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.