The definition of body cameras
An excerpt from Police: A Field Guide by David Correia and Tyler Wall, a radical glossary of the vocabulary of policing that redefines the very way we understand law enforcement. Now available as a FREE ebook here.
Lapel cameras, a type of body-worn camera that police wear on their lapels or attach to their uniform, are designed to capture video and audio of police–community interactions. Since 2014, they have become the sine qua non of police reform, particularly by reformers who celebrate the lapel camera for the way they claim that it disciplines police. On its surface it is a convincing argument. Lapel cameras appear to check police authority. It has been through the release of videos of the police killing of Walter Scott and so many others that anti–police violence activists have organized protests and forced some reforms on police departments. The lapel camera video of the March 2014 Albuquerque police killing of James Boyd, a video that Albuquerque police chief Gordon Eden at the time defended as a depiction of legal homicide, sparked public outrage that led to months of protests and the eventual indictment of two police officers.
But before we celebrate the end of police violence let’s remember that Axon, the manufacturer of the most common stun gun used by police, Taser, also manufactures the most common lapel cameras for police. Since its rollout in 2008, it has been marketed as a way to record citizen misconduct against police and thus to protect police from police brutality complaints, not as a tool to protect people from police violence. And lapel camera videos of police shootings have been cited as important evidence in the exoneration of police officers in fatal encounters. How can lapel cameras both serve the goals of anti–police violence activists and, at the same time, the interests of police? The short answer is that it cannot. The lapel camera mostly serves the interests of police.
Remember that body-worn cameras are tools organized, controlled and deployed by police. How should they be used? When should they be used? Where should they be used? These are all questions answered exclusively by police. Any police reform demand that includes a call for all police to wear body cameras is a call to invest total oversight authority of police with police. This is a version of police oversight consistent with police claims that only police can police the police. But even if there were independent control over police body cameras and the videos they capture, we’d still be captive to the police view of the world. To watch lapel camera footage is to see the world through cops’ eyes. To elevate its importance as a reform measure is to anoint the police perspective as the most legitimate perspective.
The lapel camera does not stop police violence. It witnesses it. It offers only the promise, always unfulfilled, of future restraint. The lapel camera doesn’t stop the violence; it watches it, records it. It cannot in any way prevent police violence because the very premise of recording the violence requires that what is caught on camera not be stopped, cannot be stopped. It can only be viewed.
When we understand the lapel camera this way, and as part of the larger police surveillance apparatus, a different view of its purpose emerges. It is of a piece with CCTV cameras (closed circuit television cameras), ankle monitors, red light cameras, dashboard cameras, drones, and more. It monitors, records, registers. It is among the tools designed not to check police power, but to extend it; to maximize and intensify its reach; to overcome the physical limits of the cop walking the beat, or driving the police cruiser, or flying the police helicopter. Surveillance allows police to be everywhere without being anywhere.
Lapel cameras are part of a logic of order that recognizes the limits of force to produce that order. Where once the violence of the state produced order—the public flogging or hanging, or shaming— we now find a power augmented by constant surveillance. The goal of this power, according to Michel Foucault, is to produce obedient subjects. And so at best we cannot confirm whether or not we are under surveillance. Power is visible, but not verifiable. You are seen, but you do not see. Through the “eye of power” we are made visible—to police, to the boss, to the teacher, to the doctor—and that visibility renders us “knowable.” This is not solely a punitive power. Police surveillance has a disciplinary effect. Police fabricate order by the threat of force but also through the lens of a lapel camera, or the eye of a drone, or the searchlight of a police helicopter. This surveillance seeks a different power relation. No longer does it rely only an external force applied to bodies—a nightstick crack to the skull—but also now it is present always in the body of the subject. We behave ourselves, in other words. We are disciplined.
Violence or surveillance is not just a means to enforce forms of authority and control, but the source of progress itself. The obedient subject of panoptic power is the productive worker, the well-behaved student, the law-abiding citizen. And, yes, the productive cop too. The cop who properly enforces broken windows policing. The cop who stops and frisks. The cop who barks commands and justifies their force, and has the video to prove it. “Is it surprising, “ asks Foucault “that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?”1 The lapel camera makes all the world a cop world.
1 Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Vintage Books, 1995, 228.