gordian Knot that binds current debates about police accountability, surveillance, and individual civilian privacy, offering common-sense solutions to these persistent, seemingly intractable problems. In doing so, he is successful, and his data are invaluable for those looking to better understand both the limits of BWCs and officer attitudes toward BWCs.
Police Visibility complements other works that examine department-level, technology-based, policing and surveillance issues (Brayne 2021; Muñiz 2015). And Newell’s rightful insistence on the limits of BWCs as accountability tools aligns with many of Stroud’s conclusions (2019). However, Stroud draws attention to the outsized control that police unions and law enforcement agencies wield in shaping laws that restrict, rather than allow, public transparency and access to BWC footage—a discussion missing from Newell’s work. Further, the latter’s focus is strictly on modern surveillance issues, so those looking for more historical context on police surveillance should look elsewhere (Parenti 2003). Given the heavy theoretical discussions and underpinnings of Newell’s work, this might be better suited for graduate students and scholars in the field. But for those researching and writing on the efficacy and potential pitfalls of police BWCs, Newell’s necessary and impressive work should be your starting point.
Brayne, S. (2021) Predict and Surveil: Data, discretion, and the future of policing. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.
Muñiz, A. (2015) Police, Power and the Production of Racial Boundaries. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
Parenti, C. (2003) The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America from slavery to the war on terror. New York, New York: Basic Books.
Stroud, M. (2019) Thin Blue Lie: The failure of high-tech policing. New York, New York: Metropolitan Books.
(2015) Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.
Stephen Bohigian is a Lecturer in the Department of History at California State University, Fresno.