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Big Data and the New Transparency: Measuring and Representing Police Killings

Journal Articles
Ben Brucato
Big Data & Society, 4(1)
Publication year: 2017

Abstract: Controversies about recent killings by police officers in the United States have prompted widespread questioning about the scale and changes in police use of force. A perceived lack of transparency about the frequency of police killings amplifies concerns that many such killings are unjustified. This commentary considers efforts by journalists and activists to comprise databases that document and measure police violence, particularly in terms of how these endeavors exemplify the New Transparency.

Standing By Police Violence: On the Constitution of the Ideal Citizen as Sousveiller

Journal Articles
Ben Brucato
American Studies Journal, 61.
Publication year: 2016

Abstract: Individual citizens and social movement organizations document police with video, both serendipitously and deliberately. This documentation is characterized as an intervention, one that not only promises to alter events, but to fulfill civic responsibilities. Simply, video recording police makes one an active citizen, rather than a passive bystander. For instance, at Occupy Wall Street, video recording was a primary and normalized response by protesters when police used coercive force against other protesters. Their use of video streaming apps to live-broadcast such events—while chanting “The whole world is watching!”—shows how protesters framed watching as an intercession. The National Police Monitoring and Reporting Project frames citizen documentation of police as a duty, one that produces protective power against police violence. Copwatch “know your rights” training similarly portrays spontaneous filming as an intervention in violent policing. In other cases, however, video documentation is cast as a shame-worthy denial of a citizen’s responsibility to intervene to stop the perpetration of violence. In light of its equivocal standing, the treatment of documenting violence as an intervention is in doubt.

The New Transparency: Police Violence in the Context of Ubiquitous Surveillance

Journal Articles
Ben Brucato
Media & Communications, 3(3)
Publication year: 2015

Abstract: Media and surveillance scholars often comment on the purported empowering quality of transparency, which they expect participatory media to promote. From its Enlightenment origins, transparency is related to accountability and legitimacy: its increase is believed to promote these. It has earned a position as an unassailed, prime normative value in contemporary liberal and social democracies. Though still valued, transparency is undergoing change in an era of ubiquitous surveillance. Publics still anticipate governmental and corporate self-disclosure and for such entities to operate visibly; but increasingly, deliberate and incidental surveillance by a range of sources, both institutional and informal, documents the activities of such authorities. More often, civilians participate in producing or amplifying transparency. This article explores this new transparency through a study of U.S. police, focusing on the discourse of police accountability activists and cop watchers to describe how their work adapts traditional notions of transparency. Recognizing the resilience of the police institution despite the new visibility of its violence, the article challenges the presumption that increased transparency will promote institutional reform or crisis. It concludes with a critical comment on prominent expectations that promoting the visibility of police can protect publics and ensure police accountability. This conclusion has implications for other forms of the new transparency, including whistleblowing (e.g., Edward Snowden) and leaking (e.g., WikiLeaks).

Policing Made Visible: Mobile Technologies and the Importance of Point of View

Journal Articles
Ben Brucato
Surveillance & Society, 13(3/4)
Publication year: 2015

Abstract: Cameras are ubiquitous and increasingly mobile. While CCTV has captured considerable attention by surveillance researchers, the new visibility of police activities is increasingly produced by incidental sousveillance and wearable on-officer camera systems. This article considers advocacy for policing’s new visibility, contrasting that of police accountability activists who film police with designers and early adopters of on-officer cameras. In both accounts, these devices promise accountability by virtue of their mechanical objectivity. However, to each party, accountability functions rather differently. By attending to the social and legal privileging of police officers’ perspectives, the article provides an explanation for design decisions that produced Taser’s AXON Flex on-officer cameras and for why police are embracing these new technologies. Critics of these cameras cite privacy concerns, officer discretion in operating cameras, and department disclosure of footage. Nonetheless, advocates of police accountability often presume more video documenting police use of force is always helpful. However, the utility of surveillance video is conditioned by point of view. Police agencies in the U.S. are rapidly adopting on-officer camera systems, because they acknowledge ubiquitous surveillance and that these devices aid in nullifying third-party documentation in favor of a perspective that favors officers. As such, these cameras are counter-sousveillance technologies.

Fabricating the Color Line in a White Democracy: From Slave Catchers to Petty Sovereigns

Journal Articles
Ben Brucato
Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, 61(141)
Publication year: 2014

Abstract: Though states are founded in and dependent on successfully claiming a monopoly on the use of violent force and the certification of citizenship, these means suggest particular ends: the production of the social order. Police have the primary mandate to produce order and administer poverty. From a new abolitionist perspective, the particular social order of the U.S. is unique. The white race was founded through the production and maintenance of the color line and performed through a cross-class alliance of whites. Policing is deeply implicated in these processes. A historical account of police during the Herrenvolk era is provided. Finally, the persistence of racist policing is explained in light of a now officially color-blind political order, with officers functioning as petty sovereigns in a neoliberal era.

The Crisis and a Way Forward: What We Can Learn from Occupy Wall Street

Journal Articles
Ben Brucato
Humanity & Society, 36(1)
Publication year: 2012

Abstract: The financial crisis of 2007 has generated ubiquitous commentary; it also spurred a global grassroots uprising that began with Occupy Wall Street. This movement provided a unique analysis of the crisis as well as a practical example of a way forward. Occupy Wall Street possesses a unique analysis of and response to the financial crisis. Here we see facilitation of political action by heterogeneous partisans that both demand and exemplify increased transparency and participation in decision making. Further, this movement relies upon both human-scaled and participatory technologies. Occupy Wall Street is a microcommunity that embodies a vision for a pluralistic, direct democratic society and demonstrates it through practice. This uprising provides a potential democratic solution for a way beyond crisis to new horizons.