The Verge has a great report about an emerging trend in policing–cameras that cops wear on the their bodies while interacting with suspects. (The piece is worth reading in full, particularly for the little documentary in the middle, which gives a better sense of how this technology works, as well as an eerie and innovative design element that causes images to elude the viewer scrolling through the article.)
Taser International–the company that makes those ubiquitous nonlethal electrocution devices–is also rolling out a pair of products, a head-mounted camera called Axon Flex (think Google Glass for cops), and a companion web service called Evidence.com.
On some intuitive level, at first glance, the Axon Flex system seems wrong–a further escalation of the asymmetrical battles so often fought between the beat cop and the perp. Watching the videos presented on the Verge seem evocative of dystopian science fiction, an on-the-ground, distributed version of the Panopticon. Anyone who has seen “Strange Days” will remember the eerie first-person snuff tape that begins that film. The gun, the Taser, and the camera can all be instruments of aggression–there’s a reason we use the verb “shoot” with all of them. And plenty of academics have waxed theoretical about the power between the person behind the camera and the person in front of it; the gazed-at is often seen as subordinate to the gazer.
So it’s tempting to see Taser’s new products (initial trials have begun in the Mesa, Arizona, police department, not far from Taser headquarters) as a creep towards dystopian power wielded by the state, some freaky mashup of “1984” and “Robocop.”
But we shouldn’t confuse the aesthetics of these body-mounted cameras for what they actually represent. The stylistic precursors may be dystopian sci-fi. But the substantial precursors are, I believe, the images of Selma, of Rodney King, and of Oscar Grant. Make no mistake: though these cameras are recording the cop’s point of view, they’re also recording the cop. And when a cop knows he’s on camera–when he knows someone is watching–he should tend to behave himself.
Of course, we need policies to enforce and manage all this. But on balance, I can only see the routine recording of police encounters as having a check on police brutality, and offering a boost to justice. Despite the optics that might suggest otherwise, the Axon Flex will reign in police power–and serve as useful evidence in court cases in the future.
I can imagine a host of other ancillary benefits as well–exemplary video can be used for training, and archival video could be useful for scholarship for sociologists and other academics who might want to study police. It’s the routine surveillance of everyone by everyone that worries me more (if only slightly; see “Privacy Fears with Google Glass are Overblown”). But when the state records itself, it’s usually the little guys who find themselves empowered.