Police Violence Is Not A Problem Because Of Its Invisibility

Officers wearing riot gear walk through a park in downtown St. Louis on Sunday. (Photo: Tom Gannam/AP)


For months, in response to the killing of Michael Brown, Ferguson and Saint Louis have been sites of ongoing rebellion, with frequent actions of solidarity throughout the United States. Last week, after a grand jury declined to indict Michael Brown’s murderer, Officer Darren Wilson, protests erupted across the country.

In response, today US President Obama proposed a national program to outfit 50,000 police officers with body-worn cameras. Many, including Michael Brown’s family, advocate in favor of wearable cameras for police. Rashad Robinson of ColorOfChange.org wrote today that, “If what happened between Mike Brown and Darren Wilson had been captured on video, we would not be here today—and Michael Brown might be alive.” This advocacy is predicated on the idea that police violence is a problem because it remains hidden. Continue reading

A Categorical Denial of Public Oversight of Police

Certifying Brutality

In the weeks since Roshawon Donley and others were brutally beaten by Troy Police officers, Troy city and policing officials have taken many opportunities to speak about the events. Routinely, they have described the officers’ actions on the scene as necessary, within department policy, and lawful. As shown in the video below, Police Commissioner Magnetto went so far as to say that were the same situation to happen again, he would wish for police to respond exactly as they did — by beating at least half a dozen patrons with baton strikes, including blows to the head.

A Department of Justice report from 2011 explains the current trends in use of force policies in US municipal and other law enforcement departments. “Most agencies do not allow baton use until the subject threatens the officer by assuming the boxer’s stance.” Policies informed by current research in use of force outcomes, criminal and civil case law classify baton strikes to the head and other areas of the body as deadly force. A model DOJ use of force policy states unequivocally that “deadly force is not limited to the use of firearms” and includes baton strikes to the “head, neck, sternum, spine, groin, or kidneys” and lists this use of force among ramming with a car and firearm use. The DOJ makes clear, “A subject who poses no imminent threat will not be struck with a baton or impact tool … During non-deadly force incidents, officers will use reasonable care to avoid striking suspects on the head, neck, sternum, spine, groin, or kidneys, as these strikes may constitute deadly force.”

It is rather clear that Federal standards for municipal and other policing differ widely from the activities officials in Troy wish to certify and advocate as standard practice. They echo a common sentiment among police. A US Department of Justice report found that about half of police agree, “Always following the rules is not compatible with getting the job done.”

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Transparency, Accountability, Legitimacy

Perhaps, rather than a linear and causal relationship between transparency and accountability, these function more autonomously or the relationship is instead more like a zero-sum game. 

What are the relationships between transparency, accountability, and legitimacy as they are mobilized in discourse related to contemporary acts of governmental and corporate elites and their agents, particularly acts that leave civilians harmed?

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The Visibility of Police Violence as Transparency (and a Preface to My Research)

I’ve been studying surveillance rather intensively for the past four years, and policing for a little less time. But my close familiarity with the intersection of policing and surveillance goes back much further. I was becoming politically aware during the Rodney King events, a reception that was deeply conditioned by my prior witnessing and direct experiences with police violence. By the mid-90s, I was participating in Copwatch activities, mainly filming policing of demonstrations, marches, and other political events. For about a year at the turn of the century, I participated in weekly Copwatch “patrols,” when we drove around “high crime” neighborhoods with a police scanner and stopped to video record any police encounters with civilians.

Most recently, I’ve been researching the intersection of policing and surveillance. I’m paying careful attention to the intentional, politicized activity of documenting policing, or “copwatching.” But I’m also observing the newer and broader occurrence of incidental video documentation of police by civilians. Additionally, I’m researching the activity by political activists and other related actors who advocate for civilians to participate in this form of documentation. My initial research question was: “What explains the proliferation of video documentation of police violence?” This expanded to include the followup: “How can the increased visibility offered by widespread civilian video documentation coincide with the continued or expanded use of violence by police?”

The Rodney King events created a crisis for American policing. But why? For readers who were around for the public, activist, and/or academic discussions that exploded during the early- to mid-90s, you may remember some of the ubiquitous responses. This is one place where I begin my research. Because this was the first major political event in the United State that began with the incidental documentation of police violence, this alone is reason to pay careful attention to this as a genetic moment. But it is also important precisely because of the discourse that emerged in this time. One thing of which I was convinced early in my inquiry is that this discourse continues to saturate the popular, activist, and academic consciousness in all the obvious related matters: police, police brutality, racialization of social control, and so on. But it also saturates the way most intellectuals and theorists talk about citizen journalism, surveillance, media, and accountability of public officials. While commentary on Rodney King seemed to have exhausted itself nearly 20 years ago, the idea of this as a critical moment when incidental documentation of the police produced popular power persists. The remote witnessing, archivability, and recirculation of the video offered a kind of transparency that produced a new kind of accountability.

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